The citizenship issue has once again rocked Assam with the Supreme Court striking off a controversial legislation enforced by New Delhi to identify illegal Bangladeshis in the region.
The Supreme Court in a landmark judgment on Tuesday held unconstitutional the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, an amendment brought this February to the Foreigners Act, 1946, to detect and deport illegal foreigners.
"The court verdict vindicates our stand that the Congress-ruled state and central government were trying to protect the Bangladeshis to maintain their vote banks. This is a major victory for the indigenous people who otherwise would have been overwhelmed by the Bangladeshis," Sarbananda Sonowal, an MP of the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), said.
Sonowal had earlier challenged the amendment at the apex court asking the legislation to be quashed on the ground that the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, puts the onus of proving if someone is an illegal foreigner on the complainant rather than the accused.
Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, applicable across India, the accused needs to prove his/her citizenship, if questioned.
The court observed that the government showed "lack of will in the matter of ensuring that illegal immigrants are sent out" - a slogan that both the AGP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have for long been harping on.
"Assam would have become part of Bangladesh if the Congress government was allowed to continue with the amendments. Now the court verdict has proved that our allegations were not unfounded," Assam BJP president Ramen Deka said.
"We are bound to obey the court ruling. But we are committed to protecting the interests of the genuine religious (Muslims) and linguistic (Bengali speaking) minorities from any harassment in the name of detecting and deporting foreigners," Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said.
"In fact, the amendments were brought to stop any kind of harassment to genuine Indian citizens during the process of detection."
This is the second major setback for the ruling Congress government in Assam after the Supreme Court in July last year struck off the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) that was in force for 22 years.
The Supreme Court repealed the IMDT Act and replaced it with the Foreigners Act of 1946. But in February, the government amended the Foreigners Act with new provisions included - the tribunals would act against a complaint only if it is satisfied that there is a prima facie case.
The original Foreigners Act makes it mandatory for the tribunals to serve notices on the accused once a case was being framed on charges of being a foreigner.
"The amendment was therefore tailor-made to protect Bangladeshis from possible detection and deportation," Sonowal said.
Like the amended Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act too had several loopholes prompting the apex court to strike it off - the onus of proving if someone is an illegal foreigner rested on the complainant rather than the accused.