‘Assam is for Indians’

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Samujjak Bhattacharjya, chief adviser, All Assam Students Union. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Interview with Samujjal Bhattacharjya, chief adviser of AASU.

For several decades, All Assam Students Union (AASU) has been at the forefront of the movement in Assam demanding the ouster of illegal foreign immigrants. The release of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the State is seen as the culmination of AASU’s prolonged and sustained movement.

In an exclusive interview with Frontline, Samujjal Bhattacharjya, Chief Adviser to AASU and adviser to North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), spoke on what lies ahead and the importance of the NRC. Excerpts:

It has been a long struggle for AASU to reach this point. Are you happy with the final draft of the NRC?

Our movement has stretched over 38 years. First, there was the historic Assam Movement, and then the Assam Accord was signed. After such a prolonged movement, the commitment that was given in the Assam Accord has not been implemented. The Accord made it very clear that the three “D”s—detection, deletion and deportation—would be implemented. But there has been no detection, no deletion, and no deportation. The 268-kilometre Indo-Bangladesh border [in Assam] remains porous. It is an inexcusable crime on the part of the governments of India and Assam to not seal this border, as along with illegal immigrants, jehadis and fundamentalists are also entering, as the north-east is the transit route for them. There is a commitment in the Assam Accord to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people of Assam, but that has not been happening. Tribal belts and blocks, government blocks, etc., have all been encroached upon by illegal Bangladeshi settlers. So, for the last three decades, all the political parties that have been in power at the Centre or in the State have done nothing to address this problem seriously.

In Assam we had an NRC in 1951. However, it was not updated, mainly because political parties were interested in protecting their vote banks. Since the 1980s, we have been raising the issue of the NRC. We raised it when the Prime Minster invited AASU for the first round of talks; then after the signing of the Assam Accord, we submitted our modalities; then there was official-level tripartite talk; following that, another round of talks at the prime ministerial level in 2005, where it was decided to upgrade the NRC. Another round of talks, this time at the Home Secretary level, in 2010, where it was decided to have pilot projects. Forms were finalised, but it was a very slow process. A Group of Ministers was also formed to discuss the modalities with us. AASU and 28 ethnic parties had a meeting with the government to finalise the forms. But after that, again, matters moved very slowly. Ultimately a case was filed in the Supreme Court, and things have finally started moving.

It [the NRC] is a legal and transparent process that is being monitored by the Supreme Court. Now the draft is out, but we need the complete NRC to be out as well, because after that there will be claims and objections. But as all of it is taking place through a procedure monitored by the Supreme Court, we welcome it and we accept it. However, I want to point out that the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government had said that there were 1.20 crore illegal immigrants from Bangladesh throughout India—out of them, 57 lakh were in West Bengal and 50 lakh in Assam. The present government has said there are two crore [illegal immigrants] in the country. Now why 40 lakh, and not 50 lakh, have been left out in the NRC final draft? But we have full faith in the Supreme Court. The NRC is a bold step in the direction of finding a permanent solution to the foreign national problem in Assam.

I would also like to say that right now, it [the NRC] is still a draft and some Indians’ and indigenous people’s names have also not appeared; but there is a procedure, and that can be rectified. If they [genuine Indians] face any problem, we will extend our full support to them. But not a single name of a Bangladeshi who has come to India after 1971 should appear on the final NRC.

What is going to happen after the final NRC is published?

The solution lies in the Assam Accord. Sealing the 268-km of the Indo-Bangladesh border should be taken up on a war footing. The granting of constitutional safeguard to the indigenous people of Assam as per the Assam Accord is of great necessity. There has to be protection of tribal belts, blocks, forest land and government land. Most importantly, there has to be a bilateral treaty between the governments of India and Bangladesh to deport all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

What about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stand that non-Muslim Bangladeshis will be given Indian citizenship if they seek it?

This is a fundamental question. Citizenship cannot be decided on the basis of religion. We are opposing the decision of the BJP government at the Centre to grant citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh. To us, an illegal foreigner is an illegal foreigner, whether Hindu or Muslim. We want to make it very clear: India is for Indians; Assam is for Indians; the north-east is for Indians. They are not for illegal settlers from Bangladesh. There are five things we are opposing. One, the Foreigners Amendment Order of 2015. Two, Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015. Three, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. Four, issuing of long-term visas. And five—and this is still under consideration and has not yet been formally proposed—granting of work permit.

I’d like to tell you that for the whole of the country, the date of detection of illegal foreigners is 1948. But after the Assam agitation, there was discussion and dialogue, and taking into consideration the international protocol, the national commitment and humanitarian grounds, the Assam Accord was signed, with 1971 as the cut-off year. From 1948 to 1971, Assam accepted the burden of foreign migration on behalf of the whole country. Now, beyond 1971, we cannot accept any more illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—Muslim or Hindu.

I would also like to point out that the Prime Minister of India is also a signatory to the Assam Accord, but in the last four years our Prime Minister could not find a single day to hold a tripartite meeting on the implementation of the Assam Accord.

Many people do not understand the ground reality of Assam and the north-east. In 2005, when the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal ) Act, it stated: “The State of Assam is facing external aggression and internal disturbance on account of large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals.” In 2008, the Guwahati High Court stated in a judgment that these illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had become “kingmakers” and that “if this phenomenon continues, then the day is not far off when the indigenous people of Assam, both Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups, will be reduced to minorities in their own land, and the Bangladeshis who are freely and merrily moving around the fertile land of Assam, will intrude upon the corridors of power.” The court also cited the case of Md Kamaruddin who, after successfully entering Assam from Pakistan through Bangladesh, not only roamed around Indian soil but also contested the 1996 Assembly election. “This can happen only in Assam,” the court said. We desperately need a permanent solution. The whole demographic pattern of Assam has changed.

How will AASU ensure that only Muslims are not singled out?

AASU is there to extend its full support to those Hindus and Muslims who have come from Bangladesh before 1971. We will not allow anybody—no political or communal force—to communalise this issue. The movement has never been one against Muslims or Hindus or Bengalis. It is a movement against Bangladeshis illegally settling down in Assam after 1971. There is no place for any kind of communalism or fundamentalism in Assam. Let me tell you, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, there was not a single clash between Assamese Hindus and Assamese Muslims. That is the unique fabric of Assamese society.

What is AASU doing to ensure that no Indian citizen is excluded from the list?

AASU is working with various organisations, including 28 ethnic organisations. The people of Assam want the NRC and a stop to illegal immigration from Bangladesh. For this cause more than 850 people have lost their lives. Thousands have been rendered handicapped by police atrocities. It has been a huge sacrifice.

We cannot do the official work, but we are giving our full support to the officials who are working on the NRC. We have observed a “Preronar Din”, or, day of inspiration. We have also assured the people who have come before 1971 that we are there to help them in any way we can.

There have been many errors. Some allege that these errors may be politically motivated.

More than 3.29 crore applications were submitted; 6.6 crore documents were submitted; 55,000 officers were involved. It is a mammoth task. But it’s a final draft only. It’s true that some of the names of Indian citizens have not appeared on the rolls; but their names will ultimately appear. Let me tell you, in the first draft, a member of my own family was left out. But through the proper process, his name appeared later. Nobody should have any fear on this score, I repeat. Political and communal forces should not communalise this.

What is your opinion of Mamata Banerjee saying the NRC may lead to a civil war and there may be a bloodbath?

How can an elected Chief Minister make such irresponsible statements? It is not, as she is trying to establish, an Assamese-versus-Bengalis clash. The Bengalis living in Assam have played a role in building up the society here. We would like to tell Mamata Banerjee, please don’t communalise this issue and don’t adopt an appeasement policy for illegal Bangladeshis. She should seal the Bengal border with Bangladesh, otherwise her people will face the same kind of problems the people of Assam are now facing.

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