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Lok Sabha polls: BJP's promise of combating illegal immigration in the North East may be mere lip service

The BJP has once again declared its commitment to check illegal infiltration in the northeastern states in the manifesto that has just been released. An evaluation of the two brief paragraphs in the document, however, fuels suspicion over the party’s actual intentions to stem the danger which has now spread to the mainland states of the country.

While accepting that illegal immigration has resulted in a “huge change” in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas, the manifesto says that the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is currently being updated in Assam, would be “expeditiously” completed “in these areas on priority”. The exercise, it adds, would also be implemented in other states of the country.

First, it needs to be clarified that the NRC would never have been updated without the Supreme Court’s intervention following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by Assam Public Works. The concept of NRC was rooted in the Assam Accord (1985), although it was only in the tripartite agreement two decades later between the state and central governments and the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) that it was explicitly mentioned. The register is being updated under the supervision of the apex court which has also refused to extend the deadline of 31 July.

 Lok Sabha polls: BJPs promise of combating illegal immigration in the North East may be mere lip service

Representational image. AFP

In fact, BJP’s reiteration that the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 would be tabled again in Parliament dilutes the Assam Accord and the norms of compiling the citizen’s register since a section of non-Muslim citizens from some neighbouring countries would be granted citizenship. Therefore, there is a high possibility of the North East again reeling under agitations if the BJP secures a victory in the general elections.

No long-term plan or preventive measures

The second paragraph mentions that “effective steps” would be taken to prevent infiltration in the northeastern states, which would include strengthening border security and extension of the “smart fencing” in Dhubri to all the borders. For a party that has always lambasted Muslim Bangladeshi migrants, a more detailed and sensible plan to tackle the menace was expected.

“Two aspects of the BJP’s policy make the scenario very scary. Firstly, its communal agenda of making a distinction on the basis of religion which could again trigger large-scale protests. And secondly, the government does not know what’s to be done with the illegal migrants after they are identified in Assam,” said former Assam director general of police Hare Krishna Deka, who was part of a group that recently challenged the home ministry’s notifications on the citizenship laws in the Supreme Court.

Smart fencing can be only one item in the overall scheme to check infiltration from Bangladesh. The detailed 42-page report submitted by former Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha to the Centre in 1998, which was subsequently leaked to the media, had listed as many as fifteen recommendations as preventive measures to be implemented. Some like floating border outposts (BoP) on the Brahmaputra are considered extremely important to check the movement of people and contraband items. A scheme was also conceived by the home ministry in 2004 but was never implemented in Assam.

It is not known why the careerist-bureaucrats in the home ministry are so hesitant to examine these recommendations seriously, which warn in categorical terms that the migrants could “severe (sic) the Northeast land mass from the rest of India.” That the report has been put in cold storage became apparent on 3 January, 2016, when Home Minister Rajnath Singh drew a blank after some senior citizens in Guwahati posed questions to him on the report.

There is no plan either to deal with the post-NRC scenario in Assam when lakhs of illegal migrants are expected to be identified. In all likelihood, most of them would submit appeals before the Foreigners’ Tribunals and it could take many years before the cases are finally settled. Sensing the danger, Assam chief secretary Alok Kumar told the Supreme Court on 9 April that 1,000 more tribunals would be required to examine the appeals. In the meantime, many among them who are genuine foreigners can be expected to vanish into the crowd never to be found again. Surely, the matter requires far greater attention than the two paragraphs mentioned in the manifesto or the occasional discussions on the topic by the mandarins in North Block.

A few months ago, home ministry officials were also quoted by the media as saying that “work permits” were being actively considered for illegal migrants. Again, it is not known if the statement was a figment of imagination or seriously mulled as a measure to keep a tab on the illegal migrants since nothing more has been heard about the plan.

And there is hardly any chance that immigration from Bangladesh would come to a halt. There are projections that the neighbouring country’s economy would register a high growth of 7-8 percent in the next few years. But there are also reports (like the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016 published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) which reveal that the rich-poor divide in terms of wealth accumulation has been growing in the country. Reports have also warned that Bangladesh could be severely affected due to global warming.

What about ST status to six indigenous communities?

Granting the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the six indigenous communities of Assam could salvage the situation to some extent as it would entail reservation of land, jobs and in the elected bodies. This is unavoidable, given the repeated failure of the government and society in Brahmaputra Valley to implement timely measures. After several rounds of talks between the government and the pro-talks ULFA faction, a decision was almost arrived at in 2016, but the home ministry developed cold feet after some groups from the state raised objections on the inclusion of more communities in the ST category.

Speaking at a rally in Moran on 31 January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was silent on the Citizenship Bill and NRC but did not lose the opportunity to reiterate the government’s commitment to include these six communities in the ST category. A group of ministers (GoM) has already been formed in the state to firm up a roadmap and the Centre had even set up a panel last January to examine implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord which stipulated constitutional safeguards to the indigenous communities but was subsequently rejected by the civil society groups in the state.

Ideally, this long-standing demand from Assam should have been included in the BJP’s manifesto to demonstrate the party’s sincerity towards resolving the issue. Some academics and government officials are of the opinion that the demand would be put on the backburner after the polls and would resurface a few months ahead of the Assembly elections in the state in 2021 so that the BJP can reap the benefits.

It is not surprising that many leaders who led the agitation against the citizenship bill, including one of the persons who protested nude at Jantar Mantar, have joined the BJP. Not very many people in Assam remember Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches ahead of the previous general elections when he declared that Bangladeshi migrants would have to pack their bags if the BJP came to power. Of course, they were only meant to capture votes.

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Updated Date: Apr 11, 2019 11:32:14 IST