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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2015-09-16

MODI GOVT’S WELCOME TO MINORITIES IN BANGLADESH STIRS UP HORNET’S NEST IN ASSAM

 

Sushanta Talukdar

New Delhi’s decision to make space for non-Muslim Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Assam and pushed the state to the brink of a fresh turmoil.

On September 7, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in an official release: “The Central Government has decided, on humanitarian considerations, to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities who have entered into India on or before 31st December, 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India without such documents or after the expiry of those documents, as the case may be. The Central Government has accordingly issued two notifications in the Official Gazette today under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946. There are reports that a number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities in those countries, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists, were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution. They have entered into India either without any valid document including passport/other travel document or with valid documents but the validity of such document has expired. The issue of regularization of entry and stay of such Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals in India has been under consideration of the Central Government.”

Apart from triggering protests in Assam, the Centre’s decision is likely to antagonise Dhaka as it projects Bangladesh as a country unsafe for minority communities. It also puts a question mark on the utility and validity of an updated National Register of Citizens projected to be the panacea for the vexed foreigners’ problem in Assam. The process of updating the NRC 1951 is currently on and the updated citizens’ register is due to be published in January 2016. 

The cut- off date for inclusion of names in the updated NRC is March 24, 1971, which is also the cut-off date stipulated by the Assam Accord for identifying Bangladeshis staying illegally in Assam.

Political parties, students and youth organisations have opposed the Narendra Modi-led government’s latest notifications, arguing that they will dilute the Assam Accord and make the cut-off date redundant. They include Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Communist Party of India (Marxist), All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Students’ Federation of India, Khilonjia Janagosthiya Sahitya Sabha ( a joint platform of apex literary bodies of eight ethnic communities - Bodos, Karbis, Rabhas, Misings, Tiwas, Dimasas, Deoris and the Garos), All Tai Ahom Students’ Union, Brihattar Asomiya Yuba Mancha, Tai Ahom Yuba Parishad, Brihattar Asomiya Yuva Mancha, Ujani Asom Muslim Kalyan Parishad, Sanjukta Asomiya Muslim Mancha, Asom and Assam Anuchuchita Jati Yuva-Chatra Santha.

These parties and organisations have taken a firm stand that Assam cannot be burdened with more refugees and all those, irrespective of religion, who have illegally entered the state through India-Bangladesh border after March 24, 1971, must be identified and expelled in accordance with the Assam Accord.

The Congress government in Assam has backed New Delhi’s decision with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi insisting that his party, Congress, had first raised this demand.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision was not surprising as the party had in its 2014 Lok Sabha manifesto for Assam stated that the religious minorities (Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs) and the scheduled castes in Bangladesh should not be treated as illegal migrants and not expelled from India.  

With barely six months left for 2016 assembly polls in Assam, it has become apparent that the BJP and the Congress have rubbed shoulders on this issue out of desperation to woo Bengali Hindu voters, who play a decisive role in the Barak Valley comprising Cachar, Karimganj and Hailkandi districts as also in some constituencies in the Brahmaputra Valley. BJP is also eyeing West Bengal, which too is going to polls in 2016.

The BJP successfully played on the fear of Assamese people of being reduced to a minority by illegal migrants from Bangladesh to win seven of the total 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam in the 2014 polls.

Ironically, it was Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Minister of Sports and Youth Welfare in Narendra Modi’s ministry, whose petition led to scrapping of the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005 when he was an AGP leader. Sonowal had contended that the IM(DT) Act was the stumbling block in detection and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and in implementation of the Assam Accord that ended the six-year anti-foreigners’ agitation (1979-1985) spearheaded by the AASU.

Scrapping of the IM(DT) Act led to abolition of the erstwhile IMD tribunals and transfer of all cases pending before the appellate tribunals to Foreigners’ Tribunal. After being pulled up by the Supreme Court, Delhi and Dispur rushed to increase the number of foreigners’ tribunals to expedite disposals of over 500,000 pending cases.  The two notifications issued by MHA is likely to cause legal complications over the tribunals’ authority to decide a case relating to foreigners and any decision by the government to allow a person declared as foreigner by a tribunal, to stay in the country would practically make the entire exercise of disposal of cases by tribunals futile and a drain on the state exchequer.

Some Assamese leaders argue that the fear of Assamese speakers of being outnumbered, if illegal migration across India-Bangladesh border is not checked, stems from the population trends. The 1991 Census said Assamese speakers were 57.81 per cent of the total population compared to 21.67 per cent Bengali speakers. In 2001 Census the number of Assamese speakers declined to 48.80 and the number of Bengali speakers increased to 27.54 per cent. They fear that the Modi government’s decision would only encourage more Hindu Bangladeshis to migrate to Assam and eventually outnumber the Assamese speakers.  

The language data is yet to be released by the NDA government that made the religion data of Census 2011 public. This has led to speculations that the Bengali-speaking population now trails Assamese speakers by only 9 per cent, and would become a majority by 2021.

Release of the language data might clear the cloud but right-wing groups have allegedly been trying to fan the fear of Assamese speakers into a communal campaign. Their argument: Bangladeshi Hindus, unlike illegal Muslim Bangladeshi migrants, are not a threat to their identity and existence, and can thus be allowed to come and settle in Assam.

MHA’s notifications have triggered a string of protests that have the potential of snowballing into a major internal security problem. The writing, for Delhi and Dispur, is on the wall.

 

 

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