Illegal migration from Bangladesh to the North Eastern regions of India, particularly to Assam and Tripura, has always been a cause of great concern. In Tripura, the demography has already changed in favour of the migrant population. The indigenous population which constituted 70 percent of the population of Tripura in 1931 has been reduced to mere 28 percent now. The immigration has been of a different intensity during different periods since the early nineteenth century.
To increase food production, the "grow more food campaign" was launched by the then Muhammed Saadulah ministry in 1937, which saw a rapid increase in infiltrations from the erstwhile East Bengal. Lord Wavell, the then Governor General of India had remarked cynically, "The desire of the Muslim minister to increase this immigration into uncultivated government land under the slogan of 'grow more food campaign' but what they wanted was 'grow more Muslims'."
A historic agitation in Assam on the influx issue (from 1979 to 1985) led to the "Assam Accord" of 1985 and to the formation of a regional political party led government (AGP - Asom Gana Parishad) based purely on the emotional issue of Bangladeshi influx. However, the government failed miserably in the process of detection, deletion (from voters list) and deportation of illegal migrants. In their second term also (1996 to 2001), the AGP government could not achieve much.
The Bangladeshi influx issue has been taken advantage of by various political parties, student organisations etc to suit their own objectives. No one is sure of the quantum of Bangladeshi immigrants in the state. Different figures are quoted by different political parties and student organisations.
Sri Prakash Singh Jaiswal, then minister of state for home had said in 2001 that there were 50 lakh "foreigners" in the state. On the other hand, former chief minister of Assam late Sri Hiteshwar Saikia had stated in the Assam Assembly on 12 April, 1992 that there were no "foreigners in the state".
Similarly, there is no unanimity amongst political parties, NGOs and social organisations on who is an illegal migrant. Some political parties demand 1951 as the cutoff year for the detection of Bangladeshis while most have accepted 1971 as the "cut of year". Meanwhile, a social organisation by the name of Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha has filed a case in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the voters' list of 1951 should be taken as the cutoff year to detect foreigners, as in the rest of India.
They argue that why should Assam have a separate cutoff date – of 24 March, 1971. In case the apex court decides 1951 as the cutoff year, as in the rest of the country, the whole process of the preparation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) may become null and void.
Chief of Army Staff general Bipin Rawat's stance on infiltration from Bangladesh is well known. There is no denying the fact that in spite of the augmentation of the security forces and the use of the latest surveillance devices and fencing in the most parts of the border, infiltration continues, though at a lesser scale. But his remarks that neighbouring countries (indicating that Pakistan and China) are backing influx to North East India gives a totally new dimension, which has probably been stated by anyone for the first time.
One hopes that his statement is based on credible inputs. But his saying that a political party is being benefited by this influx has given enough fodder to some political parties and organisations to create further tension in the sensitive state of Assam. It is pertinent to note that the North East has been largely free of communal tension, which is seen frequently in some parts of India. However, there is no denying the fact that insecurity amongst minorities has increased in the recent past.
The timing of his comments is not appropriate. It is likely to compound the process of the preparation of NRC which has been undertaken by the government based on Supreme Court directives. Fortunately, contrary to the apprehension of a law and order problem, the NRC process has been continuing smoothly.
The Supreme Court on 21 February had directed that by 30 June, 2018, the second and final draft of the NRC must be published. The most important aspect is that all political parties irrespective of the line to which they belong have welcomed the apex court's directives hoping that a correct NRC will help in resolving the decades-long illegal immigrant issue of the state.
The NRC is being updated in Assam to include in the electoral roll the names of those persons (or their dependents) who appear in the NRC of 1951 or any of the electoral rolls up to the midnight of 24 March, 1971, or any of the admissible documents issued up to the midnight of 24 March, 1971.
Rawat's statement may also draw reactions from China and Pakistan though he has not named the countries. It is a known fact that China till the mid-1980s supported the North East insurgent groups by way of training, shelter and providing arms and equipment. Even today most of the sophisticated arms recovered in the North East are of Chinese origin. Moreover, many insurgent groups have their office in Rulie, a small town located in the Yunnan province of China, bordering Myanmar.
Pakistan, of course, would like to continue to bleed India in whatever way it can. Fortunately, present Bangladeshi leadership has been taking concerted steps to root out terrorism from the country. But, Inter-Service Intelligence of Pakistan (ISI) has a strong presence in the region (including Nepal) and will always try to destabilise the North East region. The ISI has all along been supporting NE insurgent groups, fundamentalists and jihadi elements.
The Bangladeshi government has expressed its unease with the NRC process being carried out in the state. They fear a 'Rohingya type' situation may be created in their country as they are apprehensive about the movement of people (Muslims whose names may not be included in the NRC) to their country.
Though their apprehension is not based on sound fact, it may adversely affect the India-Bangladesh relationship. While China has been able to increase its influence with all our neighbouring countries, the present dispensation in Bangladesh has been very favourable to India, which is why India needs to maintain amicable relations with the country.
Rawat may not be aware that from Independence till very recently, illegal migrants were a major vote bank for the Congress. These immigrant voters have gradually found Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF to be their saviour. The Congress is still trying to win over this huge chunk of voters.
It is pertinent to note that the Assam Accord of 1985 was signed much before the formation of AIUDF in 2005. However, in the last election of 2016, AIUDF did not do as well as expected and won only 15 seats. It is to be observed that AIUDF has MLAs from other religions as well as ethnic groups besides Muslims.
Of course, the army has since clarified that there is nothing political or religious about Rawat's statement. But his taking names of political parties (AIUDF and BJP) could have been avoided. To make the nation aware of the influx of immigrants to Assam since the early twentieth century, it is worthwhile to note the observation of CS Mullan, census commissioner.
In the census report of 1931, he had observed: "Probably the most important event in the province during the last twenty-five years – an event, moreover which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization – has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants mostly Muslims, from the districts of East Bengal. Where so ever the carcass, there the vultures will be gathered together".
It is really sad that successive governments since Independence have failed to take effective steps to prevent migration and the problem is still continuing. Today, about 11 districts in the state have a population constituting majority Muslims. The Supreme Court has rightly observed that "interested religious and political elements encourages immigration".
Hopefully, a lasting solution will be found on the influx issue as it has the potential to create unrest in the sensitive North East region. But, Rawat while showing concern for influx should not further complicate the matter by giving political statements. The army must at all times maintain its apolitical and secular image.
The writer is a retired brigadier from the Military Intelligence Corps and former chairman in charge of the Assam Public Service Commission
Updated Date: Feb 26, 2018 13:27 PM