Politics of migration

Published : Dec 29, 2006 00:00 IST

Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam. -

Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam. -

Minority communities fear a backlash after the striking down of the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order.

THE Supreme Court judgment quashing the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, issued by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has evoked mixed reactions in Assam. It has also brought centre stage the politics of migration and the related issue of insecurity of minorities, more particularly Muslims, in the State.

The judgment has been hailed by the influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the major Opposition parties, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Jubilant workers of the AASU and the BJP burst crackers and distributed sweets while the AGP felicitated its Member of Parliament from Dibrugarh, Sarbananda Sonowal, who was one of the petitioners who challenged the amended Foreigners (Tribunals) order. BJP leaders Dhruba Prasad Baishya, Charan Deka, Bimlanghsu Roy and Mukunda Rajbongshi had filed a separate petition challenging the order. Sonowal had also filed a petition challenging the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, which was struck down by the Supreme Court on July 12, 2005.

Minority bodies, on the other hand, expressed fears that in the absence of adequate legal protection, genuine Indian citizens may be harassed by the police, as in the past, in the name of `detection' and `deportation'. The All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) called a 12-hour State-wide bandh, which was marred by incidents of stone-throwing by bandh supporters in some pockets of northern Assam. After the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, minority bodies demanded an amendment to the Foreigners Act, 1946; they also wanted the amended law to be applicable throughout the country. These demands have become vociferous after the latest ruling.

Under the IMDT Act, 1983, the onus lay on the complainant to prove that the accused person was not an Indian citizen. Under the Foreigners Act, the onus is on the person who faces the complaint to prove that he or she is an Indian citizen and not a foreigner. The AASU, the AGP and the BJP objected to the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, because it shifted the onus of proof back to the complainant and thus came in the way of detecting and deporting "foreigners". These parties also contend that there cannot be two laws, one for Assam and another for the rest of the country, for the detection and deportation of foreigners. If in other States the responsibility of detecting foreigners is vested with the police, the same principle should apply to Assam, they argue.

After the latest ruling, the Congress-led coalition government in the State rushed to allay fears of harassment of minority community members. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi promised measures to ensure no one was harassed or made to feel insecure. However, the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) has accused the State government of "deceiving the minorities" in the name of protecting them. The AUDF was formed after the IMDT Act was struck down and it presented itself as a replacement for the Congress as the protector of minority interests. The latest ruling has provided it with more fuel to attack the ruling party. The party said that the Congress government had deliberately left legal loopholes by issuing two notifications, one for the rest of the country and another for Assam, with the "ulterior motive" of winning the support of the minorities in the Assembly polls.

The Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, Assam, also echoed the AUDF; the president of the literary body, Hafiz Ahmed, alleged that the Congress had "intentionally left legal loopholes while issuing the notification on the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, so that it could play the role of saviours of Muslims once the notification is scrapped in the court and secure the votes of Muslims".

These fears are rooted in past experiences of police harassment on the pretext of detection and deportation of foreigners. Minority bodies say that the Foreigners Act gives the police enormous powers, which are often abused. The Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad says that before the promulgation of the IMDT Act, 210,446 Muslims were driven out of Assam between 1952 and 1971 without trial and without any opportunity to defend their status. It also says that 192,339 people were deported from the State between 1972 and 1983 in a similar manner.

Hafiz Ahmed defended the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order saying that the legal protection accorded by the Order was necessary, in the absence of the IMDT Act, to ensure that the past history of harassment of minorities, particularly Muslims including pre-1971 immigrants, is not repeated. These people, he said, had been assimilated into Assamese society, having adopted the Assamese language and Assamese culture. "Minorities of Assam, particularly Char [land formed by silt deposits] dwellers, are not opposed to detection and deportation of foreigners. They too want all foreigners who entered Assam after March 25, 1971, to be detected and deported. But, at the same time, they are strongly opposed to any kind of harassment of any Indian and to their branding as foreigners merely on the strength of doubts and without any legal evidence," said Ahmed.

The political reactions of minority bodies to the ruling has been varied. While the AUDF put the blame on the Congress, groups such as the AAMSU and the Assam Minorities Youth Council blamed the AGP and called upon minority community members and leaders to resign from the regional party. They said that it was now clear that the AGP had no intention of protecting the interests of minorities in Assam.

The ruling Congress, on the other hand, has been facing attacks not only from the AUDF but also from AASU, the AGP and the BJP, which accuse it of issuing the notification to appease "illegal Bangladeshi voters". Hailing the Supreme Court judgment as a "victory for the people of Assam", Sonowal said that the Congress game plan of "reintroducing the IMDT Act through the backdoor" in the form of the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order had been exposed.

Gogoi defended the notification saying it was aimed at ensuring that genuine Indian citizens were not harassed. He said his government was bound to honour the Supreme Court judgment but was also duty bound to protect "genuine Indians" belonging to linguistic and religious minorities from harassment. One will have to wait for the forthcoming panchayat elections to find out whether there are enough takers for Gogoi's assurance.

Between the two extreme viewpoints on the legal mechanism for dealing with illegal immigrants, there lies a meeting point. All political parties, minority organisations and AASU have agreed that once the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) in Assam is updated on the basis of the electoral rolls of 1971 and photo identity cards are issued, the problem may be solved once and for all. At a tripartite meeting on May 5, 2005, between the AASU, the Centre and the Assam government, which was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Gogoi, it was decided that the NRIC would be updated with the names of all persons who had settled in Assam before March 25, 1971, and their descendents.

The State government has started working on the NRIC and the scanning of the electoral rolls is almost over; but the legal basis of the NRIC is yet to be firmed up. Only the Central government is empowered to prepare the NRIC under the Citizenship Act, 1955, and the State government can only prepare the register if it is given the power to do so.

While the issue of detection and deportation of foreigners in Assam has been mired in legal battles, the entire affair has taken a heavy toll on the State exchequer. The Assam government spent Rs.400 crores on the detection and deportation of foreigners in the past 21 years after the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985; and in all that time, only 2,221 illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been expelled. The State Minister in charge of the implementation of the Assam Accord, Dr. Bhumidhar Barman, who disclosed these figures in the Assembly, informed the House on December 12 that the government did not have the exact number of illegal immigrants living in Assam at present.

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