Interview with former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.
PRAFULLA KUMAR MAHANTA was 27 when, as leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), he launched one of the most powerful mass movements in India. The vigorous anti-foreigners movement in Assam lasted from 1979 to 1985. When it ended with the signing of the Assam Accord, he became the country's youngest Chief Minister at 33 and headed the State's first government run by a regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). He came back for a second term when the AGP returned to power in 1996.
In 2005, Mahanta was expelled by the AGP on charges of alleged anti-party activities. But he returned to the AGP in 2008, merging his AGP (Pragatisheel) with the mother party.
Mahanta is not popular with the present AASU leadership, who see him as a betrayer who did nothing while in power for the implementation of the Assam Accord. Mahanta, who was a signatory to the historic accord, says in an exclusive interview to Frontline that the Assam Accord is vital for the survival of Assam and the Assamese people. Excerpts :
Twenty-five years of the Assam Accord will be completed on August 15. As one of the signatories to this historic accord, how do you assess its implementation?
The Union Home Ministry, being the nodal ministry for the implementation of the Assam Accord, is required to take the initiative in this regard. However, owing to the lack of initiative on the part of the Home Ministry, major clauses of the accord have still remained unimplemented. Infiltration from across the India-Bangladesh border is still a serious problem.
The census in Bangladesh shows a sharp decline in its population. On the contrary, the population growth in Assam is abnormal higher than a natural growth. This shows that infiltration still continues. The Government of India sealed the western border, but the eastern border is yet to be sealed.
There is also the problem of expelled foreigners re-entering, and Bangladesh refusing to take back infiltrators. The Government of India should take up the issue with Bangladesh at the diplomatic level as the two countries agreed to cooperate on the insurgency problem.
On the economic front, the accord was instrumental in the setting up of IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] Guwahati, the Numaligarh Refinery and the Sankardev Kalakshetra cultural complex. Work on the Bogibeel rail-cum-road bridge and the gas cracker plant at Lepetkata in Dibrugarh is on.
AGP-led governments headed by you were in power for two terms. How do you react to the allegation that while in power the AGP failed to take effective measures for the implementation of the accord?
The Assam government's power to implement the accord is limited. It is primarily the Central government's responsibility to implement the various clauses of the accord. Besides, the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, was a stumbling block in the detection and expulsion of foreigners.
This Act was scrapped by the Supreme Court only in 2005; it was in force when our party was in power. Insurgency raised its ugly head during both terms of the AGP government, and the situation was such that the major effort of the government was concentrated on dealing with the insurgency problem. Due attention could not be given to other important matters, including implementation of the accord.
AASU has alleged that during your second tenure not a single meeting to review the accord's implementation at the Chief Minister's level was held.
When the AGP was in power, AASU could always directly talk to the Centre as friendly governments were in power in New Delhi. Hence, the need for a bipartite review at the Chief Minister's level was not felt.
The search for a definition of Assamese people, required under Clause 6 of the accord to ensure constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese people, still continues. What, according to you, is the most practical definition of Assamese people?
During the AGP's first tenure in government, we submitted a proposal defining Assamese people for implementation of Clause 6 of the accord. The proposal was that all tribes and nationalities and Indian citizens who are permanent residents of Assam within the geographical boundaries of the State, whose mother tongue is either Assamese or any of the indigenous tribal languages and have been engaging themselves in the development and progress of the State and have become stakeholders in the promotion of the Assamese language, literature or tribal languages, literature and culture will be considered Assamese.
I still think that it is the most practical definition of Assamese people.What significance does the accord carry now?
The Assam Accord is vital for the survival of Assam and the Assamese people. The Congress has ruled the State for a long period; it encourages infiltration only to use the infiltrators as vote banks to stay on in power. The Bangladesh border is still open and infiltration is continuing. The Gauhati High Court brought to light how a Pakistani citizen entered Assam in 1994 and not only enrolled his name in the voters list but also contested Assembly elections in 1996. Large numbers of foreigners are still to be detected and expelled.
Care must be taken to ensure that genuine Indian citizens are not harassed in the name of detection and expulsion of foreigners. It is in this context that the Assam Accord is the single most important accord for a permanent solution to the vexed foreigners problem.