‘We Will Demand Full Implementation of Assam Accord From Any Party That Wins’

AASU President Dipanka Kumar Nath discusses the group’s commitment to the Assam Accord and the expectations from the party that wins the upcoming state assembly polls.

Dipanka Kumar Nath. Credit: by special arrangement

Dipanka Kumar Nath. Credit: by special arrangement

For the past six months, the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the state’s powerful student body, has been spearheading an agitation against the Centre’s September 2015 decision to exempt – on humanitarian grounds – those persons who entered India on or before December 31, 2014 from the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946.

On February 29, AASU filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Centre’s notification, reiterating its position on the implementation of the Assam Accord, according to which any person who entered the state after March 25, 1971, will have to be deported to Bangladesh. Signed between the Centre, AASU and the Assam Jatiyotabadi Yuva Chatra Prasad in 1985, the Accord put a lid on the six-year-long Assam Movement against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh residing in the state.

Barely a fortnight later, however, AASU withdrew the petition, which led some to speculate pf a possible softening stand towards the BJP, which had announced Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal – a former AASU president – as its chief ministerial candidate in the poll-bound state.

But AASU President Dipanka Kumar Nath disagreed with the conjecture. “We will never compromise on the clauses of Assam Accord,” he said.

In an interview with The Wire, Nath discusses AASU’s withdrawal of the petition, the group’s commitment to the Assam Accord and the expectations from the party that wins the upcoming state assembly polls.

Why did AASU withdraw from the writ petition that challenged the Centre’s notifications allowing non-Muslims who migrated from Bangladesh to stay in India without valid documents?

The withdrawal of the petition is because of a technicality. After the Centre’s notification, some prominent persons from the State filed a joint petition in the Supreme Court challenging it. The case has been referred to a constitutional bench.

So, this past March 11, when our lawyer appealed to the court to admit our writ petition against the same notification, it refused to allow a separate petition as it deals with the same issue that has been already referred to a constitution bench. The court asked us to be the intervener in the existing case, else it would dismiss our petition. So we decided to intervene in the existing case before the constitutional bench instead of losing an opportunity to put across our points to the honourable court.

AASU also filed a petition in 2014 in the Supreme Court on whether the children of illegal immigrants can become citizens of India. What is its status?

It is a constitutional issue. When B.R. Ambedkar wrote the Constitution, he never thought a question would arise on the issue, whether the children of immigrants declared illegal under the Constitution Act, 1955, will become an Indian citizen. We filed the petition following the then Centre’s December 5, 2013, notification to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam, as per the Accord. Quite a few petitions were filed in the SC following that 2013 notification on a number of issues related to the NRC update.

In December 2014, a division bench, which has been hearing a case on the NRC update, took note of these petitions, which deal with Clause 6A of the Citizenship Act and referred them to a constitution bench.

Dipanka Kumar Nath (middle) and AASU General Secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi interacting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Credit: by special arrangement

Dipanka Kumar Nath (middle) and AASU General Secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi interacting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Credit: by special arrangement

(Clause 6A of the Citizenship Act, inserted into the principal Act vide the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1985, deals with the special provisions related to citizenship of persons under the Assam Accord.)

How closely are you monitoring the ongoing NRC update in the state?

We are monitoring it very closely. Recently, there have been attempts by the state government to transfer officials handling the update keeping the assembly elections in mind. We have stopped those attempts. We have asked the officials to inform us if such attempts are made in the future.

Although the update will not be completed before the assembly elections and many D-voters will be able to vote this time, we want the NRC to be updated as per the Accord for future use.

(The Supreme Court is monitoring the NRC update in Assam. Earlier this year, the NRC coordinator for the state, Prateek Hajela, told the Court that he would try to complete the draft of the updated NRC by March 31.

The Court has also said that doubtful voters (D-voters) can cast their votes in the upcoming assembly polls if they can prove their citizenship before the election officers. D-voters are disenfranchised by the government for not being able to provide proper citizenship credentials to the special tribunals under the Foreigners’ Act and are kept in detention camps.)

The BJP has fielded Sonowal, a former AASU president, as its chief ministerial candidate in the upcoming elections. Will AASU support him?

Sarba-da is a former AASU leader and we have a lot of regard for him. However, with the BJP’s announcement of its position on Hindu Bangladeshis, the party and its representatives have come in direct conflict with AASU. We will support his candidature if he supports our issues.

As AASU president, Sonowal had filed a writ petition against the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act in the Supreme Court. Is AASU disappointed that he is now representing a party that took the decision on granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis?

Striking down the IMDT Act in a 2006 judgment in that case by Sonowal against the Union of India, the Supreme Court directed the then central government to set up tribunals for the determination of illegal migrants and for their deportation within four months’ time, a significant directive. It is another thing that the process is taking years to complete. What  I mean to say here is that, be it Sonowal or others, whoever has held the position of AASU presidentship has never compromised on the issue of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants. I too shall not do it. Since the notification came last September, AASU has been reiterating its position on the issue. We have been staging street protests and processions all over the state. We have got a lot of public support. Because of the ongoing higher secondary exams in the state, we, as a student body, has decided to give it a break. Also, we are a bit busy now readying papers as an intervener in the case challenging the central notification (on Hindu Bangladeshis). We will resume our agitation very soon.

Our position is clear, if the BJP-led government at the Centre gives Indian citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis, it will have to settle them outside Assam. While any person coming after 1950 is declared a foreigner in the rest of the country, Assam has agreed to take in those who came till March 1971. So it is now for the other states to offer space to those who came to the country after the cut-off date as per the Assam Accord.

What will be your demand to the winning party in the coming elections?

As always, full implementation of the Assam Accord will be our demand to any party that forms the next government in the state. For the last 30 years, we have waited for its implementation, we can’t wait anymore. Just a few days ago, speaking to the press (in an interview to The Assam Tribune), AASU advisor Sammujjal Bhattacharjee urged all political parties contesting the assembly elections to clarify their stand on the demand for constitutional safeguard for the indigenous people of the state. Political parties make many promises during the elections. We want them to declare their roadmap for the development of Assam, including steps they would take to deal with the problem of infiltration of foreigners into the state if voted to power, and also declare a timeframe for when they will implement all the clauses of the Accord.

Also, as before, AASU reiterates its demand to the Centre to completely seal the Indo-Bangladesh border as soon as possible. We ask, why is only the Indo-Pak and Indo-China border important for the Centre? I repeat what Bhattacharjee asked the Centre in 2014: is India’s integrity not affected by the 268-km porous border with Bangladesh?