Assam Using a 'Bulldozing Approach' to Handle 'Illegal Immigrants'

A conversation with the minorities commission member Farida Abdullah Khan about Assam's handling of 'illegal immigrants', the multi-sectoral development programme and eviction-related violence in Kaziranga.

A conversation with minorities commission member Farida Abdullah Khan about Assam’s handling of ‘illegal immigrants’, the multi-sectoral development programme and eviction-related violence in Kaziranga.

Farida Abdullah Khan at her office in New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Baruah

Farida Abdulla Khan at her office in New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Baruah

New Delhi: The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has recommended to the Assam government that “the issue of identifying illegal immigrants be carefully reviewed so as not to target helpless and disenfranchised sections of [the] Muslim population”.

In a report put together by NCM member Farida Abdulla Khan after a four-day visit to the state, the commission said, “At present, it seems that large numbers of Bengali speaking people have been picked up and put in detention centres without adequate investigation or notice”.

“This is creating extreme uncertainty and anxiety among large sections of the labouring poor.”

Khan’s report also recommended that the state government give “some form of police protection” to those affected by ethnic violence in Baksa district in 2014 as many people have still not been able to return to their village.

“It is a sad commentary that more than two years, after the violence, there is no enquiry and its follow up,” the report said.

In a separate move on September 20, the commission also sought a report from the state government on the recent killing of two persons in the state. They were allegedly killed in a police firing during an eviction drive carried out in Bandardubi village near the Kaziranga national park as per a Gauhati high court order.

After Khan’s visit to three districts of Assam – Baksa, Kokrajhar and Kamrup – the commission also urged the Centre to review the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme (MSDP) keeping local needs in mind. “It seems that some of the schemes that were appropriate earlier have become redundant due to investments through [the] SSA (Sarva Siksha Abhiyan) programme,” it said.

In an interview to The Wire, Khan talked in detail about her visit to the state from September 7-10 this year. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity:

Villagers participating in a funeral procession for the two people killed in Kaziranga. Credit: PTI

Villagers participating in a funeral procession for the two people killed in Kaziranga. Credit: PTI

The recent killing of two Muslim persons because of police firing during an eviction drive near the Kaziranga national park has hit the headlines. The commission has reportedly sought a report on the incident from the state government.

Yes, on receiving phone calls about the events in Kaziranaga, the NCM chairperson talked to the chief secretary in Assam, asking him to order restraint and also to send us a report on the happenings. Subsequently and on receiving more detailed reports from Assam and the information from media coverage, I have sent a letter to the state’s chief minister seeking an explanation of the government’s action and the reports of its communal nature.

You recently visited three districts of Assam to review the MSDP and other governmental schemes set up for the welfare of minorities. What is your assessment of the ground reality?

Like most large scale government schemes in the social sectors, MSDP and other minority schemes are mired in procedural delays and roadblocks. There is not enough sensitivity to local needs and conditions, and the norms [that] are common across this vast country. There are flaws in implementation and often the schemes work if the administration, particularly the local district magistrate, is committed to the programmes.

One major problem is that these large centrally-controlled schemes are expected to be managed and executed without appropriate deployment of personnel for overseeing the schemes at the district level. This puts pressure on the local administration and often the schemes languish or are inordinately delayed.

The system of making funds available is a source of frustration for the local level executors and this is a complaint I have received from across several states. The conditions for release of funds at every stage make for inordinate delays, which leads to a spiral of rising costs, further delays and more administrative time and effort needed for compiling paperwork for justification of rising costs etc. For example, the 11th plan funds were to be received in two instalments and the second instalment of that allotment had just been released to some districts. One of them is Assam’s Kokrajhar district. As a result of these delays, 23 dwelling units under the housing scheme of Indira Awas Yojana have been lying partially built for the last three years and will now be completed. This is housing meant for the poor and homeless.

There is also a problem of co-ordination between different schemes and projects, and co-operation between departments and different ministries that administer them. For example, a hostel built under MSDP will be run thereafter largely by the state education department but there is no mechanism to have the two departments planning together or taking inputs from each other to make the process a more useful one. Making ITIs available in minority dominated districts is a much needed scheme but the MSDP constructs the infrastructure and stops there – where resources and the longer term recurrent expenditures are then taken up by other departments and the minority character of these institutions can be totally lost. There is no mechanism for assuring even a minimum reservation in admissions for minority students.

All such programmes and schemes need serious assessment and evaluation. The objective should be to assess their effectiveness in serving the target populations and to streamline their functioning accordingly.

You have made certain recommendations to the Centre after the visit, one of which is making arrangements for the needy to access these funds better.

The programmes need to be reviewed [not just] in terms of their own procedures of implementation but also in terms of the changing needs and demands of the minority communities. There has been a complaint from the communities that the most deserving are not able to avail of the programmes because of their very marginalisation. Often, they are not aware of the schemes or they have serious problems and constraints in accessing them, whether it is by way of approaching the right offices, the access to computers where the scholarship forms are available or simply having the luxury of taking time to go through the processes. There are no support systems (that some states like Kerala have put in place) along with the schemes to help the most deprived to access them.

During your Assam visit, you also met members of civil society groups working for minorities there. Your report said they raised concerns about the functioning of the foreigners’ tribunals (set up as per a Supreme Court order) and the process of identifying ‘illegal immigrants’.

Yes, I met civil society groups in Kokrajhar and Guwahati and also spoke to some academics and researchers there. The reports about the drive to identify ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘doubtful voters’ is extremely disturbing.

I was told that the drive to identify ‘foreigners’ has been intensified and presently, there are a 100 foreigners’ tribunals in the state and this is aimed primarily at Bengali speaking Muslims. I am aware that the issue of Bangladeshi nationals has haunted the state but the whole issue of who is termed Bangladeshi is a fraught one and establishing domicile for the landless labour and migrating poor can hardly be simple and straightforward. So instead of treading cautiously, there seems to be a bulldozing approach, which most people who talked to me, seem to think is being carried forward with urgency by the present government. Although it targets Hindus as well, it is very clearly seen as a drive aimed against Muslims and one that is creating more communal tensions.

There is a move from identifying people as ‘doubtful voters’ to ‘foreigners’. The procedures employed for this exercise seem highly suspect and the bulk of this population are the poor and dispossessed, families are served exparte notices and declared ‘illegal immigrants’ and rendered stateless.

One would remember the statements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his pre-election speeches, at Silchar in Assam when he announced that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh must be accommodated and in Serampore in West Bengal where he announced that Bangladeshis will be deported when he comes to power. From my dealings with minorities living in Assam and West Bengal (these are [the] states assigned to me at the NCM), those statements have left a deep impression in them. Those statements have been mentioned to me by many different groups and not just minorities in Assam. Now that the party is in power in the state, these anxieties have intensified.

You also mention visiting a detention camp of people identified as doubtful voters in the state. Where was this camp and how many D-voters were there in the camp?

This was in Kokrajhar town, where I requested to be allowed to visit a detention centre. I was horrified to learn that where detention centres were not available, the detained were housed in local jails. I visited the Kokrajhar jail and discovered that there are 97 women, 66 of whom are Muslim and 13 children (11 of them Muslim) in the jail under the category of ‘Declared Bangladeshi National/Myanmar’. More shockingly, there is no provision for separate sections in the jail and these women and children are living and being treated as other jail inmates.

You met members of the Sikh community living in Assam for over a century. What was discussed in the meeting? They have been demanding special status which the commission supports.

Yes, this is a long standing issue of Sikhs in Assam and also some of the neighbouring states where migrations seem to have taken place many generations ago and where the Sikhs have almost totally assimilated with the local cultures but feel that they are not accepted as such. They speak Assamese and have little knowledge of Punjabi and are a largely isolated agricultural community. They have been demanding some special attention from the state and recognition as a deprived community. They do not see themselves as a part of the mainstream Sikh community and are looking to be identified as a distinct minority that can receive state support. The NCM has been supporting their demand and asking the state government to consider it.

The commission, on September 19, wrote a letter to union home minister Rajnath Singh concerning the increasing cases of attacks on Muslims by vigilante groups. Any response from the minister?

We have done this before and drawn attention of the central government and the ruling party to our serious concern at the increasing attacks on Muslims and Christians. We have been visiting a number of the violence affected areas to give our reports. Our visits have been reporting that often the violence is supported by local political functionaries and is often planned. We are all well aware of the campaigns around love jihad and now cow protection that are full of venom against Muslims. There are enough incidents to support the fact that those involved in violence on the basis of these issues have openly been supported by members of the ruling party and its allies. We have also been told of police apathy and sometimes of their involvement and often of their very communally biased handling of the incidents.

I feel very strongly that this is a political issue and administrative and police efforts are not going to be able to prevent and control such violence. There is a widespread feeling amongst minorities that such acts are given covert license. Therefore, there is urgent need for a strong public statement from the highest authorities to state that the secular credentials of this country are sacrosanct and that communal violence will not be tolerated. This is the demand we have made in the letter but no, we have not received a reply yet. Such a statement would be welcome and given the number of incidents that have taken place around the issue of cow protection alone, it is surprising that the government has not thought fit to issue such a statement and should need the NCM to remind it.

To me, a statement is not enough, some action on it should be taken – for example, putting in place structures to ensure speedy justice for victims of communal violence and strong measures to curb vigilantism that is being flaunted in an aggressive manner.