32 Years After Assam Accord, State to Raise ‘Illegal Immigration’ Issue With Bangladesh Via Centre

Despite the Supreme Court’s directive to enter into “necessary discussions” with Bangladesh to streamline the process of deportation of the undocumented immigrants living in Assam, the Modi government is yet to do so.

Assam finance minister Himanata Biswa Sarma addressing India Bangaldesh Friendship Dialogue in Guwahti on July 4. Credit: Twitter/@himantabiswa

Assam finance minister Himanata Biswa Sarma addressing India Bangaldesh Friendship Dialogue in Guwahti on July 4. Credit: Twitter/@himantabiswa

New Delhi: Thirty-two years after the Assam Accord was signed by the All Assam Students Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Satra Parishad, and the central and state governments to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify and deport “all foreigners” from the state, the Sarbananda Sonowal government has given a public statement on the issue.

State finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters in Guwahati on July 4 that the state government plans to raise the matter of deportation of such people with Bangladesh through the central government.

Though Sarma’s statement is learnt to have come as a response to a media query, it is significant considering this is the first time any government in Assam has publicly stated that it would raise the sensitive issue with the neighbouring country to sort it out “permanently” since the accord was signed in New Delhi in 1985.

Widespread demand from the indigenous population of the state to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh led to six years of agitation and turmoil in the state in 1979, claiming as many as 855 lives, and giving rise to anti-immigrant riots like the Nellie massacre.

According to the accord, anyone who entered the state without documents after March 24, 1971 will be declared a foreigner. Although the successive state governments were to monitor the identification and deportation process with the help of the central government machinery, not much has been achieved.

While campaigning for the 2014 parliamentary elections in West Bengal, BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had promised to “send these Bangladeshis beyond the border bag and baggage,” raising hope among the Assamese for a solution to the problem. However, since coming to power, the Modi government has not raised the issue at the bilateral level.

Although the BJP came to power in Assam last year riding on the same promise of freeing the state of “illegal infiltration” and thereby protecting “jati, mati, bheti” – protecting of the indigenous communities, their land and other rights – it has lately met with some criticism and doubt since the central government has continuously kept the issue out of the discussions at the bilateral level, both during Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2015 and during the visit of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in March.

However, on July 4, speaking after a seminar organised in Guwahati by India Foundation as part of its India-Bangladesh Friendship Dialogue initiative, Sarma said, “The Assam government would move the central government to take up the issue of illegal immigrants with Bangladesh after the NRC is updated.”

Bangaldesh India Freindship Dialogue in progress at Guwahati. Credit: Twitter/@rammadhavbjp

Bangaldesh India Freindship Dialogue in progress at Guwahati. Credit: Twitter/@rammadhavbjp

Presently, the NRC is being updated as per a Supreme Court directive given on December 17, 2014. The apex court order also asked the Assam government to set up as many as 100 foreigners’ tribunal to review about 40,000 cases of people suspected by the state border police of being “illegal Bangladeshi” and kept in detention.

Many such people, comprising both Bengali speaking Muslims and Hindus of Bangladesh origin, and referred to as D or doubtful voters by the election commission (and therefore disenfranchised), have been kept in detention camps by the state government as per a Gauhati high court order. While some of them are facing the legal procedures at the tribunals to prove their Indian citizenship with the required documents and thereby be let out of the camps, some others are there awaiting deportation to their “country of origin” after being declared foreigners by the tribunals.

In its 2014 directive, the Supreme Court also asked the “Union of India to enter into necessary discussions with the government of Bangladesh to streamline the process of deportation”.

However, the central government has not been able to take the discussion forward as Bangladesh has officially denied such people as their citizens.

At the Guwahati seminar, on being asked by a participant about his country’s position on the issue that has otherwise been rocking Assam and its politics for so many decades, Bangladeshi foreign affairs minister Shahriar Alam is learnt to have also taken the same position.

However, the issue was raised by a local senior journalist at the same platform a day later (on July 4), seemingly pushing Sarma to incorporate a response in his address at the concluding session. “I would be failing in my duty if I don’t raise our concern over large scale illegal infiltration into Assam from Bangladesh,” Sarma said.

Later, on being questioned by reporters, Sarma responded, “This issue will be put to rest with updating of the NRC. By the end of this year, the draft NRC will be ready and we would come to know about the exact magnitude of the problem. Then we will move Bangladesh to resolve this issue permanently.”

Speaking to The Wire, Mrinal Talukdar, the senior journalist and writer who raised the issue at the seminar on July 4, said, “Good that I did it, which prompted minister Sarma to respond. At least now we know what the Assam government wants to do about the issue which has otherwise been the most politically and socially sensitive matter. Elections are fought on the issue but it is never raised with Bangladesh. However, it also highlights that such a public stand of the state government came after five chief ministers have changed, seven prime ministers and 32 years of Assam Accord.”

Interestingly, in November 2016, Sarma had asked the people of Assam “to choose your enemy,” thus differentiating between people of Bangladeshi origin as per their religion. His reference to the “illegal infiltration” issue at the seminar, though, didn’t elaborate whether his “concern” was only about the Muslims of Bangladeshi origin.

The BJP government at the Centre has tabled the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in parliament to give Indian nationality to Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Hindus living in other countries and facing religious persecution, including those from Bangladesh. The Modi government’s action led to a huge uproar in the state as it would be in violation of the Assam Accord. Presently, the Bill is in cold storage.

On July 4, at the closing session of the seminar, the participants, which included India Foundation head and BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, adopted a “Guwahati Declaration,” which suggested preparing a vision document and research report titled ‘Northeast India and Bangladesh: Borders as Prosperity Zones’ besides organising an India-Bangladesh business summit.

The issue of finding a permanent solution to the vexed “Bangladeshi problem” of Assam through dialogue with that country was, as usual, kept out of it.

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    Even after so many years, the problem of ‘ illegal immigrants ‘ in Assam continues to burn. Government’s over the years, have used the problem to gain votes by inciting hatred. The present government has most successfully gained votes by inciting anti – Muslim sentiment. Despite SC directive, there is no sign of bilateral talks. Thus there may be a deliberate attempt to delay talks as the party may not want to ‘ settle ‘ the problem and loose a ‘burning ‘ topic that may have a chance of garnering votes in next elections