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‘BJP Borrowed Its Entire Plank of Protecting Rights of Indigenous People in Assam Polls From Us’

Supreme Court lawyer and Prabajan Virodhi Manch leader Upamanyu Hazarika says the party will now have to deliver on that count. 

The signature campaign being run by the Prabajan Virodhi Manch. Credit: Special arrangement

New Delhi: Even as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951, is being updated in Assam as per the Assam Accord under the supervision of the Supreme Court, there is a rising demand among the indigenous people of the state to grant them “constitutional safeguards” based on that Accord.

As per clause six of the Accord, signed between the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and the then central and state governments in 1985, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.

Though what constitutes the “Assamese people” has not been spelt out in the Accord, and present AASU leaders haven’t dwelt much on it apart from using the term ‘Khilonjia’, there is presently a signature campaign being run by an organisation called Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) demanding “constitutional safeguards” for the indigenous people. Spearheaded by Upamanyu Hazarika, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, the organisation has demanded that the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government bring in a legislation in this regard.

In an interview to The Wire, Delhi-based Hazarika said the party grabbed power based on the plank of protecting the rights of indigenous people from the Manch. Arguing for it, Hazarika stated that “the process of identifying and deportation of the illegal immigrant from Bangladesh has not yielded results and updating the NRC as per the Accord will not be enough to protect the rights of the local people.”

Excerpts:

You are a senior advocate of the Supreme Court settled in Delhi for many years. What pulled you to the issue in your home state? 

When the community’s identity and survival are threatened, in danger, then everyone comes forward, has to come. The Assam students’ movement and the fight for identity became a part of our blood, for all those who grew up at that time. However, to our deep disappointment, no results came out of a movement in which 855 people were martyred. Today, according to government estimates, the number of infiltrators is around 80 lakhs, 25% of the state’s population, of which less than two-and-a-half thousand have only been pushed back to Bangladesh. The rest threatens to turn the indigenous people into a minority by 2040.

The problem is legal in nature, concerning itself with the legal rights of foreigners, children born of them, indigenous people rights, etc. As a lawyer, I am equipped to comprehend the issues in their entirety and also find a way forward. Moreover, the independence the profession affords also gives me the time to devote to this cause. I feel that my life will be wasted if I failed in my duty to fight for our survival, particularly when I have the capability and the means to do so, being a lawyer.

SC advocate and Prabajan Virodhi Manch leader Upamanyu Hazarika. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.

SC advocate and Prabajan Virodhi Manch leader Upamanyu Hazarika. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.

When was Prabajan Virodhi Manch set up? What is its focus and how many people are involved in it? 

Prabajan Virodhi Manch was set up in mid-2013. Earlier, we carried out our activities from the platform of CONEP (Confederation of Northeast People) in Delhi, which was formed during the 2012 ethnic violence in the Bodo areas of Assam. CONEP comprises over ten organisations representing different communities of the Northeast and our endeavour at that point was to educate the young generation as well as the rest of the country that this was not a strife between different communities, rather between illegal immigrants and the ethnic people.

Seeing those facts and issues, complicated by the long lapse in time in which the number of migrants had grown several fold, I realised that there was a need to acquaint people in Assam with the facts/issues in a simplified manner and what every person as an ordinary citizen can do to safeguard himself and the indigenous people. Prabajan Virodhi Manch was set up for that purpose. As the name signifies, it is a platform dedicated to the sole objective of freeing Assam from the Bangladeshi menace. This cause has been pursued by several organisations with differing views on different aspects. Our endeavour is to get everyone on board, individuals, organisations etc., identifying the objective, generating consensus on it and then pursue it together.

Unlike other organisations who have multiple activities across a spectrum, ours is solely devoted to the Bangladeshi issue and as of today, we are focusing only on the issue of protection for indigenous people, for which there is consensus across the state. Mind you, out of 525 ethnic communities in India, 247 alone are in the Northeast, with 220 distinct languages, of which around 80 will be in Assam alone and each having their own community/organisation/representatives. While experiencing and recognising the illegal Bangladeshi as a threat by all the indigenous communities, there are differing approaches to the issues. However, there is a consensus on one aspect i.e. protection, and it is this agenda which is being pursued and which has complete acceptance amongst the indigenous people.

Our focus is on democratising the issue, place the facts in terms of demographic changes, implications for the future, the legalities involved, demystifying and deconstructing them so that every individual is empowered and enabled to understand the issue in its entirety and then tell their leaders what needs to be done. For this purpose, we have made a short documentary, Assam, The Silent Genocide, to explain the issue with data and uploaded it to YouTube. We have come up with a theme song too. We have to do all of this because successive generations of leaders have failed us on the issue, used it to build careers and fortunes which is conveniently discarded once they join a political party, as the migrants comprise a large vote bank.

We have units in most of the districts. We have persons drawn from all quarters of life – political parties, organisations both local and state level, etc. There are at least a couple of 100 people actively working in every district. Those who want to connect with the issue can give us a missed call to a mobile number. The number of supporters is growing by the day and the entire indigenous people are one with us on this issue.

The Manch has been conducting a signature campaign across Assam demanding xurakha kobos (constitutional safeguards) for the indigenous people of the state. What entails it and why do you think it has become necessary? The government has been working on sealing the border with Bangladesh to stop undocumented migration. The NRC is also being updated to sieve genuine citizens from foreigners. Are they not enough to protect the rights of the indigenous people? 

The mass signature campaign seeks protective legislation for the indigenous people of Assam, which is reservation of resources, land, government employment, educational reservation, trade licence, etc. as is prevalent in other northeastern states for the local indigenous population. This reservation is for those who were citizens of India and residents of Assam in 1951 and for their progeny. While in the neighbouring states, the reservation is on the basis of ethnic identity as the large mass of the population is the indigenous ethnic community, in Assam, there is a large mass of non-indigenous people from other parts of India and there is an issue as to who constitutes indigenous.

Our primary objective is to dis-incentivise the Bangladeshi migrant from coming into Assam, legally and illegally, and get equal access resources, at par with locals. We have adopted the benchmark of citizenship i.e. those included and present at the time of documenting the 1951 National Register of Citizenship. This is because by virtue of the Assam Accord, migrants from Bangladesh entering Assam prior to March 25, 1971, were granted citizenship whereas in the rest of India, including the neighbouring northeastern states, the cut-off date is July 19, 1948. This has caused more immigrants to come into Assam because all they need to do is to procure documents prior to March 25, 1971, to get Indian citizenship and benefits, when in the case of other neighbouring states, they have to show proof of residence prior to July 19, 1948. To compensate the indigenous people of Assam for taking the burden of illegal migrants for an additional 23 years, it is only fair that such immigrants should not exercise rights over resources equivalent to that of local citizens. Furthermore, immigrants have come after 1971, necessitating the updating of NRC under the Supreme Court’s directions and monitoring.

This kind of protective legislation is important because the process of identification and deportation has not yielded results, as I pointed out earlier. Updating of the NRC will also not save the indigenous from becoming a minority. Firstly, there are reports of fake documents/subversion and at this stage, we are not sure as to how many foreigners will successfully pass through the NRC sieve.

Secondly, there are two important policy issues still indeterminate, namely whether the cut-off year for determination of citizenship to be granted to migrants from Bangladesh to Assam should be 1951 or 1971 – as granted under the Assam Accord – and also whether children born to people declared foreigners under the Citizenship Act will be entitled to citizenship by birth if they were born on or before December 3, 2004. (As per Section 3 of the Citizenship Act, a person born in India on or after July 1, 1987, but before December 3, 2004, is considered a citizen of India by birth if either of his parents is a citizen of India at the time of his birth.)

These two issues are yet to be decided by the Supreme Court through a constitution bench of five judges. Furthermore, exclusion from NRC does not ipso facto make such a person a foreigner under the Citizenship Act. There is a further requirement under the Citizenship Act that such an excluded person’s citizenship status be further adjudicated by a tribunal.

This entire process is, therefore, mired in legalities and all of which actually benefits the foreigner. Time is his friend, he gets to establish himself further by increasing numbers and have a greater political voice. Correspondingly, time is our enemy.

It is, therefore, imperative, that immediate measures be taken to safeguard our identity. Protective legislation by the Assam state assembly in terms of reservation of resources on a 1951 citizenship basis will go a long way in protecting our identity.

Sealing the border in the Assam segment of the India-Bangladesh border will not be of much help as it is 272 kms of a 4,000-km long border which is porous in large parts. They can easily gain entry through a neighbouring state and come to Assam, which is happening. I put this fact in my report to the Supreme Court as well.

A protest march organised by Prabajan Virodhi Manch in Mangoldoi area of Assam. Credit: Special arrangement

A protest march organised by Prabajan Virodhi Manch in Mangoldoi area of Assam. Credit: Special arrangement

Are you hopeful of the ruling BJP delivering this demand? Have you consulted it with the party and its government in the state?

I am hopeful. This is something which is within the domain of the state government and the state leadership and it is part of their election promise. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP won seven out of 14 seats in Assam only on one statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that after May 16, Bangladeshis will have to pack their bags. The 2016 assembly elections were won on the promise of protecting the identity of the indigenous people, and let me tell you that the BJP borrowed their entire plank from us, not that we mind it, but it has to be executed.

Between October 2015 and March 2016, we had organised a signature campaign across 12 assembly constituencies in the different part of Assam on five issues, four of which were related to the identification of the Bangladeshi immigrant, the fifth one being protective legislation for indigenous people. It was also to demonstrate to a political party that the indigenous people can also be a vote bank and without us, no government can be formed as we are not yet a minority. The BJP adopted this plank in the run-up to the elections and won resoundingly. At that time, the BJP leaders seemed quite pleased with this campaign. It is only afterwards that the problem has arisen because they completely reneged on the promises and have done nothing yet. However, their political base is the indigenous vote, it is for this reason that we have mounted our state-wide signature campaign across most of the constituencies and we want to prove to the state BJP leaders that they were elected by the people only to protect them from the Bangladeshi menace and cannot do a volte-face. Our signature campaign is constituency specific and is generating numbers in terms of signatures in every constituency, the language which every politician understands.

We understand that once we cross three lakhs signature, this will be a credible number to catch the attention of the prime minister, because given the conduct of the state leadership, there is very little we can expect from them.

It is a very strange phenomenon in Assam, all political leaders across different parties pander to the illegal migrant vote, concerned with winning the immediate election, with no thought to the future consequences and it has very little to do with Congress or BJP. When there were Congress governments in the Centre and in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the Congress government in Arunachal would drive away the Bangladeshis and they would be embraced by the Congress government in Assam. Similarly, now with three BJP governments in the two states and the Centre, the Arunachal BJP does not accept the Chakmas in spite of a Supreme Court directive, whereas the state BJP would embrace the Hindu Bangladeshis and also the Chakmas if required. The rest of the northeastern states don’t have the Bangladeshi menace only because their leaders have kept the interests of the community as their foremost duty, whereas for our leaders it is their own personal petty political gain in the short term.

There is a related issue of incompetence too. The entire BJP leadership, including the chief minister, are drawn from the ranks of erstwhile student leaders; they have not developed any professional skill set or earned a living full time and correspondingly are ill-equipped either to understand issues or deal with them. Mind you, their present volte-face has also cost them politically in terms of public support; they do not seem to comprehend what is good for the state, and correspondingly good for them politically. Left to themselves, these leaders will do anything to please the Bangladeshis.

For instance, the present state government’s stand on two crucial issues pending determination before the constitution bench of the Supreme Court – whether the cut-off date for determination of the citizenship should be 1951 or 1971 and grant of citizenship by birth to children of illegal migrants born in Assam up to December 3, 2004 – is in favour of the migrants and against the interests of the indigenous people.

Coming back to the main issue about a bunch of petitions being heard by the SC on the issue of undocumented migrants in the state, you were made an observer in the case. What is basically your role now?

I was appointed as a Court Commissioner to undertake and report on the state of the border and infrastructure in the Assam segment of the India-Bangladesh border. I submitted four reports between June and November 2015, made various recommendations and completed my task. I have no role now in that matter.

In 2015, SC asked you to submit a report about all the issues related to the undocumented immigration issue. Can you share some of your key findings with the readers?

The key findings firstly relate to the state of the border and infrastructure. I gave my findings on fencing, floodlights, roads, riverine areas, etc. There are related issues of cattle smuggling, on which I recommended that the existing rules should be amended. The startling revelation, which comes across from various officials and the Border Security Force is that infiltration continues unabated and there is very little being done. The process has been fine-tuned to the extent that a person in Bangladesh can acquire a voter identification card in India so that he has instant official documents even prior to coming in. This was told to me by an SP in a border district.

I had also received several representations from different organisations representing local populations, severely impacted by illegal immigrants encroaching on their common areas and driving them away. In the context of these facts, I had made two significant recommendations, firstly that a comprehensive, independent enquiry be made into all the nexuses that enable infiltrators, particularly those of complicit officials and departments, which enable identity proof and, therefore, also enable establishing and settling such immigrants in forest areas, grazing reserves, etc. It is only after such nexuses are identified that effective steps can be taken.

Secondly, after examining the land legislation in neighbouring states, I had also proposed that land be reserved on 1951 citizenship and residence basis in Assam, as the illegal migrant comes to Assam in quest of land. The population density of Bangladesh is around 1,200 per sq km, Assam is 397 per sq km and therein lies the reason.

You also submitted a list of recommendations to the SC then which thereafter directed both the central and state governments to respond to the recommendations. Has any of them been implemented? 

Though the courts had asked the government to respond to these recommendations, they artfully dodged the issue. The court, in fact, accepted my reports in November 2015. The court’s focus was on the border and they have, on the basis of my report, issued several directives and further committees have been constituted too to act on the recommendations on the findings relating to the border.

The Modi government and the ruling BJP is for granting Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis, which has been opposed by other Jatiotabadi organisations like the AJYCP, AASU, Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha, etc. Where does your organisation stand on the issue?

We oppose the thrusting of Hindu Bangladeshis upon Assam as by taking on the burden of illegal immigrants we have turned into a minority. We have filed a 17-page response to the select committee of parliament on this issue opposing it. The more significant issue is the grant of citizenship by birth to children born of illegal migrants until December 3, 2004, as prescribed under the Citizenship Act. This means that even though a person may be declared a foreigner after March 25, 1971, but children born on the soil of Assam/India will get the citizenship by birth. We have sought the intervention of the select committee in rectifying the situation, it has also been pending adjudication before the Supreme Court. This has huge consequences because according to the UPA government’s response in parliament on July 14, 2004, there were 50 lakhs infiltrators in Assam as of 2001. Imagine the number of children they will have parented.

You have raised an important issue, which is that the policy of the central government on migration in Northeast is geared around protecting a particular section of the migrants, it being religious minority in neighbouring countries. The focus has to be on protecting the local indigenous community which is facing the brunt of state migration i.e. protecting the indigenous community and politically it makes sense to adopt such policy because the bulk of the votes are with the local indigenous population. The Hindu Bangladeshi issue has created a severe backlash in Assam. People are incensed that rather than freeing Assam from the Bangladeshi menace, more are being thrust upon them and there is no policy, no statement as to how the indigenous community will be protected and this is what is worrying. We have no issues with refuge being granted to persecuted ones from neighbouring countries, as long as they are not thrust upon Assam.