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No welcome for them in Assam

Saturday 28 May 2005, by TALUKDAR*Sushanta

The influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants has again taken centre stage.

THE ISSUE of the influx of "illegal" Bangladeshi migrants into Assam is back in focus. Recently, a campaign for an economic boycott of the migrants by a youth organisation triggered an exodus of religious minority people from Dibrugarh town.

With less than a year left for the State Assembly elections, the various political parties have also entered the scene. The ruling Congress and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are engaged in a tug-of-war. The religious minorities are considered a traditional vote bank of the Congress, and the BJP has been trying to woo Hindu voters saying the "illegal" migrants should be driven out.

The Congress has dubbed the campaign by the Chiring Chapori Yuva Mancha for an economic boycott of illegal Bangladeshi migrants a game plan of the BJP and the RSS. However, the fact that the Congress was initially silent and rushed in only after reports of exodus of migrant workers belonging to the religious minority community from Dibrugarh town has raised questions.

The Mancha distributed leaflets urging the public not to employ illegal Bangladeshi migrants, not to travel in vehicles plied by them, not to have any business transaction with them, and not to provide shelter or rented accommodation. A simultaneous SMS campaign was also run. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is on record that those who have left Dibrugarh were not Bangladeshis but Indian citizens who had gone there in search of a livelihood. He, however, said his Government was committed to detecting and deporting illegal migrants from Assam.

The BJP, on the other hand, has backed the Mancha campaign and accused the Congress of trying to protect "illegal" Bangladeshi migrants. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have set June 7 as the deadline for illegal migrants to quit Assam.

The Asom Gana Parishad reacted cautiously. It expressed reservations about anyone taking the law into their own hands but blamed the Congress Government for the exodus of genuine Indian citizens belonging to religious minorities from Dibrugarh. This guarded response is being seen as part of the AGP plan to make inroads among the minorities in a traditional Congress stronghold.

Meanwhile, other non-Congress and non-BJP parties have come together at the initiative of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s State unit. They have expressed concern over the harassment of the religious minorities and the attempts to revive the anti-foreigners’ agitation in Assam under the garb of a campaign against illegal Bangaldeshi migrants. The parties include the Nationalist Congress Party, the Republican Socialist Party, the United Minorities Front (UMF), the Janata Dal (Secular), the CPI (ML), the Samajwadi Party, and the SUCI. The AGP and the CPI kept out of this platform, whose constituents may not matter much in terms of individual electoral strength but are a force combined. Indications are the State is likely to witness a realignment of forces before the Assembly elections due in May 2006.In a way, the current agitation is a continuation of the six-year anti-foreigners’ agitation spearheaded by the All-Assam Students’ Union in the early 1980s. That agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord by the AASU with the Centre and the State Government in 1985. But the issue of detection and deportation of illegal migrants remained unsolved. Infiltration continued unabated through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border even 20 years after the signing of the accord.

Identification and deportation of illegal migrants is the task of the Central and State Governments. The present economic boycott call can result in discrimination against those who have every right to be in the State.

There is no way illegal migrants can be distinguished based on physical appearance from those who entered Assam prior to March 25, 1971 (the cut off date in the Assam Accord). There has also been intra-State migration of pre-1971 settlers in search of livelihood due to acute agro crisis and loss of their habitats as well as cultivable land (large sandbars in the heart of the Brahmaputra known as Chars) caused by annual floods and erosion. This makes it difficult for local people to distinguish a genuine Indian citizen from an illegal migrant. In such a situation there is every possibility of pre-1971 immigrant settlers being wrongly suspected of being an illegal migrants when the locals belonging to the majority Assamese speaking population decide to respond to an appeal for an economic boycott of illegal migrants, out of their genuine fear of being marginalised. A tripartite meeting among the AASU, the Centre and the Assam Government on May 5 this year agreed on certain-time bound steps. These include updating the National Register of Citizens by including the names of all those who entered the State before the cut-off date of March 25, 1971 and issuing photo identity cards. All political parties and groups in the State have backed this decision.

The UMF, a political grouping of religious minorities, which was a staunch opponent of the Assam Accord, has also supported the move to update the NRC and issue photo identity cards. The fact that a time frame of two years has been fixed for updating the NRC is most likely to dominate Assam’s political scenario till the State actually gets an updated register.

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