It was in 1997 that the then Assam Governor, Lt. Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha, wrote to the President of India that there were over 4 million Bangladeshis living in Assam illegally and action should be taken to send them back, writes Rashmi Saksena for South Asia Monitor
Assam, in the Indian northeast, is the only state to have a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The first NRC was announced in 1951 after surveys to detect those who were crossing over from the demarcated but porous border with what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Myanmar and Bhutan. However, the issue of illegal immigrants turned into a highly emotive and politically volatile one in Assam after the 1971 India-Pakistan war that created Bangladesh, when tens of thousands of people started to stream into the state, fleeing Pakistani army persecution and in search of work and residence.
This ignited a mass agitation between 1975 and 1985, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) which left hundreds dead and many more injured. It gave the country its youngest chief minister of a state when AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was catapulted to the high office in Assam at the age of 34. It led to the historic 1985 Assam Accord, a tripartite agreement with the Union Government, the Assam government and the AASU, according to which those who entered from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 would continue to be detected, deleted and expelled, in accordance with law.
Now, almost three decades later, the political cauldron at the national level has been stirred by the final draft of the NRC, which leaves out 4,007,707 people from the list. In the first draft released in December 2017 only 1.7 million out of 4.7 million applicants were accepted as original residents of Assam on the basis of their claims, supported by personal and village documents. Following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the updating of the NRC is being monitored by the Supreme Court (SC) of India.
The SC has asked the government to provide, by mid August, the standard operating procedure for the claims-and-objections (by those omitted in the draft) process, which will begin August 30 and carry on till September 28. The NRC deadline for administrative purposes as of now is December 31, 2018. Only after the status of people is determined will the Election Commission give or take away their voting rights.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh is reported to have, much in advance of the NRC draft, assured Bangladesh that India was not looking at sending back the Bangladeshis from Assam anywhere in the near future. Bangladesh completely denies that any of the “illegals” are its citizens.
It is obvious the matter is far from being decided and yet it has brought about a narrative heavy with political overtones. It has become a weapon which the two main rivals in the national arena, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (Congress), and a regional power the Trinamool Congress (TMC) can slug out in the 2019 electoral battle. While the issue of illegal immigrants may not become an election issue at the national level, it is being used by the BJP, Congress and TMC to sharpen their stand on the minorities (read Muslims) and the majority (read Hindus) for the benefit of their “vote banks”.
The final NRC draft is being used to polarize the voters on religious lines in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP finds itself pitched against the Congress and an extremely vocal Trinamool Congress, not so much on the details but the message that the Amit Shah – led BJP wants to send out. The BJP, in a nuanced manner, has divided the immigrants into “infiltrators” and “refugees”. Shah thumped his chest in the Parliament claiming that his party-led government has had the “guts,” unlike the Congress-led one, to take action to send back Bangladeshi “infiltrators” (read Muslims). It was a pointed attack on the Congress which the BJP strategically paints as pro-Muslim at the cost of majority Hindu interests.
However the first to stridently respond to the BJP was Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister. She aggressively countered by stating that the Narendra Modi government’s alleged efforts to decide grant of citizenship on the basis of religion would lead to a “civil war.”
Her reaction has to be understood in the context of the fact that the TMC strength in West Bengal is highly dependent on the Muslim vote there (almost 30% of the population). Banerjee has fashioned herself as the champion of the Muslims vs the Hindu nationalism of the BJP. She also wants to safeguard a similar exercise in her state which, too, has a sizeable number of illegals from Bangladesh.
The Congress started with a sluggish and ambiguous response to Shah’s boasting. This was surprising given that the architect of the Assam Accord, which brought to an end the six year long anti-foreigners movement in Assam, was none other than late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, father of Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Till July 31 the Congress line in Parliament remained confusing. Initially it was left to former Congress Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, who is understood to have convinced Rajiv Gandhi to sign the Accord, to claim ownership of efforts to cleanse Assam of “illegal immigrants”. Only on August 3 did Congress leaders in Parliament welcome the NRC. They underscored that the Congress was all for sending back illegal immigrants according to law.
It was only after a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (August 4) that the party categorically stated that the NRC was its “baby”. Congress leaders deny that a delay in calibrating their response was because the party had to balance between the message it would send to Muslim and Hindu voters. It is no secret that while the Congress wants to keep safe its Muslim “vote bank”, it is acutely aware that its seemingly pro-minority tilt could alienate many Hindus. It would like to do nothing that will further alienate it from the majority and has opted for what is now called “soft Hindutva”.
As the next general election draws near the Congress undoubtedly wants to take a stand that fits into this template. That is why the Congress has taken an academic stand stating it is a citizenship issue which calls for distinguishing between illegal “foreigners” and Indian citizens.
Meanwhile the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the political entity born out of the AASU, a BJP ally in the BJP government in Assam, has joined hands with the Congress to protest against the government’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The bill proposes to grant citizenship to those Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants who entered India till December 2014, saying these were refugees who were in a minority in a Muslim-majority country. AGP leader Prafulla Mahanta has threatened to pull out of the state coalition if the bill is passed in Parliament.
The Congress is against the bill as in their view it will kill the Assam Accord. The Modi government appears to have put the bill in cold storage and it is not likely to be tabled in the near future. The proposal has given enough ammunition to opposition parties as well as the AGP to campaign against the BJP’s intent to make religion the basis for deciding on grant of citizenship to Bangladeshi immigrants. Assam – which witnessed massive riots and killings against illegal aliens in 1983 – has recently witnessed protests against the Bill.
The Congress is trying to claim credit for making the right move to send back illegally resident “foreigners” in Assam, but the fact remains that there was negligible forward movement on it either by the AGP government in Assam ( 1985-1990 and 1996-2001) and the Congress led UPA government at the Centre. It was in 1997 that the then Assam Governor, Lt. Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha, wrote to the President of India that there were over 4 million Bangladeshis living in Assam illegally and action should be taken to send them back. It is obvious that the aliens’ issue has been a victim of political football all along. It is expected to become more contentious in the run up to the 2019 elections.
(The author is a leading political commentator. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)