Immigrants or vote banks?

Immigrants or vote banks?

Kuldip Nayar

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is well entrenched in six of the seven northeastern states, something not imaginable when partition was discussed. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then a top Congress leader, once admitted that for the sake of votes, the Muslims from neighbouring countries like East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were brought to Assam. He said that the Congress did it purposely because “we wanted to retain Assam.”

This created a serious problem for the people of the state. Since then the issue of infiltration has loomed large in the northeast, especially in Assam. But then the process to check illegal migration in the northeast, which began during the British Empire, remains unfinished despite various efforts made at the national and state levels.

Consequently, a large scale migration impacted the social, economic, political and environmental segments which led to the people of the northeast voicing concerns. When the Immigrant (Expulsion from Assam) Act 1950 was passed in Parliament, allowing only those people who were displaced because of civil disturbances in East Pakistan into the region, the deportation of people caused much antipathy in West Pakistan. Subsequently, an agreement was signed between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, which allowed the return of those people deported in 1950 to India.

During the India-China war in 1962, there were reports that some infiltrators with Pakistani flags were seen on the borders, resulting in the Assam Plan which New Delhi adopted to prevent infiltration from Pakistan in 1964. But the continuing atrocities in East Pakistan in the early 70s led to an unchecked entry of refugees into India on a large scale. The Indira Gandhi-Muji-ur Rahman Agreement in 1972 redefined the status of illegal immigrants in India as it declared that all those who had come before 1971 were declared non-Bangladeshis.

The Assamese resented the agreement and launched an agitation, leading to Illegal Migrant (Determination by Tribunal) Act coming into force in 1983. The Act was meant to detect and deport illegal migrants through tribunals.  But it could not resolve the perennial immigrant problem in the northeast. Soon after, when the Assam Accord of 1985 was accepted, it fixed the cut-off date to determine illegal migrants in Assam as March 25, 1971, the day Bangladesh was born.

The accord mentioned that all those migrants who had come and settled in the state on or before this date shall be regarded as citizens and those illegal migrants who are found to have arrived in the state after this date are to be expelled in accordance with the law. The rebel groups, coming under the umbrella of AASU, launched a militant struggle against the centre seeking to revoke the accord and instead enact a law that deported all illegal immigrants irrespective of their time of immigration.

However, there was no respite for the locals as the immigrants were clandestinely provided with ration cards and their names were included in the voters’ list. The growing clout of the Bangladeshi immigrants made the situation in Assam worse. In fact, the overall Muslim population in the region has grown to over 40 per cent now, according to an estimate. Ultimately, the Supreme Court had to intervene to set aside Act in 2005. In its judgment, the apex court declared that the Act “has created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants.”

However, the infiltration from Bangladesh remains unchecked and illegal immigration continues to be a sensitive issue, exploited by vested political interests. A decade of agitation by northeast rebel groups, both peaceful and violent over the illegal foreign national issue, has not brought concrete success.

Unfortunately, the BJP government at the Centre is bent on bringing an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 which will enable the religiously persecuted migrants to obtain citizenship thus distinguishing them on communal lines. The majority of the people of Assam are against the proposed amendment since it goes against the spirit of the Assam accord which states that all illegal migrants from Bangladesh after 25 March 1971 would be deported.

The Centre should, instead, initiate measures to address some of the pending inter-state issues, especially the boundary dispute of Assam with Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh as well as Meghalaya. All these states, except Arunachal Pradesh, were carved out of Assam at some stage. Similarly, Manipur also has a boundary problem with Mizoram and Nagaland but they are not as prominent as that of Assam.

Yet, the region is united on many important issues like harassment of people from the northeast, particularly the student community in some parts of the country, including in the national capital. The feeling is of neglect by the Centre and the lack of sincerity which is telling upon the states. They want more involvement of the government in the development of the region. No doubt, the BJP government has introduced several measures for the development, trying to connect with the people of the region emotionally.

But then the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) has been a sore point. The Centre has gradually lifted the act from many parts of the region but it can do much more, taking into consideration the ground situation which has improved considerably. Illegal migration will remain a security challenge for India if no adequate measures are taken, including checking and deporting illegal migrants.

The ruling BJP must always remember that the northeast is a plural society devoid of much communal violence unlike the Hindi heartland. Hence, it is paramount that the Centre should concentrate more on the development and good governance rather than trying to impose its Hindutva philosophies.

With the general elections due next year, the BJP cannot afford to ignore the problems the northeast is facing. Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the region, Assam has the highest seats with 14 members. With BJP faring badly in the recent by-elections and many regional parties looking to go it alone in the coming elections, winning every seat will be important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After all, he and the party know well that the political loyalty in the northeast can change very fast.