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Not that foreign an issue

As in the past two decades, the issue of illegal immigrants is gaining prominence in the run-up to the second phase of the Assam polls, writes Samrat Choudhury.

india Updated: Apr 06, 2006 03:01 IST

There’s been a refrain in these elections in Assam. Almost everyone who follows politics in the state has shaken his head meditatively and said, “There’s really no big issue this time.” Yes, the Congress has tried to make development an issue. Yes, the BJP has harped on illegal immigration from Bangla-desh. And yes, the AGP has tried to concoct a winning package out of ‘Congress misrule’, Bangladeshi immigration and a solution to insurgency. But none looked like the issue.

Then, on April 3, the day 68 per cent of the electorate in 65 constituencies across Assam lined up to vote, the Supreme Court issued notices to the state and central governments on a petition filed by AGP MP Sarbananda Sonowal and the BJP’s Charan C. Deka. They had challenged the Foreigners (Tribunal for Assam) Order, 2006, that amended the Foreigners Act, 1946, which is applicable to all of India. After the amendment, all cases of people in Assam whose citizenship is in doubt will be referred to tribunals. The petitioners objected to this, saying there was no reason to have one law for Assam and another for the rest of the country.

The SC will hear the case again on April 10, the day the remaining 61 constituencies in Assam go to the polls. It is reasonable to assume that the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh will, therefore, gain prominence now. It could well become the issue that the elections have been missing. In a way, it already has. Like so many times before. There’s a sense of déjà vu all over again in the foreigners’ issue in Assam.

The politics of the state — and indeed, much of the region — has been dominated by nothing else since at least 1979. That year saw the start of the Assam Movement, aimed at turfing out ‘foreigners’ or illegal immigrants. It led, via the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983, to the Assam accord and the first AGP government in 1985. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983, which was first brought in as an ordinance by the Indira Gandhi government, was also a by-product of this movement. The purpose of the IM(DT) Act was to protect Bengali-speaking people of Indian citizenship, particularly Muslims, from wrongful deportation as Bangladeshis.

It has been established beyond doubt by now that the Act ended up protecting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as well. The SC accepted this when repealing the Act in July 2005. The repeal of the Act sparked off celebrations among the AGP, BJP and All Assam Students’ Union supporters, but caused disquiet among a section of Muslims. Some Muslim leaders saw this as a failure of the Congress to protect their interests and decided to punish the ruling party by launching their own political organisation. Since over 30 per cent of Assam’s population is Muslim, it is fairly clear that the Congress cannot retain power without their vote.

In February 2006, barely two months before the polls, the cabinet committee on political affairs decided to amend the Foreigners’ Act only for Assam, following a recommendation from the Assam government. This amendment, by which cases of suspected illegal immigrants in Assam will compulsorily be referred to tribunals, just like it was under the IM(DT) Act, is now up before the SC. What will happen next can only be speculated. What has happened before, of course, can be easily recalled.

Back in 1947, when the country was being divided, Sylhet was a district in Assam. Muslims constituted 60 per cent of its population, according to the 1941 Census, and Hindus formed 38 per cent. A referendum was held in this district to decide whether it would go to India or Pakistan. It went to Pakistan.

The 38 per cent Hindu population — then numbering over 1,050,000 — were reduced overnight to being refugees in the land of their forefathers. Many of them crossed the new bloodline on the ground to find refuge in what is now called North-east India.

They were Bengali speakers. Their entry marked one critical point in the history of immigration into the region. In 1971, when Bangladesh’s liberation war was on, persecution by Pakistani forces triggered another exodus into Assam and its neighbouring states. This was the second critical point. The entry of large numbers of Bengalis gave rise to a feeling of insecurity in the local populations. The anti-outsider movement began soon after.

From 1979 on, mobs went around the towns and villages of Assam and Meghalaya beating and killing Bengali speakers. Since mobs rarely distinguish themselves by their impeccable judgment, it was no surprise that the action took the form of ethnic cleansing. Citizenship was immaterial: anyone who spoke Bengali was a ‘Bongal’ or ‘Dkhar’ — a foreigner.

It was in response to this movement that the IM(DT) Act was introduced. Thus, ironically, the very violence of the movement became the cause of its eventual failure. Over two decades have passed since then. Governments, both AGP and Congress, have come and gone, but the ‘foreigners issue’ has lingered on. It probably will, for many years to come.

First Published: Apr 06, 2006 03:01 IST