Mumbai: The National Register of Citizens (NRC) released on August 31, 2019, has said 1.9 million of Assam’s residents are not citizens of India. Assam has a population of 33 million, as per NRC data.

This number is substantially lower than the 5 million cited in the last available official estimate of Assam’s immigrant population, in 2004, which was later withdrawn.

The NRC, a complex process to [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" position="bottom" shadow="no" rounded="yes" size="2" title="atish text" content="This is dummy text" behavior="click" close="yes" class=""]( 1 )[/su_tooltip] separate Indian citizens from illegal immigrants, stemmed in part from the lack of clarity on the number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh in India. The last draft of the NRC, released July 2018, had excluded 4.1 million. The government had, however, given those excluded time until December 31, 2018, to prove their citizenship.

The 1.9 million people now excluded can appeal against the decision in foreigners tribunals.

The process to qualify for citizenship has been criticised by many for the difficult process it entails, and the hardship it put many people through, as we reported in October 2017.

The exact number of immigrants, illegal or otherwise, is likely to remain contested, as it has been in the past, leading to government estimates as varied as 2.3 million and 20 million.

NRC findings

For inclusion in the NRC, 33,027,661 people applied through 6,837,660 applications, a government statement said August 31. After reviewing appeals and claims, 31,121,004 were found eligible for inclusion, leaving out 1,906,657, including those who did not submit claims.

Who is an illegal migrant

According to the Assam Accord, any foreigner who came to India after December 24, 1971, would be considered an illegal migrant, and would be liable to be deported. Those who had entered India between January 1966 and December 1971 were to be provided citizenship after having lived in India for 10 years. Those who entered India before 1966, mostly as a result of the Partition in 1947, would get citizenship automatically.

Estimates vary from 2.3 mn to 20 mn

The number of migrants, according to the census, is 90% less than the 20 million figure given by Kiren Rijiju, then minister of state for home affairs, in the Rajya Sabha on November 16, 2016. He did not explain the source of the number.

In 2011, India received 5.4 million immigrants, of which Bangladeshi immigrants were the largest group, according to census data. In 2010, migrants from Bangladesh residing in India constituted the single largest group (3.3 million) of international migrants in the global south, according to the United Nations.

On November 11, 2016, the minister of state in the home ministry said that “there is no authentic figure available for exact infiltration and religious composition of infiltrators to Assam from Bangladesh in both pre-1971 and post-1971 periods”, according to this reply in the Lok Sabha.

On November 27, 2016, the minister of state in the home ministry said that the number of infiltrators into Assam cannot be “ascertained”, because infiltration is “clandestine and surreptitious”, according to this reply in the Rajya Sabha.

Our analysis shows vast discrepancies, with estimates varying from 2.3 million to 20 million, in figures cited by the government and others, leaving the exact number of illegal immigrants living in India unclear.

The 2011 data on immigrants is no longer available on the census website, where a note says the data is “under scrutiny” and “will be released soon”. IndiaSpend accessed the data from a reporter at, who had downloaded these data before it was taken down from the census website.

Bangladeshi immigrants came to India at the time of Partition, at the time of the Bangladeshi war of independence, and over the decades for economic reasons.

Estimates of illegal immigration based on census data from India and Bangladesh and on various demographic studies vary widely, according to this 2005 report by Chandan Nandy of Brandeis University in the US.

Until 1991, more than 700,000 Bangladeshis were staying illegally in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh, according to the number provided by the Indian home minister in March 1992, as mentioned in this report by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (ISDA), a defence think-tank of the Indian government.

Often Bangladeshis come legally but overstay their visa to stay on, the ISDA report said. Between 1972 and 1997, more than 900,000 Bangladeshis did not return to Bangladesh after their visa expired, it estimated.

In May 1997, Inderjit Gupta, the then home minister, said there were 10 million illegal migrants in India, the report said.

Earlier, in July 2004, then home minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had told the Rajya Sabha that the number of illegal immigrants was 12 million, but had then backtracked saying that the figure was based on “hearsay” from biased parties.

In a book published in 2009, Kamal Sadiq, a professor at the University of Chicago, estimated that India had between 15 and 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants, based on the documented growth of Muslim communities and unpublished government reports, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

What census data say, and why it may not be correct

A 2005 study on the rate of growth of the Hindu and Muslim populations in Bangladesh between 1951 and 1991 deduced that there was mass migration of Hindus from Bangladesh to India.

Between 1951 and 1991, the Muslim population in Bangladesh grew by almost 300% while the Hindu population only grew by 20%, the study by Nandy of Brandeis University in the US. "It is safe to assume that several million Hindus crossed over to India since 1947 and the pace of that movement accelerated after 1974, the year Bangladesh was struck by one of the worst droughts and famines in its history that also drove out Muslims in huge numbers,” he wrote.

Between 1981 and 1991, the population of Bangladesh grew by 2.2% against 3.13% projected for that decade, suggesting that a part of the population, estimated between seven and 14 million, had left the country. This was estimated to have resulted in a lower population growth rate. “These missing millions represent the quantum of migration from Bangladesh into India in the decade 1981-1991," Nandy wrote.

“It is not possible to have accurate data of such Bangladeshi nationals living in various parts of the country," said Kiren Rijiju, without explaining the source of the data, in a reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, on 16 November 2016. "As per available inputs, there are around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants staying in India."

Census figures, however, suggest that Bangladeshi immigrants are distributed almost equally between rural and urban India, with the most migrants in West Bengal (1.8 million), Tripura (215,353 million) and Assam (64,116), as per the 2011 census.

These numbers are based on which country respondents had said they had last lived in before India; researchers say illegal immigrants would have an incentive to lie.

As Bangladesh develops, migration to India likely to reduce

As many as 56% of the respondents said that the lack of industrialisation, employment and economic insecurity were the reason they migrated, while about 35% said poverty in Bangladesh was a reason, in a 2004 study by Pranati Dutta of the Indian Statistical Institute.

Over three-fourths (77.4%) of those who reported Bangladesh as their last place of residence in the 2011 census came to India before 1991, the data show.

As such, as Bangladesh developed, it would have led to a reduction in the number of migrants to India.

Bangladesh’s per capita income has increased 169% from $393.4 in 1970 to $1,053 in 2017, based on data from the World Bank. The proportion of children enrolling in secondary school grew from 18.5% in 1980 to 67.3% in 2017, and infant mortality fell 81% from 148.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 1970 to 26.9 in 2017, data show.

Further, more Bangladeshis are now moving to the Persian Gulf, wrote Chinmay Tumbe, an economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, in a piece in the Livemint in July 2019.

(Khaitan is a writer/editor with IndiaSpend.)

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