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Assessment for Assamese in India

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Assamese in India, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
India Facts
Area:    3,287,590 sq. km.
Capital:    New Delhi
Total Population:    984,004,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Assamese have four of the factors that increase the likelihood of continuing rebellion: current rebellion; territorial concentration; repression by state authorities; and a history of lost autonomy. Factors that could inhibit rebellion include India's stable history of democratic rule, Indian-Bhutanese cooperation to limit cross-border sanctuary for ULFA members, and India's tradition of attempting to reach settlements with groups seeking autonomy or independence.

Analytic Summary

The Assamese reside in their historical region of residence, what is now known as the northeast Indian state of Assam. They began moving into the area from Burma in the 13th century. There has been little migration of Assamese across regions; however, there have been large-scale influxes of Muslim Bangladeshis into Assam which has exacerbated intergroup relations. Assam is well-known for its tea plantations, but the state is also a significant supplier of India's petroleum and natural gas.

The Assamese speak a common language, and while most are Hindus, some are Muslims (LANG = 1). The Assamese social customs have more in common with other indigenous groups in the northeast of India than with the country's majority Hindus.

When the British took over Assam in 1826, they began to encourage migration from East Bengal to help provide a labor force for the cultivation of tea. Some 6.5 million immigrants have settled in the state since the early 1900s. Colonial policy favored the Bengali speakers who dominated the bureaucratic structures. Several hundred thousand Bengalis entered Assam as a result of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent and the creation of India and Pakistan. In 1956, India was reorganized on a linguistic basis and the territory of Assam was divided to create four new states. Assam was the recipient of further Bengali migrations when India's military intervention in 1971 led to the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

The Assamese are at risk as they are disadvantaged due to past discrimination and they support political organizations that press for greater group rights. Explicit public policies are in place to address Assamese underrepresentation in the political and economic spheres (POLDIS03 = 1; ECDIS03 = 1). For example, in 2002, the federal government announced the creation of an IT call center in Assam to provide more than 600 jobs.

The Assamese are concerned about protecting their way of life due to influxes of Bengali speakers who are still dominant in the bureaucratic and key private sectors. The majority of the group also supports obtaining widespread regional autonomy, but the major militant group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), is seeking independence (SEPX = 3). Additional grievances include the working conditions and wages of tea plantation workers, who are a major force in the local economy.

In the late 1970s, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) launched a major campaign against Bengali immigration while also pressing for greater job opportunities (PROT75X = 3). Group members were demanding that the federal government redress its neglect of the northeast through explicit economic development plans. In an effort to address Assamese grievances, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reached an accord with the AASU in 1985. The agreement covered issues such as immigration and economic development and the holding of state elections. An Assamese party, the Asom Gana Parishad, won the 1985 state elections but the accord fell apart due to a lack of implementation of the other provisions.

In the late 1980s, the rebel ULFA initiated its armed struggle for independence. Federal rule was subsequently imposed and the government launched a major counterinsurgency campaign (REB 89 = 2). The Assamese are divided between those who support the ULFA and others who favor conventional organizations such as the AASU and the AGP (COHESX9 = 3). Violent conflict has sporadically occurred between ULFA members and former rebels who surrendered to the government and now support its counterinsurgency campaign. ULFA members have partially sustained their rebellion by utilizing bases in the neighboring countries of Burma, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. In 2000, it was also reported that Pakistan was providing ULFA with military training and arms.

Relations between the Assamese and minority groups in the state have periodically erupted in violence. In what is referred to as the Nellie Massacre, more than one thousand Bengalis were killed, allegedly by Assamese-speakers. In 2001 and 2002, campaigns against illegal Bengali immigration occurred. Armed attacks between the Bodo and Assamese communities began in the late 1980s and continued through 2000. The Bodos are tribal peoples who seek the protection of their culture and lifeways. Fearing Assamese dominance, they began an armed struggle to obtain their own state in the late 1980s. Migrant workers from other Indian states were also subject to violent attacks by ULFA in 2000. In 2000, Assamese killed 15 Bhutanese in retaliation for the government of Bhutan's crackdown on Assamese rebel sanctuaries. In 2003, the ULFA issued a warning for all Bhutanese to leave Assam.

Assamese activism gained strength in the mid to late 1970s when the AASU launched its protest campaign to limit immigration and obtain greater opportunities for group members. Protest measures including statewide strikes have been prevalent since 1990 (PROT90X, 98X = 4). Violent action against state structures and authorities began in the late 1980s but it has been during the 1990s that ULFA stepped up its violent campaign (REBEL90X = 4; REBEL98X = 5). As of 2003, ULFA has not agreed to enter into negotiations with the federal government and continues attacks (REB01 = 5, REB02-03 = 4). Reports indicate that Assamese are routinely arrested and tortured for supporting ULFA and their movements are restricted due to the large-scale military presence which is part of the government's counterinsurgency.


Darnell, Alfred T. and Sunita Parikh, "Religion, Ethnicity, and the Role of the State: Explaining Conflict in Assam", Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, July 1988.

India Today, March 15, 1989.

Far Eastern Economic Review, 1989-1994.

Keesings' Contemporary Archive, Keesings Record of World Events.

Lexis-Nexis news reports, 1990-2003.

Wilson, Jane S. "Turmoil in Assam," Asian Perspectives, 1992.

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