Love Thy Hindu Bangladeshis!

article

Throwing out illegal migrants from Bangladesh was the most crucial poll promise of Narendra Modi in 2014 for the northeast. Yet, not only has he done nothing, his vote bank politics wants Hindu Bangladeshis to stay back

RAJEEV BHATTACHARYA

RAJEEV BHATTACHARYA

The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the Northeast dealing with insurgency

On 28 April, 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi thundered at a rally in West Bengal’s Serampore just days ahead of the general elections that illegal Bangladeshi migrants would have to leave “bag and baggage” from the country if the BJP was voted to power. He almost repeated what he had said in Assam about the alien nationals, giving a glimmer of hope to the indigenous citizens of the beleaguered state and the civil society organisations clamouring for their detection and deportation to the neighbouring country since the past several decades.

The canvassing for the polls undoubtedly carried a distinct anti-immigrant flavour with the BJP joining hands with as many as five regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo Peoples’ Progressive Front (BPPF). The slogan for protecting the “Jati, Mati and Bheti (Race, land and base)” engendered an air of optimism and especially after some local TV channels showed footages of suspected migrants packing their bags and abandoning some localities near the Kaziranga National Park (KNP).

False Vision

The issue also found mention in the party’s Assam vision document for 2016-2025. If brought to power in Assam, the BJP state government promised to “work closely with the Centre for complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border.” Finally, as many had envisaged, there could be a Prime Minister and a government who would not indulge in loose talk like the previous regimes on the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. But even more than three years of the NDA sweeping to power, there has been precious little that the government has done in terms of firming a concrete strategy to check the menace of illegal migration and the rapid demographic change in Assam. Of course, BJP functionaries and activists of the saffron brigade would oppose the view saying that efforts are on to fence the border and complete the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is an exercise to compile the list of genuine citizens in the state.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh even announced that a ‘Border Protection Grid’ would be established in all the states bordering Bangladesh to strengthen border security in a bid to curb various illegal activities.

Deep Penetration

Home ministry officials might believe that creating a grid and a fence on the border could thwart illegal migration but such measures are not the answer to the vast swathes of land that have already been occupied by the foreign nationals in Assam that include forest reserves and community grazing land. There are several riverine routes along the border that are difficult to guard, which is apparent from the thousands of cattle smuggled out every year.

The answer could lie in the implementation of the recommendations forwarded by former Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha in 1998 where he sounded an alarm and underscored the urgent need to put in place a set of stringent preventive measures to check further influx of the illegal migrants. The report has, however, been put on the backburner and the Centre has never shown any willingness to take forward these vital suggestions, whether it is the BJP or the Congress. Currently, what has riled the indigenous communities and groups the most in Assam is the proposed legislation by the NDA regime to grant citizenship to a section of non-Muslim citizens from the neighbouring country. The bill has now been referred to a joint select committee of Parliament, but there has been no consensus so far among the members in the last 17 months.

Opposing ‘Hindu Assam’

The Opposition has alleged that the BJP led government was trying to convert the country into a Hindu nation and said that it violates Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality. Meanwhile, in Assam, the AGP, which is a partner of the ruling BJP, has recently declared that it would not accept the bill even if it were to be passed in Parliament.

Clearly, vast sections in the state are doubtful over the government’s motives and sincerity to tackle illegal migration in Assam. Opposition party leaders and civil society groups have gone hammer and tongs against what they perceive as the false promises by the BJP led governments both at the Centre and state.

On November 17, former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi asked: “The BJP had been accusing me of being a protector of Bangladeshis. What has now hindered the Modi government in detecting and deporting such huge number of migrants? Now it is the end of 2016, and the Modi government has said that two crore Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India.” It is learnt that the pro-talks faction of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has also made a case for safeguards for the indigenous communities against illegal migration in Assam. Several demands have been placed in the 38-page charter of demands that was submitted to the home ministry early in 2011.

PVM Campaign

Another organisation in the state that has been spearheading the movement against the illegals is Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) headed by Supreme Court lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika, who was appointed commissioner by the apex court in 2015 to furnish a report on the India-Bangladesh border. PVM has meticulously gathered details about a land scam of 77,420 bighas in Sipazhar near Guwahati, where officials and politicians conspired to help the migrants grab land through fraudulent documents. The group has been urging the government to evict the encroachers but the BJP-led government in the state has remained a mute spectator on the issue.

Says Hazarika “At a time when the indigenous people are fleeing from their habitats in lower Assam and parts of middle Assam, the election promises of BJP held out a ray of hope, but they have been confined to election speeches and promptly forgotten. Though the indigenous have not yet become a minority, the BJP is bent on pleasing the Bangladeshis.”

Hazarika continues: “This is evident from the case of Sipajhar, where 26,000 acres of village, grazing and government lands have been encroached upon by persons of ‘doubtful nationality.’ The encroachers have recently killed a local, Ananda Das and protests by local indigenous have in turn invited strong action from police, multiple FIRs and harassment. But the state government acts in support of such encroachers and all benefits have been given to them.”

Like many other groups, PVM has also made a case for enacting legislations similar to the provisions found in the hill states of the Northeast which perhaps explain why illegal migrants have not been able to encroach land and other resources. “The government can come up with protective legislation for local population in Assam in terms of reserving resources like land, employment and other benefits. It is because of such legislations that the rest of the Northeast is relatively free from the problem of illegal immigrants. Only those who are citizens of India and residents of Assam on the basis of the 1951 cut-off year and their progeny should be allowed to buy and sell land. This, in addition to the NRC update, will comprehensively ensure that indigenous people don’t become a minority in their own land,” Hazarika explained, adding that he had already included these recommendations in the report submitted to the Supreme Court in 2015.

Cut-off date Dilemma

Detection is fraught with manifold complications in Assam. The issue of the cut-off date for citizenship in the state — whether it should be 19 July, 1948 as applicable in the rest of the country or 24 March, 1971 as specified in Assam Accord (1985) — is pending before a constitution bench of the apex court. Another controversial issue is citizenship for children born to migrants who landed in Assam after the cut-off date mentioned in the accord. This apart, the government does not have any strategy to deal with the millions of illegal migrants who would possibly be identified after the update of the NRC is completed in Assam towards the end of the year. It is unlikely that Bangladesh will allow their repatriation, since it has never accepted that its citizens have been illegally migrating to India.

Last October, Bangladesh information minister Hasanul Haq Inu also denied the phenomenon in an interview to this correspondent in Dhaka while also asserting that his country would never accept the Rohingya refugees from India currently scattered in some cities like Jammu. However, the Supreme Count in a directive on December 17, 2014 had told the government “to enter into necessary discussions” with the government of Bangladesh to “streamline the process of deportation.”

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