After the NRC draft was released on 30th July it became known that four million people stand to lose their citizenship. Four million is a lot of people, more than the population of many European countries. The very idea of rendering them stateless is preposterous. Voices critical of the exercise have been raised. In response, opinion pieces have been doing the rounds that infiltrators/outsiders are threatening the culture of the indigenous people of Assam which is why the updation was needed. More than one of such article refer to an important piece of evidence. Between 1991 and 2011 the share of Assamese speakers in the state fell from 58% to 48%. This is matched by a quick rise of the share of Bengali speakers from 22% to 29% during the same period. In a short period 20 years, from the position of the majority group, the Assamese speakers have become one of the many minority linguistic groups of the state. This is a serious development indeed, and demands closer scrutiny.

The first question that comes to mind, what does this data have to do with the NRC? NRC updation will filter out foreigners. The rising share of Bengalis is not necessarily due to influx from Bangladesh. Migration of Bengali speaking people from other parts of the country would also raise the Bengali share. It is nobody’s case that such migrants need to be thrown out. Like all other Indian citizens they have a right to live in Assam. To be sure, there have been demands from some quarters to provide constitutional safeguard exclusively to the indigenous people of the state, in line with the reservations given to tribal people in many northeastern states. But that is a different issue and should not be conflated with the NRC.

Second, why compare data of 2011 with that of 1991? Why not 2001, the last census year before 2011? Table 1 provides the data of population of major linguistic groups of Assam for the years 2001 and 2011.

As can be seen from table 1 the share of Assamese speakers did fall in the decade 2001-2011, but it was only a marginal fall (48.8% to 48.4%). The rise of Bengali share was also marginal (27.6% to 28.9%). If anything, the sharp fall of the Assamese share which was witnessed before 2001 has been checked since 2001. The second observation from the table is, the Bengali speaking population was not the fastest growing linguistic group, its decadal growth was 23%. In contrast the Hindi speaking population rose at a quicker rate of 34% (refer to the last column).

Third, before Partition there were more Bengali speakers than Assamese speakers in Assam. Sylhet and Cachar, two Bengali speaking populous districts, were part of colonial Assam, making the state a Bengali majority state. The knife of Partition cut off most of Sylhet from Assam, a small portion remained. The whole of Cachar also stayed. This part of the state, the Barak valley, is a Bengali speaking region in its own right. The share of Bengali population is large. But there are historical reasons why it is so.

Fourth, Bengali speaking population rose at a faster rate than Assamese speakers: 23% compared to 16%. Furthermore, the Bengali share rose quickly prior to 2001. Don’t all this point towards infiltration? Here two points need mention, both of which contribute to the rising share of Bengalis.

(a) The fertility rate of the Muslims is higher compared to the Hindus. This is true not only for Assam but for the rest of India as well. Over time, the fertility rates have been declining in both religious communities, the fall has been faster among the Muslims. The Human Development Report of Assam 2014 estimated that the TFR of Muslims and Hindus differ by as much as 1.2. It is 2.9 among the Muslims compared to 1.7 among the Hindus (TFR, or total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime). It is likely that the share of Muslims among Assamese speakers is less compared to the share of Muslims among Bengali speakers. This would imply that the growth rate of Bengali population would be faster than the Assamese. Consequently, the Bengali share would rise.

(b) A “language reversion” has been going on among Muslims who once migrated from erstwhile East Bengal. After the Partition the Brahmaputra valley Muslim migrants of East Bengali root chose to report their language as Assamese. As a result, between 1931 to 1951 the population of Assamese speakers in Assam (excluding Sylhet) rose by a phenomenal 150%. The Partition violence may have played a part in this decision. The apprehension of being persecuted in the newly independent country made the migrants give up language and keep religion. As a mirror image, in the same period of 1931 to 1951 the population of Bengali speakers fell by as much as 25%. It is being conjectured that of late the Na-Axamiyas (the new Assamese) have been switching back to Bengali. This curious phenomenon was behind the Assam Movement (1979-1985) according to Myron Weiner, a political scientist. The relative peace of last few decades since the conclusion of the Movement may have given the migrants confidence to report Bengali. The rise of share of Bengalis could be due to Na-Axamiyas reverting back to Bengali.

In short, the data that the Bengali population share is rising and the Assamese population share is declining does not necessarily imply infiltration. To quantify infiltration a more detailed study is required. This data does however indicate that as a linguistic group the Bengalis are growing faster than the Assamese. There could be concerns over this development as well, which has to be dealt with separately.

It is becoming increasingly clear from the speeches of top leaders of the BJP that the party is planning to milk the NRC. This was apprehended long ago. Mr. Amit Shah’s terming the four million NRC-rejects “ghuspetiye” was a dog whistle to project the party as the defender of Hindu nation against Muslim encroachers. Caution is advisable at this critical juncture. Protecting a threatened culture is an unexceptionable proposition. There is a veritable danger, however, of turning into pawns of a larger design that is tearing apart the syncretic fabric of the country. By raising the infiltration bogey, based on weak evidence, one could be playing into the hands of communal politics. A debate around the NRC is urgently needed, it better be an informed one.

As can be seen from table 1 the share of Assamese speakers did fall in the decade 2001-2011, but it was only a marginal fall (48.8% to 48.4%). The rise of Bengali share was also marginal (27.6% to 28.9%). If anything, the sharp fall of the Assamese share which was witnessed before 2001 has been checked since 2001. The second observation from the table is, the Bengali speaking population was not the fastest growing linguistic group, its decadal growth was 23%. In contrast the Hindi speaking population rose at a quicker rate of 34% (refer to the last column).

Third, before Partition there were more Bengali speakers than Assamese speakers in Assam. Sylhet and Cachar, two Bengali speaking populous districts, were part of colonial Assam, making the state a Bengali majority state. The knife of Partition cut off most of Sylhet from Assam, a small portion remained. The whole of Cachar also stayed. This part of the state, the Barak valley, is a Bengali speaking region in its own right. The share of Bengali population is large. But there are historical reasons why it is so.

Fourth, Bengali speaking population rose at a faster rate than Assamese speakers: 23% compared to 16%. Furthermore, the Bengali share rose quickly prior to 2001. Don’t all this point towards infiltration? Here two points need mention, both of which contribute to the rising share of Bengalis.

(a) The fertility rate of the Muslims is higher compared to the Hindus. This is true not only for Assam but for the rest of India as well. Over time, the fertility rates have been declining in both religious communities, the fall has been faster among the Muslims. The Human Development Report of Assam 2014 estimated that the TFR of Muslims and Hindus differ by as much as 1.2. It is 2.9 among the Muslims compared to 1.7 among the Hindus (TFR, or total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime). It is likely that the share of Muslims among Assamese speakers is less compared to the share of Muslims among Bengali speakers. This would imply that the growth rate of Bengali population would be faster than the Assamese. Consequently, the Bengali share would rise.

(b) A “language reversion” has been going on among Muslims who once migrated from erstwhile East Bengal. After the Partition the Brahmaputra valley Muslim migrants of East Bengali root chose to report their language as Assamese. As a result, between 1931 to 1951 the population of Assamese speakers in Assam (excluding Sylhet) rose by a phenomenal 150%. The Partition violence may have played a part in this decision. The apprehension of being persecuted in the newly independent country made the migrants give up language and keep religion. As a mirror image, in the same period of 1931 to 1951 the population of Bengali speakers fell by as much as 25%. It is being conjectured that of late the Na-Axamiyas (the new Assamese) have been switching back to Bengali. This curious phenomenon was behind the Assam Movement (1979-1985) according to Myron Weiner, a political scientist. The relative peace of last few decades since the conclusion of the Movement may have given the migrants confidence to report Bengali. The rise of share of Bengalis could be due to Na-Axamiyas reverting back to Bengali.

In short, the data that the Bengali population share is rising and the Assamese population share is declining does not necessarily imply infiltration. To quantify infiltration a more detailed study is required. This data does however indicate that as a linguistic group the Bengalis are growing faster than the Assamese. There could be concerns over this development as well, which has to be dealt with separately.

It is becoming increasingly clear from the speeches of top leaders of the BJP that the party is planning to milk the NRC. This was apprehended long ago. Mr. Amit Shah’s terming the four million NRC-rejects “ghuspetiye” was a dog whistle to project the party as the defender of Hindu nation against Muslim encroachers. Caution is advisable at this critical juncture. Protecting a threatened culture is an unexceptionable proposition. There is a veritable danger, however, of turning into pawns of a larger design that is tearing apart the syncretic fabric of the country. By raising the infiltration bogey, based on weak evidence, one could be playing into the hands of communal politics. A debate around the NRC is urgently needed, it better be an informed one.