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Assam: The Citizenship Soup

Posted on August 14, 2008



Northeastern India’s largest state Assam is once again in a citizenship soup. If continued illegal migration from Bangladesh threatens to reduce the indigenous people of Assam to a minority in their own land, the politics over the issue threatens to communally polarize the State of 26 million people. Either way, it is not a comfortable situation. If student organizations of different hues—the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU)—have taken to the streets to voice their respective stands on the issue, political parties have upped their ante on the matter ahead of the coming Lok Sabha elections. The politics of citizenship, after all, has the potential to make a party win or lose an election in Assam.

On August 4, 2008 authorities in Assam managed to lay their hands on Mohammed Kamruddin alias Kamaluddin, believed to be a non-Indian who had illegally migrated to the State, and pushed him back to Bangladesh under the cover of darkness. The push back operation was carried out by the Border Security Force (BSF) through the border along village Maishashan in Karimganj district. This was after the Assam Police arrested this man from the central Nagaon district and decided to expel him out of the country. This 52-year-old father of six used to live at village Moirajhar in Nagaon district and had contested the State Assembly elections in 1996 from Jamunamukh constituency. The case against him is that he holds a Pakistani passport and had entered Assam illegally through Bangladesh. So it is difficult, at least for me, to say conclusively whether Kamruddin alias Kamaluddin is of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. He was apparently deported twice earlier but returned to his wife Dilwara Begum, a woman from near Lanka in Nagaon district.

The spotlight fell on this man after the July 23, 2008 ruling of the Gauhati High Court on a case relating to illegal migration. The Court rightly asked as to how a man who possessed a Pakistani passport could contest elections in the State. The haste with which the police acted could be understood—the observation made by none other than the High Court. The matter is not that simple. It is not as if the authorities acted as soon as the Court observations were made and ousted the man from Indian soil, and, therefore, deserved to take rest after a job well done. Several questions arises: if the man in question is an illegal migrant, how could he obtain or manage all the necessary documents and went to the extent of satisfying the Election Commission before he was allowed to join the electoral race in 1996?

I am aware of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi calling for a probe to fix responsibility on officers who verified the man’s antecedents and issued certificates to him, concluding or declaring that he was a bonafide national. Actually, to my mind, the Election Commission officials too need to come under the scanner for this. But, wait a minute. Media reports have said that apart from his wife and six children back in Moirajhar, the man has a few siblings around that place. So the question arises as to whether they are not illegal migrants too? If so, why similar action has not been initiated against them? It is precisely for these reasons I have said that the matter is not so simple. It need not be seen as a case of an efficient administration meting out instant justice.

I don’t quite like to make any distinction between the main opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) or the ruling Congress in so far as their failure or indifference to the problem of illegal migration in Assam. I don’t feel it necessary to assess the BJP’s role on this issue in Assam as the party just makes noises on issues like this on and off. Take the case of the AGP, supposed to be the flag-bearer of regionalism in the State and a party that came to power in 1985 with the promise of ridding Assam of illegal Bangladeshi migrants: statistics now disclosed by the authorities show that between 1985 and 2005, a span of 20 years, a total of 12,846 persons were declared as foreigners by the tribunals under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act. Of these, only 1,547 were deported. And don’t make any mistake: the AGP was in power in 10 of these 20 years. And what happened after the IMDT Act was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2005? Well, between July 2005 and March 2008, a total of 1,205 persons were declared as foreigners. Only one of them has been deported during the period! And, on this occasion, the Congress has been in power in Assam.

In recent weeks, propelled by the High Court’s observations on the influx issue, most organizations have started to speak out on the subject. The AASU has gone to the extent of appealing to the people of Assam not to engage illegal migrants for commercial or domestic work. But, the AASU would do well to try and inculcate the work culture among the indigenous people. Unless the indigenous people come forward to do certain types of menial work, the void will continue to be filled by migrants. That, of course, is another story. As of now, the politics of citizenship is bound to keep politicians and some of the ageing student leaders busy.

Pro-minority parties like the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) has cautioned that detecting illegal migrants if okay but harassing genuine citizens in the process cannot be accepted. Already, around 18 people declared as illegal migrants have challenged the verdict in court, lending a new twist to the issue. This has always been the story and this time is no different. The ruling Congress is perhaps taken aback at the manner in which certain anti-migration groups have taken it upon itself to detect suspected illegal migrants. This has forced Chief Minister Gogoi to meet with MLAs and ministers belonging to the minority community. The message that has now come out from the ruling Congress camp is this—illegal migrants must go but genuine citizens belonging to the minority community will be protected at all cost. So, the politics over the issue is bound to continue because detection of illegal aliens is so very difficult.