The issue of illegal migrants aka Bangladeshis is a mischievous myth or grim reality depending on which side of the political fence one is on.
It has dominated the political discourse during every assembly election in Assam since the controversial one in 1983 during the anti-foreigners’ agitation. Mandate 2016 is shaping up to be no different.
The Bangladeshi issue this time has a non-Muslim refugee twist; the BJP wants them, not Bengali-speaking Muslims, to stay on. The BJP has patented this line though the Congress — chief minister Tarun Gogoi specifically — had stolen its thunder by batting for Bengali Hindu migrants during the 2011 polls.
Both parties, though, have diluted their stand on Hindu migrants with BJP’s state unit chief Sarbananda Sonowal insisting Assam alone would not bear the burden.
Work on the National Register of Citizens, begun in 2014 with a view to distinguishing genuine Indian citizens from illegal migrants, has added a new dimension to the Bangladeshi issue. The detection of fake papers submitted in Muslim-majority districts such as Assam’s Barpeta has made the BJP harp on the ‘demographic invasion’ theory. “This election is a fight between those who protect the rights of indigenous peoples and those who are for illegal migrants,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, former Congress minister and BJP’s election panel head, said.
Ally Bodoland People’s Front is on the BJP side of the ‘Bangladeshi’ political fence, as is the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) though it is for weighing Muslim and Hindu migrants on the same scale.
On the other side of the fence are the allegedly pro-migrants Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal.
NGOs such as All Assam Students’ Union, which spearheaded the anti-foreigners agitation from 1979-1985, say porosity of the international border has aggravated the Bangladeshi problem.
Whatever the argument, the issue led to the boycott of the 1983 assembly polls by most indigenous groups. The Congress that year won a record 91 seats —four uncontested — out of 105 where elections were held. There were no candidates for the remaining 21 seats.
The Bangladeshi issue bred two parties, with opposing ideologies, before the 1985 polls — the pro-khilonjia (indigenous) AGP and the United Minorities Front that morphed into the AIUDF in 2005 after the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 was scrapped.