The familiar politics of citizenship has peaked in poll-bound Assam with the BJP invoking the issue with a fresh promise to stop illegal infiltration from Bangladesh and take measures to detect and deport such migrants if voted to power in the State. BJP president Amit Shah, desperate to win a state for his party after the drubbing in Bihar and Delhi, said at a campaign rally in Assam on Friday that all these years, the state’s borders with Bangladesh was left open for illegal migrants from Bangladesh who have infringed upon the rights of the locals. Indirectly blaming the ruling Congress government in Assam, Shah promised to stop migration if the BJP comes to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, talked of halting influx into Assam during his campaign tour on Saturday.
The issue of illegal influx has a 30-year-old history, starting with the anti-foreigner (read anti-Bangladeshi) agitation that began in 1979 under the leadership of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). In 1985, after hundreds of people died in course of what turned out to be independent India’s biggest mass uprising, the AASU and other agitation groups signed an agreement with the Centre called the Assam Accord. It fixed 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, meaning anyone found entering India after this date were to be detected and sent back. In the three decades that followed, only a few thousand illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been expelled by successive state governments, which included the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a party that was formed with the mandate of freeing Assam of illegal aliens. Many of these ‘expelled’ people are believed to have come back.
Over the years, the illegal migrants issue has come to dominate the election rhetoric in the state with none of the parties, the Congress or the BJP, explaining as to how they have managed to send back those lawfully declared as illegal migrants because Dhaka maintains its nationals do not illegally move to India. The BJP actually has a lot more explanation to do because during the 2014 Lok Sabha poll campaign, the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had vociferously stated that after the results were announced, meaning after the BJP comes to power, illegal migrants from Bangladesh would be identified and ousted. In the past two years, however, although New Delhi’s relations with Dhaka has improved many fold, no visible steps have been taken to make Bangladesh agree that the issue of illegal migration was a key problem in states like Assam. One is also not aware of any move towards reaching an agreement so that Dhaka accepts its nationals back.
Another dimension to this problem is the Muslim population growth in Assam, one of the reasons for which is believed to be the continuing illegal infiltration. According to the 2011 Census, the Muslim population in Assam, the most populated state in northeastern India, is 34.22 percent out of a total of 31.2 million. The Muslim population in Assam rose by 3.3 percent since the last Census in 2001. Interestingly, the population growth of Muslims in Assam is higher than in Jammu and Kashmir, where it increased by 1.3 percent between 2001 and 2011. The national average growth of Muslim population is 0.8 percent.
The BJP landed itself in some trouble after the Government of India’s decision to give asylum to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. On 7 September 2015, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification saying the Centre has decided, on humanitarian considerations, to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities, who have entered India on or before 31 December, 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946. That means these people will be allowed to stay on in India even without such documents or after the expiry of those documents, as the case may be.
Groups like the AASU opposed this decision saying it would amount to dilution of the Assam Accord. The AASU said anyone from Bangladesh residing in Assam from 25 March 1971 onwards, whether he/she is a Hindu or a Muslim, is an illegal migrant and therefore must be expelled from the State. The BJP’s current ally, the AGP, too, had opposed this plan to provide stay rights to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere saying Assam would have to carry the burden of at least 20 lakh migrants from Bangladesh as a result of the Union Government’s notification. The AGP termed the decision “slow poison” for the indigenous and linguistic identity of Assam and its socio-cultural fabric.
The perception that the influx issue can determine the poll verdict is still strong, and, therefore, the ruling Congress, too, has decided to highlight the problem of illegal migration ahead of the 4 and 11 April State Assembly elections. The Congress’ poll manifesto says the party would set up district vigilance committees to detect illegal foreigners and complete fencing the Assam-Bangladesh border in the next three years. The BJP promises the same — ‘complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border.’ Rhetoric aside, one would now expect Prime Minister Modi to implement his 2014 poll promise to free India of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and this can be done only if Dhaka recognises the problem and agree to reach a deal to take back its nationals. And, with India-Bangladesh relations reaching a new high during Modi’s tenure, New Delhi’s intent will be something that would be closely watched.
(Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based political commentator and television talk show host.)