Assam turns into haven for illegal migrants: A story of blunders and missed opportunities to resolve vexed issue

The policies unveiled by the British Raj and the Muslim League government in Assam to settle migrants from Bengal had already begun to trigger tension among the local populace which were clear warnings that the situation needed attention and a policy to check infiltration from the neighbouring country. But it only turned worse after Independence as hordes of refugees arrived in waves that have continued intermittently in the ensuing decades.

Occasional agitations and accords to check further influx failed to yield the desired results prompting the Supreme Court to intervene after a PIL was filed by Assam Public Works in 2009. Deadlines were set and citizens began to be enrolled in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) with fixed guidelines. The list suffers from anomalies which need immediate rectification but the final outcome of this onerous exercise is still uncertain.

The current situation in Assam stems from the failure by the state and society to grasp the long-term implications of unchecked illegal migration. A few preventive steps adopted on a long-term basis could have ensured a check on the movement of people from across the border. There would be no need for NRC, the migrants’ flight would take a different course and the shrill voices opposing the identification of foreign nationals in Assam would not have been heard at all. The blame for this must be shared by the people of Assam for not being vigilant enough and the successive governments both at the state and Centre that displayed a total disregard to the danger continuously knocking on the door for the past several decades.

Illegal Bangladeshi settlers at Udalguri in Assam. Image courtesy Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Illegal Bangladeshi settlers at Udalguri in Assam. Image courtesy Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Here’s a recap of a few episodes since Independence that had a vital bearing on the trajectory of illegal immigration in Assam and how they helped foreign nationals acquire a dominant position in the state today:

Nehru’s Misunderstanding of the Assam Situation

The Congress’ policy of promoting the interests of the foreign nationals at the expense of Assam’s began with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he took umbrage at the repeated pleas from the state's first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi for distribution of the refugees to other states in the country. Bordoloi argued that the state had already undertaken to rehabilitate 2.5 lakhs of refugees and further settlement would only harm the interests of the local landless cultivators since there was a tremendous scarcity of land. The prime minister was enraged and threatened that Assam could expect financial help only if it liberally accepted refugees and granted them lands.

For Nehru, there was no question of Assam lacking surplus land for settlement of the refugees. He was joined by home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in admonishing the state cabinet for its decision to allot land for the locals uprooted from their homes due to floods. For the Centre, the rehabilitation of the Bengali refugees must take precedence over the locals and at one time it had even finalised its own plan to settle them along vacant railway lands which was vehemently opposed by the state government. Nor was the state government’s proposal to introduce a permit system for the region to check migrants given importance.

Of course, with the meagre resources of the government, it was not possible to strengthen border surveillance soon after the partition. But the border remained so unguarded that even the deputy commissioner of Sylhet in East Pakistan had the audacity to come to Shillong for a few days without any permission from the Indian government which was brought to the notice of Nehru at Shillong on 7 May 1949 by Bordoloi. But the Centre’s policies never changed and Bordoloi’s successor Bishnu Ram Medhi faced the same predicament with disastrous consequences for the future.

Sudden halt to PIP scheme in Assam

Conceived by the director of Intelligence Bureau BN Mullick, the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan Scheme (PIP) was begun in 1964 as a centrally sponsored scheme to detect and deport illegal migrants from East Pakistan. The exercise continued till 1969 when it was abruptly stopped by the Congress due to the apprehension that a sizeable vote bank would be lost in the general elections. Also, the untimely death of chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha left the state without any leader of the stature who might have ignored the pressure from the Centre.

As a result, there was no official estimate of the numbers that crossed the border following the genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 (the unofficial figure is 10 lakh). If the PIP scheme had been in vogue, an estimate would have been possible and a plan could have been firmed up to distribute the refugees all over the country. Bangladesh was indebted to India for the war and it would have accepted back the refugees if prime minister Indira Gandhi had inserted a clause in the Indira-Mujib Pact. The tradition established by the Congress to keep party interests above the national became so entrenched that it was also emulated by the BJP, CPM and regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Trinamool Congress decades later.

When Election Commission turned a blind eye to Mangaldai

Among all the government agencies, the Election Commission has caused the maximum harm to Assam by turning a blind eye to the flawed electoral rolls which included the names of foreign nationals. In 1978, the Assam Police had identified 47,658 voters of doubtful origin in Mangaldai Lok Sabha constituency. Around 6 lakh more cases were detected when the exercise was extended to 80 Assembly constituencies by the Assam government. The operation was called off after the Janata Party government was toppled in and President’s Rule imposed in the state.

Objections filed before the Election Commission against the foreign nationals in the electoral rolls were never disposed of and tribunals constituted for these cases (under Representation of the People Act 1951) following the uproar in the state were also never taken to a logical conclusion. In the years ahead, the number of illegal migrants who acquired the right to vote began to swell and some Assembly constituencies completely hijacked in western and central Assam.

Kamaluddin who contested the Assembly poll from Jamunamukh constituency in Assam. Image procured by Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Kamaluddin who contested the Assembly poll from Jamunamukh constituency in Assam. Image procured by Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The case of Kamaluddin deserves special mention to underscore the perilous state of affairs that had enveloped Assam. He had gathered a passport through fraudulent means and even contested the Assembly polls from Jamunamukh in 1996!  He was apprehended by the police two years later and deported to Bangladesh. Undeterred by the setback, he crossed the border again to file a case in Gauhati High Court (Case No – 2501 of 1998) challenging the deportation on the ground that he was a citizen of village Kapahbari with landed property. The government contested his claims by producing irrefutable evidence that he hailed from Bangladesh and was deported again.

Assam Agitation, Assam Accord and AGP

That the Assamese are also to blame for the mess in the state is amply evidenced by the consequences of the Assam Accord which brought the historic six-year agitation against foreign nationals to a close in 1985. The agreement was hurriedly drafted on 14 August 1985 since prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had made up his mind to make the announcement on Independence Day. The delegates from Assam who signed on the document did not possess the wisdom to comprehend that certain words in the accord could be a barrier to its implementation in the future.

For instance, it is now accepted by many sections that instead of "Assamese people" in Clause 6 that seeks to provide constitutional safeguards, a better option would have been either "people of Assam" or "Indian citizens of Assam".  Till date, there is no definition of Assamese which has thwarted all efforts to implement the vital clause. There was also no timeframe for implementation of the accord and as it turned out years later, only the clause to set up the IIT and refinery was given importance which was never the focus of the agreement.

The AGP won the Assembly polls held four months after the accord with the mandate to identify and deport illegal migrants from the state. But as it transpired later, implementation of the accord was never a priority for the party. For these country bumpkins, it was more important to get married and amass wealth through nefarious means. The worse came in 1996 when the AGP plummeted further by seeking votes from the Bangladeshi migrants! It again swept to power but brushed the issue of illegal migrants once more under the carpet. With no initiative at all to check the demographic influx, the All Assam Students' Union was compelled to conclude another pact with the Centre and state government in 2005 for the implementation of the earlier accord where the need for the NRC was spelt out explicitly.

Governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha’s report put in cold storage

Alarmed over the continuing influx and the consequent demographic change in the state, Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha dashed off a 42-page report titled Report on Illegal Migration Into Assam to the President on 8 November 1998. The BJP-led government at the Centre found it convenient to leak the report to the media which was carried on the front page of most national dailies at that time. Hopes were raised when the BJP was finally able to secure the magic number to form the government with its allies after the general election of 1999. But as it turned out, the BJP was hardly any different from the Congress.

A persistent demand from Assam was the repeal of a law — Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act — which was introduced in the state in 1985 for detection of foreign nationals but applicable only in the state while the rest of the country had a different law. The law shielded the illegal migrants since the onus of providing evidence was vested in the government. The governor’s report suggested that the law should be "repealed and replaced by a new legislation" but the BJP never bothered to broach the topic or even implement any preventive measure to check infiltration. Further, a decision was taken to shut the office of the Commissioner of Border under the home ministry in Guwahati which prompted chief minister Tarun Gogoi to make an appeal to revoke the decision. Although the IMDT Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005 in the Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India case nothing much has happened beyond that. Sonowal was the then an integral part of AASU. He is now the incumbent chief minister of Assam.

That most of the recommendations by the former governor have been put on the backburner is also evidenced by home minister Rajnath Singh’s ignorance when he was asked by a few senior citizens in Guwahati on 3 January 2015 at Hotel Brahmaputra Ashok to spell out the reasons for the non-implementation of the report. Singh had no answer -- he had never heard of the report! It remains a mystery why preventive measures against infiltration except efforts to seal the India-Bangladesh border have not yet been executed. The report had proposed the registration of country boats and floating border outposts (BoP) in the rivers along the border but they continue to remain only on paper.

MHA’s policy: Ignore and wake up only in emergency

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) must also share the blame for the volcanic circumstances in Assam today. On 23 June, former home secretary GK Pillai delivered a stinging indictment of the very ministry he served seven years ago while participating in a panel discussion on the NRC at India International Centre. He was of the opinion that the home ministry had never discussed the implementation of constitutional safeguards in Assam during 2001-09 when he had gone for deputation to another ministry.

While it is not precisely known if there was any deliberation on the topic in North Block during that period, such a statement from a former home secretary should make the ministry concerned and scurry for introspection. This writer covered the ministry during 2006-7 and what became most evident was the lack of a long-term policy on many vital issues of internal security. It appears that the objective of most bureaucrats in the home ministry is only to extend their tenure in the ministry by procuring a favourable annual confidential report from their seniors.

That it is time for evaluation of the ministry’s role and performance comes from another recent example when several leaders belonging to the six communities in Assam demanding Scheduled Tribe status were summoned for a meeting to North Block. On 20 July, some of them were quoted by the local media as saying that Rajnath insulted them since he had no time to discuss the issue. The ministry had shelved the demand following objections by other groups from the state and the meeting was held only after a plea from the state government. The groups and many civil society organisations feel that the ST status could be a shield against foreign nationals as it will mean reservation of seats in elected bodies.


Updated Date: Aug 07, 2018 13:17 PM

Also See