Line System

Line System (in Assam) Line system was a system introduced in Kamrup and Nagaon District of Assam for the first time in 1920 under which the Muslim immigrants from East Bengal, now Republic of Bangladesh, more particularly from Mymensingh District, were required to settle in certain areas of the Bramaputra Valley of Assam. It was a mechanism to segregate the immigrant Bengali speaking Muslim population from the indigenous communities of the state. Introduced in the wake of large-scale immigration of the Muslims from East Bengal since the first decade of the 20th century [census 1911], it was designed as a measure to protect the locals against possible disturbance of demographic and social balance and eventually against social conflict. The line system was the result of the personal initiative of a few British district officers, and not a clear cut policy of the colonial government, which used to encourage immigration for better cultivation and thus to augment agricultural revenue. Nonetheless, the colonial government and later on the successive elected Governments of Assam in the colonial era did not interfere in its enforcement in the districts of Lower Assam, with the exception of Goalpara District where it was not introduced. Under the system four broad demarcations were made; (i) villages reserved exclusively for the indigenous communities, (ii) villages meant for the immigrants, (iii) villages in which a line was drawn on the map or on the ground, on one side the immigrant could settle, the other was earmarked for the non-immigrants, and (iv) villages where both the immigrant and indigenous people could settle. There was no set principle under which the line was drawn. After it was enforced in Nagaon district, where the immigrants constituted 14 per cent of the population, it was implemented in Kamrup and Darang, where a rapid demographic change had been noticed as a consequence of large immigration. [It may be noted that these districts were dissected to constitute several districts in the post-colonial era.] Census 1931 gave a threatening note: 'By 1921 the first army corps of invaders [immigrants] had conquered Goalpara. The second army corps which followed them in the years 1921-31 had consolidated their position in that district and has also completed the conquest of Nawgaon. The Barpeta subdivision of Kamrup has fallen to their attack and perhaps made the introduction of the line system in these districts. It was found that the immigrants started occupying forest reserves and waste land without any resistance Darrang is being invaded. The alarm thus raised led to the introduction and retention of the line system in the aforesaid districts.

With the introduction of the Government of India Act 1935, the dynamics of election politics started playing a role providing a political space to the immigrants through effective lobby. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani became a strong political voice for the immigrants who got elected from Dhubri (South) constituency of Assam in 1937 and continued to be the MLA till the Partition. Another important voice was Munawwar Ali of the Surma Valley, who moved a resolution in the Assam Legislative Assembly seeking the abolition of the line system saying that the immigrants made dense forests into 'smiling paddy lands yielding all kinds of crops, bringing in prosperity, health and wealth to the province of Assam. The resolution was supported by Abdul Motin Choudhury of the Muslim League saying that the line system was 'racial provocative' not found in any part of the country.

Maulana Bhasani's position was slightly different. Being a peasant leader, he called upon all sections of the peasant communities to unite for a cause ' land must be available to all landless people irrespective of religious denominations and for better agricultural production. However, the said resolution was withdrawn after Rohini Kumar Choudhury, the revenue minister, gave an assurance to constitute a review committee to examine the details of the line system. During the debate on the issue on the floor of the Assembly, one could see the unity of the immigrant-origin legislators on the issue of line system and also the political implication of the future of the immigrant politics in Assam.

The 9-member Line System Committee, comprising members of the Assam Legislative Assembly, interviewed and examined cross of the society, government officials, and public leaders. Syed Abdur Rouf, representing the immigrants, strongly pleaded for the abolition of the line system, while overwhelming majority of the interviewed persons wanted its retention to protect the indigenous people against the influx of the people from outside. The general consensus of the Committee was that the line system was a temporary mechanism created to check the unrestricted inflow of the immigrants into open areas and to protect the demographic composition against disruption and disturbance. It was recommended that 'no land should be settled with immigrants coming to the province hence forward'. There were three dissent notes, which contained sentiments for abolition of the line system and objection to the contention of the Committee which branded the 'immigrants being undesirable neighbours'. The line system continued but it could not check the influx and settlement of the immigrants in various parts of Assam.

The successive Saadullah and the Congress Ministries in Assam did not take any concrete steps in the matter of retention or abolition of the line system. The Congress Coalition Ministry published a policy on the line system on November 4, 1939 to evict the immigrant settlers from forbidden areas such as, village grazing land and forest reserves. It appeared that there was no tangible step to enforce the policy. In response to the notification of the government policy, Maulana Bhasani called for a Jihad on November 18, 1939 at the opening session of the Assam Provincial Muslim League held at Ghagmari.

A conference on Line System was held on May 31, 1940. It suggested the introduction of 'Development Schemes' for the protection of the indigenous and backward people which the Saadullah Ministry had to accept implying thereby the retention of the line system. However, Maulana Bhasani called it 'the safest bureaucratic method of shelving the question of Line System. However, at that point of time, PC. Datta, Advocate General of Assam, opined that the line system was not maintainable under the Government of India Act 1935. This gave Maulana Bhasani a leeway to disassociate himself from the Assam United Party headed by Premier Syed Saadullah and to reiterate his earlier demand for the abolition of the line system. He raised this question at the Conference of the Assam Provincial Muslim League held at Habiganj, Sylhet on January 30-31, 1941. The Maulana continued to campaign against the retention of the line system and providing settlement to the immigrants who came to Assam before 1938. With the formation of the Saadullah Ministry once again on August 25, 1942, Munawwar Ali, an ardent supporter of the immigrants' cause and abolition of the line system, became the Revenue Minister. Under the new political arrangement, the line system was kept in abeyance within the ambit of 'Grow More Food'. Subsequent developments such as demand for the partition of the country and instability in the ministry formation and functioning in Assam led to the retention of the line system, notwithstanding the continuation of the immigration of the peasants from East Bengal to Assam, making virtually the line system ineffectual. [Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed]