The transfer of agricultural land should be restricted to people indigenous to the state, a committee appointed by the Assam government in February 2017 for “ensuring the protection of land rights of indigenous people” has recommended in a report submitted in January. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state has said that it would implement the recommendations of the committee, which was headed by former chief election commissioner HS Brahma.

The committee in its report, seen by, has suggested that non-indigenous people could be allotted non-agricultural land in towns and cities – but not at the expense of an indigenous person.

Among other conditions specified by the committee, it should be ensured that the allottee’s “antecedents are not such as to make him an undesirable person”, the report added.

But who is indigenous?

In Assam, the definition of who qualifies as indigenous is contentious, courtesy its diverse population and many waves of migration. Besides, many parts of what is now Assam were previously part of other provinces with significantly different cultural allegiances.

According to the 1951 Census report, an indigenous person is defined as anyone “belonging to the state of Assam” and speaking any one of the languages and dialects spoken in the state. The Brahma committee rejects this definition, calling it incomplete and saying that it leaves room for misuse.

The Assam Accord, signed in 1985 following a movement against alleged migration, defines citizenship: anybody who entered the state before March 24, 1971 – just before the beginning of the Bangladesh war – is considered a non-foreigner. The same criterion is being used to include people in the National Register of Citizens, which is being updated for the first time since 1951 in a bid to identify illegal migrants.

However, an original inhabitant category was used as an internal marker while including people in the updated list. Officials claimed this was to ease bureaucratic pressures. Who qualified as an original inhabitant, officials concede, is contingent on bureaucratic discretion – a situation that has made linguistic and religious minority groups in the state wary. When these groups approached the Supreme Court, under whose aegis the process is being executed, it ruled that such concerns were “wholly unfounded” and “citizens who are originally inhabitants/residents of the state of Assam and those who are not are at par for inclusion in the NRC”.

An original inhabitant category was used as an internal marker while including people in Assam's updated National Register of Citizens. (Credit: via Facebook)

‘Basic elements that make a person indigenous’

The Brahma committee also asserted that the matter has been “unduly hyped and politicised” and that “the concept of indigenous person is, in fact, plain, simple and well demarcated”.

Instead, the committee listed out its own “basic elements that make a person indigenous”. An indigenous Assamese person, it insisted, has to have lived in the state for “ several generations” and should belong to an “ancient tribe/ethnic clan”, which has “originated” in Assam. Such a person should be “determined to save his ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity” and “believe that his culture, language and identity is different from others inhabiting his land” among others.

The committee goes on to say that any person from any other state of India who speaks the language of the “state of his origin” and has “retained his original culture cannot be called an indigenous person of Assam”.

The committee’s report does not specify any cut-off date for entry into Assam or the inclusion of an individual’s name in any official electoral roll for them to be considered indigenous. However, the committee does refer to the cut-off date advocated by the Sanmilita Mahasangha, an organisation that claims to represent 49 indigenous tribes of Assam – February 24, 1826. The date corresponds with the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo, when the Burmese ceded present-day Assam, Manipur and other territories to the British. The organisation advocates that people living in Assam continuously from this date be considered as indigenous to the state.

Assam has seen several waves of migration after the Yandabo treaty. In the latter part of the 19th century, the British promoted the migration of Bengali Muslims and Adivasis into Assam to work as labourers. Then, during partition of 1947, the North East, much like the western front, saw a large population exchange. Later, more than three million people, mainly Hindus, migrated from East Pakistan from 1948 to 1961, according to government records.

‘Unabated mass infiltration’

The Brahma committee’s report insisted that “the most serious threats to the land rights of the indigenous people of Assam” comes from “unabated mass infiltration” from Bangladesh.

If the largely porous border is not sealed, “indigenous people are bound be reduced to a landless class of people and to become foreigners at their own home”, it warned.

But on certain issues, there seems to be a lack of consensus within the committee. Five of its seven members submitted an alternative report earlier this month, alleging that the final report submitted by Brahma in January and accepted by the state government in April was a diluted version of what the committee had agreed upon.

The chars – as the Bengali Muslim-dominated shifting sand bars of the Brahmaputra river are locally called – came in for special scrutiny in the other report, accessed by The report stated that they are in “the total clutch of the land-grabbing illegal Bangladeshis”. The committee has recommended that such people “be shifted to the detention camp for their necessary deportation in due course”. The cleared land, it added, should be allotted to “indigenous people” or kept vacant for “environmental purposes”.

The chars are home to around 25 lakh people or about 10% of Assam’s population, and cover around 10% of the state’s total land area.

Shrinking spaces

Land, which is often intertwined with identity, has been the lightning rod for most communal clashes in Assam. The state’s ethno-nationalist groups have often claimed that vast tracts of land are being occupied by alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh, depriving the so-called indigenous population of it.

Many social scientists, however, say the problem of shrinking space in Assam is more complex than that. Apart from the flawed land policies of the state government, there is an environmental angle to the crisis: 4.3 lakh hectares of Assam’s land has been eroded by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries since the 1950s. That amounts to more than 7% of the state’s total land area – almost three times the size of Delhi.

The chars came in for special scrutiny with the committee recommending its inhabitants – mostly Bengali Muslims – be deported and the land given to the “indigenous poeple”. (Credit: Subhendu Ghosh / HT)