Divisive agenda

Print edition : November 29, 2013

A rally in Guwahati by members of the North East Students’ Organisation and the All Assam Students’ Union in September 2012 demanding the expulsion of foreigners staying illegally in the north-eastern region. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi offering namaz in Guwahati on October 16. The BJP accuses the Congress of protecting the interest of illegal migrants. Photo: PTI

All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) leader Maulana Badruddin Ajmal (right). Photo: PTI

Assam

Immigrant bogey

By Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati

THE issue of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, which has dominated politics in Assam for more than three decades, is poised to take centre stage once again in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Political parties in the State are already polarised on the issue.

The State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced that the issue will top the party’s poll agenda. It has alleged that the ruling Congress and the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the main opposition party (18 legislators) in the 126-member Assembly, were moving close to each other for an electoral understanding with the objective of “protecting the interests of illegal immigrants”. The Congress and the AIUDF, on the other hand, have accused the BJP of “communalising” the issue.

A political consensus has existed in the State—that the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, by taking the 1971 electoral roll as the basis is the only solution to the vexed foreigners’ issue. The NRC thus updated would protect genuine citizens from harassment in the name of detection and expulsion of foreigners. The Assam Accord signed by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) with the Centre and the Assam government in 1985 to bring to an end the anti-foreigners’ agitation launched by the student body in 1979 stipulates that all illegal migrants post-March 25, 1971, be detected, their names be deleted from the voters’ list, and they be expelled from India.

Political observers say that despite this consensus, both the BJP and the AIUDF have been raking up the issue of illegal immigrants with an eye on the elections. The BJP, they say, has been playing on the fear of caste-Hindu Assamese people and various ethnic communities of being reduced to a minority by the migration of people from across the border. The AIUDF, meanwhile, has been demanding a new NRC, saying that the updated 1951 NRC might not protect minorities from being harassed in the name of detection and expulsion of foreigners.

Significantly, the persistent stand of the BJP has been that Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants from Bangladesh should be pushed back to the neighbouring country, whereas Hindu Bangladeshi migrants should be treated as refugees and given shelter in India.

The Muslim population in Assam consists of indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims whose forefathers came as Mughal warriors and settled in different parts of the State; indigenous Bengali-speaking Muslims from East Bengal who settled in Assam during pre-Partition days; Bengali-speaking Muslims who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan in different streams; and Bengali-speaking illegal immigrants who crossed the porous India-Bangladesh border after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. However, though the Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants speak Bengali at home and among themselves, they, barring in some pockets, have got themselves recorded in successive decadal censuses as Assamese speakers and study in Assamese-medium schools and colleges.

The BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar, however, tactfully refrain from giving such details of the history of Muslim migration and settlement in Assam in public discourses on the theme of illegal immigrants. Because of this, at least a section of the people in the State have the wrong idea that all Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who settled on char lands (sand isles in the course of the river Brahmaputra) and encroached upon the land of indigenous people.

AIUDF members had demanded in the Assembly a fresh NRC on the grounds that copies of the 1951 NRC were available fully only with respect to six districts. It is available only partly for 15 districts and is not available at all for six districts. The party expressed its fear that the names of a large number of genuine Indian citizens might get excluded if only updating was taken up. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, however, turned down the AIUDF’s demand, saying that technicalities like the preparation of a fresh NRC would delay the whole process of identifying illegal immigrants.

The State government worked out the modalities of updating the NRC in consultation with the Registrar General of India on March 18. The first phase of updating is to begin in seven districts—Sivasagar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Golaghat, Nagaon and Sonitpur. Of these, Sivasagar has no copy of the NRC, and it is partly available in the other districts.

The shift of its traditional vote base among immigrant Muslims to the AIUDF has been causing the Congress some concern. Because of this, the ruling party too has apparently been playing the Hindu migrant card with the hope of cutting into the BJP’s support base among Hindu Bengali voters. Gogoi has taken the position that those persons hailing from erstwhile East Bengal who were Indian citizens at the time of Partition and were forced to leave their homes and hearth in the new country because of persecution, atrocities and insecurity of life and property and those persons in present-day Bangladesh who emigrated for similar reasons and voluntarily came to India deserve humanitarian consideration. “Such persons may be followers of any religion and have voluntarily come to India seeking shelter. They should be given some status so that they do not have to face harassment again in India,” he said when journalists asked him whether his government was toeing the BJP line that all Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants should be treated as refugees.

Contrary to the stand taken by the Congress and the BJP, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the AASU have been saying that all Bangladeshi immigrants, whether Hindu or Muslim, who have illegally entered Assam after March 25, 1971, must be expelled in accordance with the Assam Accord. They also accuse the Congress of delaying the updating of the NRC and of not taking expeditious measures to seal the porous India-Bangladesh border.

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