By Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha
For the first time, BJP has gone beyond the Hindi heartland into the North East with a landslide victory in the largest State of the region. Assam’s population is more than double the combined total population of all the seven States of the North East. Assam is also much richer in tural resources like tea, oil, forest and water than other States of North East. Chief Minister Sarband Sonowal faces the grave challenge of resolving the Illegal migration issue in Assam.
In 1993 on a visit to Kolkata, I met Lt Gen Jameel Mahmood, the then Eastern Army Commander. Ten years earlier we had served together in the West when I was the Western Army Commander and he was commanding a Brigade in Punjab. He told me that he was very concerned about illegal migration from Bangladesh as we soon may face a Kashmir like situation in Dhubri area of Lower Assam. Dhubri abuts the rrow land corridor linking the Indian mainland with the North East landmass of the seven North East States. Little did I then know that soon I will get deeply involved with this issue. Jameel died in a Helicopter crash a few months later. In 1997, Prime Minister IK Gujral sent me as Governor to Assam when insurgency and violence were at their peak in the State. I found that the root cause of alietion of the people of Assam was illegal migration from Bangladesh changing the demography of Assam with all its adverse political and economic impact. In 1998, illegal migrant voters were in a majority or near majority in 40 of the 126 Assembly constituencies in Assam. Their presence has increased in the last 18 years. Besides, as mentioned by Jameel there is a disturbing security angle to this.
Dev Kant Barua from Assam of “India is Indira and Indira is India” fame, was the President of the Congress Party in the Sixties. He maintained that so long as Ali and Coolie were with Congress, the party will always win elections in Assam. Ali stood for illegal Bangladeshi migrants and Coolie for tea garden labour, who were all non Assamese. This formula worked well for the Congress which continued to win election after election in Assam. Shri BK Nehru, a cousin of Indira Gandhi was the Governor of Assam and Shri BP Chaliha, a veteran congressman was the Chief Minister. They recommended that effective action be taken to stop the influx of illegal migrants pouring into Assam. The Congress High Command told them not to interfere in the matter. BK Nehru in his autobiography has written that the old Congress gave priority to tiol interest over Party’s interest but now it was the other way round. The Illegal Migration Detection by Tribul (IMDT) Act ostensibly to check illegal migration was designed to facilitate infiltration into Assam.
On taking over as Governor of Assam, I carried out extensive research, interacted with various political leaders and intelligentsia and intensive reconissance of the 262 kilometers border, 92 kilometers of which is riverine. I visited every border post and drove in a jeep along the border. I also covered the river border on the Brahmaputra in a speed boat. Thereafter I sent a forty two paged printed report on illegal migration to the President with copy to the Prime Minister and to the Chief Minister of Assam. There were fourteen specific recommendations which included proper fencing, updating tiol Register of Citizens, identifying illegal migrants and repealing the IMDT Act. This report is even now used for reference both in intertiol and tiol circles. It was serialised and published in full in all newspapers in Assam. It took the Assamese people by storm and I started being referred to as a true son of the soil of Assam. All the fourteen Congress MPs from Assam wrote to the President calling for my recall as I was interfering in political matters. The NDA government had just come to power at Delhi and the BJP was fully supportive of my views. Being a coalition allied with partners having different views on IMDT Act and not having a majority in Rajya Sabha, Vajpayee’s government was not in a position to repeal the IMDT Act. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the Chief Minister working with me for the first half of my tenure, enthusiastically supported my recommendations but could not implement them because his alliance partner on whom he was dependent to remain in power, would not support him. During the latter half of my tenure the Congress under Tarun Gogoi came to power. I had good equation with him except over illegal migration on which we had sharp difference. He issued a press statement requesting the Centre to rein me from expressing my views on illegal migration. To this day, hardly anything has been done to implement the recommendations in my report to the President submitted in 1998.
Sarband Sonowal was then the president of Assam Students Union and we were in close touch. He took up the illegal migration issue in the Supreme Court filing my report to the President with his petition. The apex court struck down the IMDT Act quoting extract from my report. However, the Congress in power both at the Centre and the State did nothing to check this mece. Tarun Gogoi as Chief Minister maintained that illegal migration was a non-issue.
Chief Minister Sonowal has declared that he would ensure that illegal migration from Bangladesh will be stopped in two years. There is no reason why it should take that long. Effective fencing, may be even two lines of border fencing, on a 262 km border on the plains can be completed within three months. In Jammu and Kashmir the Army completed fencing 700 km on difficult mountainous terrain in one year. Daesh and ISIS terrorists are active in Bangladesh and can infiltrate into Assam posing a serious threat. Effective sealing of the border is an imperative security requirement.
It is not realistic to deport illegal migrants back to Bangladesh as is being talked of. No government in Bangladesh, not even a friendly one of Sheikh Hasi, will take back over 5 million people. In 1998, I had recommended that these illegal migrants need to be identified and allowed to stay as stateless citizens with no rights to acquire immovable property or to vote in elections, like non-Muslim refugees from West Pakistan living in Jammu since 1947. This will be a more humane and practical solution of the problem. It will also mitigate charges of witch hunting and saffron oppression which would be raised by the Opposition. Updating tiol Register of Citizens and issue of identity card to bo fide citizens should also be completed expeditiously.
Illegal migrant Muslim votes got divided between AIUDF of Badruddin Ajmal and the Congress party in the recent Assembly election. Many Assamese Muslims voted in favour of the BJP like some had supported my report in 1998 which was dubbed commul by my critics. The illegal migrant problem is a tiol and not commul issue.
(The writer is a former Governor of Assam and J&K)