Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 731

Letter from America: The Rohingya Question – Part 4

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

The Baxter report on Indian population in British occupied Burma notes, “The tracing of the growth of the Habib_Siddiqui_15.jpgIndian population through the series of census reports is a matter of some complexity. It was not until the sixth census, that of 1921, that a racial classification of the population was attempted.

In previous censuses the population was classified by religion only.” It continues, “It is assumed in the following tables that the Indian population at the time of the first census in 1872 is the sum of the Hindu and Mohamedan populations as recorded in the census of that year. There is little objection to assuming that all the Hindus were Indian but it is not so true to assume that all the Mohamedans were Indian. There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.

There were also a few Mohamedan Kamans in Arakan and a small but long established Muslim community around Moulemin which could not be regarded as Indian. There is no record of the numbers of any of these categories of Mohamedans in the 1872 census returns and consequently no allowance can be made for them by way of deduction from the Hindu and Mohamedan population figures.” It is worth noting here that by the phrase ‘Arakanese Muslim’ community above, mostly the Rohingya community (the other groups being Kaman, Turko-Pathans and Tambukias) are meant.

As to the classification by races in 1921 and 1931, the report says, “For these years the Indian constituent of the population is taken to be the number of persons who then returned themselves as belonging to one of the forty specified Indian races, or who were tabulated as “Indians of unspecified race” where their records though indefinite showed they belonged to an Indian race.” It is, thus, not difficult to understand why the British authority would classify the Rohingya Muslims, more like a force field analysis, under Bengali or Chittagonian race.

In the table provided on Section 8, page 5 of the report it shows the total number of Indians (Hindus and Muslims) in 1872 at 136,504 in a total Burmese population of 2,747,158 – representing 4.9%. (As noted earlier, however, since the 1872 census was done on August 15 and not during the February-March period, which is the case for other censuses that followed, a valid comparison with other years is not possible.) In 1911, the corresponding numbers are 743,288 and 12,115,287 – representing 6.1%. As to the probable reason behind higher percentage, the report notes, “The Indian population figures for the censuses 1881 to 1911 inclusive are probably too high. There is reason to believe that some of the Arakanese Mohamedans returned an Indian vernacular as their mother tongue since although they use Burmese in writing, among themselves they commonly speak the language of their ancestors.”

It is not farfetched to conclude from the above statement that the census process was far from being accurate, and that many Arakanese Muslims who were bi- or multi-lingual felt coerced by the British census bureau to be categorized as Indians simply because of their looks or familiarity with any of the Indian vernaculars.

Commenting on the Indian population in Lower Burma the report notes, “To the extent that the language returns in the 1881 to 1911 censuses give an Indian population higher than the real one mainly because of the inclusion of a proportion of the Arakanese Muslims, the figures are inaccurate.”

What is obvious from the report is that while the Indian population in Burma increased, mostly due to temporary residents who worked in the fields, factories, ports and offices, the increase within the Arakanese Muslim population cannot be ascribed to such factors, but it was an organic one by any count. [See below for supporting evidences.]

Commenting on the Indian population in Upper Burma, where the table showed that there were 62,658 Indians in 1891 and 61,645 in 1901, the report notes, “There would seem to be an error in the 1901 figure. The Hindu and the Mohamedan populations in Upper Burma then numbered together 88,670 or 2.3 percent of the whole population, an increase of 17,233 on the 1891 figure. In view of this increase, it is hardly credible that the number of persons using as an Indian vernacular as their customary speech should have diminished.”

Commenting on the population in the Arakan Division, which showed an Indian population of 197,990 in 1911 against a total of 839,896, the report says, “For the reasons already given, the 1881 to 1911 Indian population figures are probably too high since they are believed to include a considerable number of Arakanese Muslims. In 1911, for example, the Hindu and Mohamedan populations in Arakan together amounted to 202,320 persons or only 4,330 more than the number who returned an Indian vernacular.”

It is also important to note here that the percentage of Indian population in Arakan actually show a downward trend from 1911 to 1931 going down from 23.5% to 22.7% in 1921 to 21.6% in 1931. The places where Indian population grew more than local population were Pegu, Irrawaddy and Tennasserim divisions. The increase in the Indian population in Rangoon was due to the fact that the city had essentially become the economic hub of Burma, which required skilled laborers and educated workers to meet the demand of a growing city for which little skilled Burmese could be found. As noted by Burmese historians like Aung, the colonial administration did not pay much attention to education of the local people, and would rather depend on Indian clerks, police, and soldiers to fill in those positions. For example, the Gurkha population (mostly employed as soldiers and police for the British government) rose by 78% from 22,251 to 39,352 between 1921 and 1931.

The Section 13, page 8 of the report makes it abundantly clear that an estimate of the number of persons of Indian race was no easy matter because of the lack of reliable data on Indian births and deaths and because of the substantial discrepancies between the returns of immigrants and emigrants made by the shipping companies to the Port Commissioners and the records kept by the Port Health Officers. It notes, “The probable error in any calculations based upon these data is considerable and an estimate of the size of the Indian population in 1939 can only be regarded as a rough approximation.” The report mentions that according to Dr. Bernardelli, who had used available material, the Indian population towards the end of 1939 was in the neighborhood of 918,000, and that it had declined by 100,000 since 1931. Nonetheless, the report mentions about steady increase in the percentage of Indians born in Burma (except in 1901 where it fell). This can easily be explained away by the fact that Buddhist population traditionally had a smaller growth rate compared to both Hindus and Muslims.

The report also mentions that in 1931, the total number of Indians living inside Lower Burma was 849,000 representing 10.9% of the entire population. Of the Indians, 83.4% lived in Lower Burma, 13.2% in Upper Burma and 3.3% in the Shan States and Karenni. Rangoon and Akyab Districts accounted for 21% apiece. As to the large percentage in Akyab, which comprised one third of the total city population, the report mentions the indigenous nature of those settled communities. Outside Akyab, the other places where the Indian population lived in large numbers were Rangoon and the districts within easy reach of the capital and connected with it by rail and river, again highlighting the fact that they were there because of the attractiveness of those places as economic hubs of Burma. In Rangoon, where the Indian population was roughly 53% of the city, many of these Indians were employed in administrative jobs.

The 1931 census shows that there were some 252,000 so-called Chittagonians living in Burma, in addition to another 66,000 so-called Bengalis out of a total Indian population of 1,017,825. That is, approximately 31% of the Indian population was culturally identified with those in nearby Bengal and Chittagong.

The report also provides sex and age distribution of the Indian population inside Burma. It notes, “Except in Akyab District where the Indian community is predominantly settled, the age and sex distributions of the Indian population were in a state of acute disequilibrium due to the presence of a large excess of immigrant males especially in the age groups of 15 years and over.” This statement again points to the fact that most Indians living in Burma were temporary workers who did not intend to settle there, and that the reason for Akyab having balanced sexes within the Indian population was that they were a settled community (unlike the seasonal migrants from other parts of India).

The report shows that in 1931 out of a total population of 1,008,538 in Arakan, the Indian population counted for only 217,801, of which 210,990 lived in Akyab District. It is not difficult to understand the reason: being a busy port, Akyab, by then with a population of 637,580, had become a major attraction for job seekers. Of the Indian population in Akyab, 167,000 identified themselves as having been born in Burma, and were split roughly equally between the sexes. Since the number of Hindustanis and Oriyas in Akyab comprised only 6% of the total population, it is safe to assume that the Indian population there is almost all Rohingya population. A vast majority of the Indian population in Akyab was engaged in agriculture sector. It is worth pointing out here that the original Rohingya population of 30,000 in 1826 could have easily grown to 362,000 by 1931 with an annual population growth rate of 2.4%. So, it is plausible that the census was not reliable or that a majority of the Rohingya indigenous community by 1931 had moved away from Akyab to other parts of Burma. Additionally, the 1931 census figure for Akyab shows that there were 210,990 Indians, which is actually smaller than the 1922 census for combined Hindus and Muslims. It is difficult to explain such an anomaly considering the fact that Akyab, like Rangoon, had become an important port unless the 1922 and/or 1921 census data were unreliable, a theme that was repeated within the body of the report a number of times.

The report also provides some information about the so-called Indians living – permanently or temporarily - inside Burma and Arakan when the censuses were taken. There was a major influx of Indians moving into Burma after the entire country was colonized by the British government. As already noted, many of them came with the colonial administration. A comparison with the census data in 1891 also points to the fact that the 1881 census data for the so-called Indian population born in Burma is unreliable. As we have already noted above, the original Rohingya population could have grown to above 360,000 by 1931; as such the 1931 figure for the so-called Indians born in Burma may well be from the Rohingya community alone. If the data for 1891 and 1931 could be trusted as reliable, the annual population growth rate within those born inside Burma was 2.46%, which was not that unrealistic.

If the population data of the so-called Indians in Burma is compared against those in Arakan, we notice that until 1881, the bulk of the Indian population who were born in Burma were from Arakan, again pointing out the indigenous nature of those people. Between 1891 and 1931 the Indian population inside Arakan who were born there grew by only 2%, well below comparable numbers for other Indians, reflecting the fact that the growth was an organic one and did not have anything to do with influx from outside. It is quite possible that many of those Indians born in Arakan had moved to divisions outside Arakan. At the time of 1931 census nearly 77% of the Indians in Arakan were born in Burma.

It is also worth pointing out that while the total Indian population in Burma grew by 2.9% between 1881 and 1931, the same cannot be said about them within Arakan where they grew by only 1.3%. The lower-than-expected growth rate also points to the obvious fact that many of those Indians living inside Arakan were temporary workers or laborers. On the other hand, as to those Indians born in Arakan, an annual growth rate of only 2% is required to explain the growth between 1891 and 1931, pointing to the organic nature of the population growth, and not a superficial one. [As noted above, a fraction of those born in Arakan may have also moved to other parts of Burma by 1931.]

On the matter of annual increase or decrease in the Indian population in Burma due to immigration from and emigration to India, the report notes, “Unfortunately, the records are so flagrantly at variance and lead to conclusions so widely different that it seems hardly worth while trying to draw any inferences whatsoever from such dubious material.” As to the nature of such trends, the report says, “Indian immigrants ordinarily spend from two to four years in Burma before going home, the period being shorter or longer according s the savings they accumulate are greater or less. Immigrants arriving in 1927 and 1928 would expect to revisit their homes in India in about 1930 and 1931. High immigrant figures in 1927 and 1928 would therefore connote high emigrant figures about 1930 and 1931.”

As to the causes governing periodic fluctuations in the volume of Indian immigration and emigration, the report says, “Immigrants are in search of work and it would seem reasonable to suppose that they come to Burma either because employment at home is hard to find or is not sufficiently remunerated to content them and because they expect to find work more easily in Burma or earn higher wages. The evidence indicates that wage levels in Burma, though only sufficient to support a low standard of living, are attractive to the Indian immigrant in comparison with the levels in his province of origin. As already stated, he comes with the intention of staying in Burma for three years or thereabouts after which he revisits his home and in the majority cases returns to Burma after an interval varying from a few months to the best part of a year, but probably on an average of about six months.”

A closer look at the Baxter Report, therefore, shows that the Chittagonian workers who came to Arakan came as seasonal workers and left when their job was terminated or ended in Burma. Unlike Indian workers, who had to save enough money to return to their homes, the proximity of Chittagong did not require them to overstay. It would be a terrible mistake to confuse those migrant workers with the indigenous community of Arakanese Muslims (e.g., the Rohingyas of Burma), who were culturally Indian/Bengali/Muslim.

To be continued……

For part 1 of this series:

For part 2 of this series:

For part 3 of this series:

- Asian Tribune -

Share this