Quarter of a century ago, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a solemn promise to the people of Assam that illegal migrants from Bangladesh living in the state since 1971 would be “identified and deported”. This assurance was the core of the Assam Peace Accord the Prime Minister signed in 1985 with All Assam Students Union (AASU) then led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta who was later elected Chief Minister of Assam. The accord hurriedly stitched by Rajiv Gandhi dramatically transformed the political scenario in the north-eastern state that had been in turmoil for several years. The mass movement led by AASU was primarily against influx of foreigners who, Assamese rightly feared, would reduce them to a minority in their own state. Popular response to this patriotic and secular movement was massive. A mere call from AASU would bring entire towns out on streets to defy curfew. Assembly elections held after the signing of the accord, returned AGP to power with a massive mandate.
Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra during the past 25 years, but hardly anything tangible has been achieved on the identification of foreigners and removal of their names from the electoral rolls, what to talk to deporting them to Bangladesh. Worse, the influx of foreigners continues to date despite assurances to the contrary by successive governments.
Rajiv Gandhi reached out to leaders of AASU and convinced them of his sincerity to address their concerns. He went beyond his party’s line on the issue and succeeded where his mother had miserably failed. Indira Gandhi rode rough shod over the sentiments and genuine grievances of the people of Assam and went ahead with her plans to hold assembly elections in 1983. The polls were an unmitigated disaster. Communal tensions and riots visited the state during which local Muslims sided with their co-religionists from across the border. Large sections of voters boycotted the poll on a call given by AASU thereby reducing the elections to a farce, what with voting percentage in several constituencies less than one per cent. Although the Central Government delivered on the development issues like building roads, and bridges, setting up central universities and an IIT, but there was hardly any movement on the core issue.
Mahanta is on record that Rajiv Gandhi lost focus and interest in implementing his solemn promises after his entanglement in the Bofors scandal and AGP’s reluctance to support the Congress on the issue. AGP too can’t escape responsibility for its failure to take forward the process of identification of foreigners. Consequently, the party lost much of its mass base. However, the main culprit was, and is, the Congress party and its Government at the Centre that were never sincere about honouring the assurance because of vote bank considerations. It played tricks to further confound the issue. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act proved a big hurdle in identifying foreigners.
Judiciary did a fine job. While the apex court struck down the above mentioned farcical law, the Guwahati High Court rejected a petition challenging the order of a tribunal that had identified certain persons as foreigners. In a landmark judgement delivered in the year 2008, the High Court expressed its anguish over infiltrators having become king makers in Assam. “The day is not far”, the court observed, “when the indigenous people of Assam – both Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups (sic) – will be reduced to minorities in their own land and the Bangladeshis who are freely and merrily moving around the fertile land of Assam will intrude upon the corridors of power”. The court went on to express its anguish in the following words, “Till now the petitioners have been successful in avoiding the proceedings against them as well as their deportation from India. In the process, they have incorporated their names in the voters’ list on the basis of which they have cast their votes. Thus, the petitioners and such other large number of Bangladeshis present in the State of Assam have a major role in electing the representatives both to the state legislative assembly and the parliament and consequently in the decision making processes towards building the nation”. The judgement is significant in the context of the fact that illegal Bangladeshis have intruded into all parts of the state, including forests. Interestingly, several persons identified as foreigners told the police that they were in occupation of government and forest lands.
Infiltration from what was then East Bengal began immediately after the Partition of the country. Although nationalists prevented Assam going to Pakistan, there were elements in the Congress that were perceived to have encouraged migration from East Bengal to enlarge its Muslim vote bank. The influx that began as a trickle became a deluge in 1971 in the wake of massacre of Bangla speaking citizens by the Pakistani army and the subsequent war. What was initially perceived as an escape from poverty and hunger and, therefore, a humanitarian issue, emerged as a massive economic, political and security problems for India. The “secularists” couldn’t care less. They see additional political gains in defending illegal migrants as they are convinced that local Muslim population is also pleased if no harm comes in the way of these Muslim brothers from across the border.
It is one of the gravest issues facing Assam, nay, the entire country. The Supreme Court of India in one of its judgements aptly described it as an “invasion” against India. Dhaka has been in perpetual denial. Official spokesmen of Bangladesh went to the extent of claiming that there was not a single Bangladeshi infiltrator in India. They blamed “communal forces” for raising the “bogey” of illegal infiltration to “harass” Muslims. The Congress party and the Communists welcomed and encouraged infiltrators as they are their vote banks in their respective areas of influence. It is a sensitive issue and has no easy solution. Tough laws, committed political leadership and efficient bureaucracy are required to carry forward the urgent task of identifying foreigners and deleting their names from ration cards and electoral rolls. However, deportation of foreigners has international ramifications. Strong political will, coercive diplomacy and sustained efforts to persuade Dhaka to see reason are required to achieve the desired results. Since there is now a friendly government in Dhaka, New Delhi needs to take up the issue of return of Bangladeshi migrants back to their motherland. Will the Congress-led UPA respond positively to the challenge?