Fretful wait

Print edition : August 27, 2010

Government representatives and the leaders of the All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad sign the Memorandum of Settlement on the Assam problem, in New Delhi on August 15, 1985, as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, flanked by Home Minister S.B. Chavan on his left and Union Cabinet Secretary P.K. Kaul, looks on. The photograph also shows AASU president P.K. Mahanta and general secretary B.K. Phukan.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Assam Accord is 25 years old, but many of its provisions are yet to be implemented.

WHO are the Assamese people?

The question has been asked for the past 25 years. There is no answer even now, and nobody knows how long the search for a definition of Assamese people will continue. This definition is required to ensure the constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for Assamese people promised by the Government of India in one of the clauses of the historic Assam Accord (Memorandum of Settlement on the Problem of Foreigners in Assam) signed on August 15, 1985, between New Delhi, Dispur and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the erstwhile All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP).

Apart from the definition of Assamese people , the other core issues that the accord sought to address remain unsettled the detection and expulsion of foreigners who illegally entered Assam through the State's porous borders after March 25, 1971, and the sealing of the India-Bangladesh border to prevent further infiltration.

With the signing of the accord ended the six-year, sometimes violent, anti-foreigners agitation launched by AASU and the AAGSP. The AASU-AAGSP combine articulated the fears of Assamese and other ethnic communities of being reduced to minorities owing to the influx of illegal Bangladeshi settlers. These fears crystallised into a mass movement marked by explicit Assamese chauvinism. The backwardness of the State, despite being endowed with vast natural and other resources, and the Centre's apathy to its development needs acted as catalysts.

From the beginning of the agitation, the Left and some democratic parties, as well as some intellectuals, urged the agitation leaders to accept the cut-off date of March 25, 1971, for the detection and expulsion of foreigners. But the AASU-AAGSP leadership insisted on 1951 as the cut-off year and, later, 1961. So the agitation was prolonged, and those who reasoned in favour of the 1971 cut-off date were attacked as stooges of foreigners; the agitation leaders called for socially boycotting them. About 70 workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or the CPI(ML), the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI), the Students Federation of India (SFI), the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) were brutally murdered; many were maimed for life.

These left-wing political parties, student-youth bodies, trade unions and peasant bodies did not want the Bangladeshis to be expelled from Assam, the movement leaders alleged. Divisive and communal forces that crept into the movement at times turned it into one for driving out Muslim minorities; in the infamous massacre at Nellie in the undivided Nagaon district in 1983, over 1,800 immigrant Muslim settlers were butchered in a single day.

In the end, the AASU-AAGSP combine did accept March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date. It was incorporated in Clause 5.8 of the Assam Accord: Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners. But the acceptance came after much bloodshed; 855 participants in the agitation lost their lives and were declared martyrs.

BSF personnel patrol the Masalabari border outpost in Assam's Dhubri district, about 300 km from Guwahati. A file photograph. Much of the border with Bangladesh remains porous, and the deadline set for completing its fencing has now been shifted to March 2011.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The accord led to the formation of the regional party the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the installation of the first regional party government at Dispur. The then AASU president, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the founder-president of the AGP, became the youngest Chief Minister, triggering tremendous hope and expectation among the people that the new government would ensure that the accord was implemented in toto and lay to rest fears of massive demographic changes in the State.

Those hopes remained unfulfilled as successive AGP and Congress governments in the State failed to implement the accord's provisions regarding the detection, deletion (of names from voters lists) and expulsion of foreigners and the sealing of the border with Bangladesh. The constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards meant for the Assamese people also largely remained on paper. The Centre, too, has not been able to deliver on the commitments that Rajiv Gandhi's government made in August 1985.This failure fuelled the secessionist movement, the seeds of which were sown during the anti-foreigners agitation. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), formed in 1979, articulated popular grievances against a Union government perceived as negligent towards the State's problems. The solution lay, the new outfit promised, in the creation of a Swadhin Asom (Independent Assam) to be achieved through an armed liberation movement. The failure of the AGP to implement the accord in its first tenure helped ULFA gain ground.

The information tabled in the Assembly by Assam Accord Implementation Minister Bhumidhar Barman makes a sorry tale. From 1985 up to May 31, 2010, as many as 49,891 foreigners were detected by the tribunals under the Foreigners Act and the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. However, only 2,326 foreigners have been expelled to Bangladesh in the past 25 years. From 1985 and up to December 2009, only 1,428 foreigners who had re-entered the State were pushed back.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi admitted in the Assembly that most illegal settlers disappeared after their cases were referred to foreigners' tribunals. The State government has set up three detention camps in Goalpara, Silchar and Kokrajhar to house the detected foreigners until their deportation. At present, 57 foreigners are lodged in the Goalpara camp, 16 in the Kokrajhar camp and one in the Silchar detention camp. The lacunae in the mechanism of detection and expulsion have resulted in colossal waste of taxpayers' money. Between 1985 and 2006, over Rs.400 crore was spent on the exercise.

Clause 9 of the accord says: The international border shall be made secure against future infiltration by erection of physical barriers like walls, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles at appropriate places. Patrolling by security forces on land and riverine routes all along the international border shall be adequately intensified. In order to further strengthen the security arrangements, to prevent effectively future infiltration, an adequate number of check posts shall be set up. ... All effective measures would be adopted to prevent infiltrators crossing or attempting to cross the international border.

However, Assam's 267.30-kilometre international boundary with Bangladesh is yet to be completely sealed; there is a 59-km stretch that has no barbed wire fencing. The State government's Public Works Department (Border Roads) has so far spent Rs.288.35 crore out of the total sanctioned amount of Rs.343.75 crore for the erection of barbed wire fencing along 175.52 km and the construction of 200.18 km of border road along the international boundary. The PWD was entrusted with the work of erecting barbed wire fencing along a length of 183.21 km; the department found that the work was not feasible along a 6.69 km stretch. Fencing has been erected along 175.62 km out of the remaining 176.52 km (99.49 per cent). March 2011 is the deadline for the completion of work over the remaining 895 metres.

The National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) and the National Projects Construction Corporation (NPCC) have also been entrusted with the work of erecting barbed wire fencing. However, the State government could not inform the Assembly about the progress of the work by these two agencies because the details were not made available by the Centre until July 13, 2010.

Samujjal Kr Bhattacharyya, AASU adviser, said: Over the past 25 years, the AGP was in power for two terms but did nothing to implement the accord. During its second tenure, not a single review meeting at the level of Chief Minister was held. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] was in power at the Centre for six years. However, not a single review meeting on the Assam Accord, either at the Prime Minister's level or at the Union Home Minister's level, was held during National Democratic Alliance [NDA] rule. The Congress, which has been in power for most of the time during this period, also failed miserably to honour the commitments made by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well as the commitments made by the present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The Left parties and the Nationalist Congress Party [NCP] also cannot escape responsibility for the non-implementation of the Assam Accord as they too enjoyed power in some way in New Delhi and Dispur.

Bhattacharyya questioned the Centre's sincerity in sealing the border. It is very unfortunate that while the government could seal and arrange floodlighting and effective patrolling along the India-Pakistan border in just three years, it failed to seal the India-Bangladesh border, arrange floodlighting and ensure effective patrolling by the Border Security Force [BSF] even after 25 years of signing of the Assam Accord, he said.

A PROTEST AGAINST the continued influx of illegal settlers, by the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad on August 4, 2008.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

On May 5, 2005, the Prime Minister chaired a tripartite meeting between the Centre, the Assam government and the AASU to review the implementation of the Assam Accord. This meeting came 16 years after the previous review meeting at the Prime Minister's level. The minutes of the meeting tabled in the Assembly reveal that the Prime Minister promised another meeting in the same financial year (2005-06). But, Bhattacharyya pointed out, more than five years had passed and the Prime Minister had not yet called another review meeting. The Central government has never been sincere in keeping its commitment as far as implementation of the Assam Accord is concerned, he said.

He also pointed out that several deadlines for sealing the India-Bangladesh border had been missed and every year the State government set a new deadline. The porous Assam-Bangladesh border is not just a threat to Assam. It poses a grave threat to national security. Bangladeshi infiltrators, ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] agents and HUJI [Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami] cadre use Assam as a transit camp. It is time the government woke up to the problem, he said.

Legal issues

In the past two and a half decades, the detection and deportation of foreigners have become complicated and got mired in legal battles. Such complications are rooted in the different historical backgrounds of the immigrants.

Indigenous Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims from East Bengal who settled in Assam during pre-Partition days and Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan in different streams are to be treated as Indian citizens in accordance with the Indira-Mujib agreement. All Bengali-speaking illegal migrants from Bangladesh who crossed the porous border after March 25, 1971, are liable to have their names deleted from voters lists and be expelled in accordance with the Assam Accord.

The BJP is against the expulsion of the post-1971 Hindu immigrants and wants them to be accorded refugee status. All other political parties, including AASU and student and youth bodies like the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), want all immigrants who have come in after March 25, 1971, to be expelled.

Now, it is not easy to distinguish, culturally and linguistically, between the pre-1971 immigrants and the post-1971 settlers as they all speak the same dialect, though most pre-1971 Muslim immigrants of the Brahmaputra valley have adopted the Assamese language and sent their children to Assamese-medium schools. Some of them have also immensely contributed to Assamese literature.

The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, enacted two years before the signing of the Assam Accord in the aftermath of the Nellie killings, had its roots in the allegations of deportation of immigrants without trial and harassment of Indian citizens in the name of detection of illegal settlers. Those who pushed for it argued that before the promulgation of the Act, as many as 210,446 Muslims had been driven out of Assam between 1952 and 1971 without trial and without being given an opportunity to defend their status. They also alleged that 192,339 people had been deported from the State between 1972 and 1983 in a similar manner.

SUSPECTED BANGLADESHI LABOURERS being arrested by the Assam Police in July 2007.-

The AGP and AASU demanded its repeal on the grounds that it hampered the implementation of the Assam Accord, especially in the detection and deportation of illegal settlers, and actually protected illegal immigrants. They also argued that the Act was discriminatory as it was applicable only in Assam, while in the rest of the country infiltrators were detected and deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946. The Illegal Migrants Act put the onus of proving an allegation of illegal immigration on the prosecution; the Foreigners Act puts it on the accused.

On July 12, 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants Act, acting on a petition filed by former AASU president Sarbananda Sonowal. Sonowal, a former Lok Sabha member and at present a general secretary of the AGP, had moved the apex court at the behest of AASU.

The scrapping of the Act, however, did not seem to make much of a difference. Between January 1, 2001, and June 31, 2010, altogether 14,586 people were identified as foreigners in the State. Only 199 of them were deported as of May 31, 2010; 105 of them, incidentally, were expelled after the Act was scrapped. Interestingly, not a single foreigner detected under the Foreigners Act was expelled in 2007; one foreigner was expelled in 2006 and 10 in 2005. The cold fact is that about Rs.50 crore was spent between 2000 and 2010 in running the Foreigners' Tribunals. Of the 36 Foreigners' Tribunals, 32 are functioning. Eleven tribunals are run by members of other tribunals. As of February, 2,89,690 cases were pending before the tribunals.

Fleeting hope

A consensus among political parties and student and youth organisations, including AASU, on updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 by including names that appear in the 1971 voters lists and those of their descendents kindled hopes, for a while, for a permanent solution to the foreigners issue. However, an incident of police firing on July 21 on a demonstration by the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) over anomalies in the NRC form turned violent; four people died and about 50 were injured in Barpeta town in Lower Assam. The incident highlighted the absence of consensus on a mechanism to update the NRC.

The Assam government immediately suspended work on the pilot projects of updating the NRC in two revenue circles, Barpeta and Chaygaon. The AGP, AASU and the BJP criticised the move and demanded resumption of the work. There were flaws in the NRC application form, AAMSU alleged; the Assam government, in response, promised to simplify the form in consultation with all political parties and other organisations. However, AASU insists that there is no flaw in the form and sees the controversy as a conspiracy to delay the updating work in order to include names of illegal immigrants.

AASU members bursting crackers to celebrate the Supreme Court's judgment striking down the Illegal Migrants Act, in Guwahati in July 2005. AASU insisted that the law actually helped illegal settlers avoid expulsion.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Clause 6 of the accord promises that constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. However, a consensus definition of Assamese people could not be found in the past 25 years. AASU has been demanding 100 per cent reservation in the Assembly, barring the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates, and the right over land for Assamese people. It believes that only such a step can allay the fears of the Assamese people of losing political power to infiltrators.

In 2006, the State government constituted a Committee of Ministers to examine issues relating to the implementation of this clause, including the definition of Assamese people. The committee has not yet made up its mind.

BSF PERSONNEL FRISKING an Indian farmer on his way to work in his field in the "no man's land" at Sonaghat in Dhubri district, on January 3, 2006. The then Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, had inspected this sector the day before and announced that the fencing work would be completed by the end of that year.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The biggest challenge before the present AASU leadership is to draw lessons from the six-year anti-foreigners agitation and take into account the socio-political changes that have taken place in the past 25 years while arriving at a definition for Assamese people. It will not be easy, particularly in the backdrop of the identity-based autonomy movements of various tribal groups. The Bodos and the Karbis have revived their statehood demands, while other tribes such as the Rabhas, the Tiwas and the Mising seek upgraded autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Six communities the Koch-Rajbangshis, the Tai-Ahoms, the tea-tribes, the Morans, the Mataks and the Chutias want Scheduled Tribe status. The Assam Accord promised to protect the tribal belt and blocks from encroachment, but the government has failed to implement the relevant provisions under Clause 10.

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