For over five decades now, Assam has been burdened with the gratuitous problem of large-scale illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Successive governments have chosen to ignore the problem because the resultant increase in the number of illegal voters or those illegal migrants granted voting rights with spectacular expeditiousness have made electoral victories for ruling parties a far easier task. Even so, the distinction between the legal migrant and the illegal one was retained for the sake of propriety, and all migrants without proper travel documents were referred to as illegal migrants. In fact, we even had a law related to illegal migrants solely for the State of Assam called the Illegal Migrants (Determition by Tribuls) Act that remained in force for 22 years and made the task of detecting and deporting illegal migrants a Herculean one. Meanwhile, about three million Bangladeshi migrants had entered and begun living and earning their livelihoods in Assam. This was a very conservative estimate of the illegal migrants who poured into the State even after the special cut-off date of 25 March 1971 for migrants from Pakistan (or former Pakistan) for Assam alone. They also practiced polygamy and had very large families. And in all these decades, the State government did nothing at all about tackling the problem of large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh. In fact, it even kept an open border to encourage such illegal migration.
What is very significant is that in recent weeks, there has been a remarkable change in the very semantics of demographic mischief. This change hinges on the State government’s present attitude to illegal migrants. The present strategy is to cease calling them illegal migrants and to regard them as just migrants. In other words, the distinction between legal migrants and illegal ones has been made to disappear with the pretence that India has some moral obligation even towards those who migrated from Bangladesh illegally. A 51-page submission made by the Assam government before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court recently on the question of citizenship clearly indicates that its stand on the issue of illegal migrants is no longer what it was in the year 2005 when it was elected on the promise of protecting the identity and the land of the indigenous people. Its present submission, which is in favour of protecting the rights of migrants (it no longer talks of illegal migrants). This is a stand by the present Sarbanda Sonowal government that is totally contrary to the findings of the Supreme Court judgement repealing the Illegal Migrants (Determition by Tribuls) Act in the year 2005 in response to a PIL filed by Sonowal himself! Here is a government that is liquidating the difference between legal migrants and illegal migrants on its own. The Assam government now claims that the political rights of the indigenous people are not affected by illegal migration by ebling foreigners to become voters. This stand of the government, apart from being illogical, is contrary to the Supreme Court judgement of 2005 which had clearly stated that “ubated influx... has reduced the Assamese people to a minority in their own State.” But the submission of the Assam government does not stop there. It supports the grant of citizenship by birth to children born of foreigners in Assam, because it is permissible under the existing law. In fact, it further elaborates on this provision by saying that “it is the result of exercise of valid powers as to inclusion of foreigners as citizens.” It does not tell us why it had not taken recourse to the same arguments in 2005 even though the issue at that time too was the one of illegal migrants.
Every government has a special responsibility to its people in evincing a consistent stand on what is legal and what is not on major issues that concern them. It is such a stand that ebles people to judge the difference between what is lawful and what is not. It ebles people to remain on the right side of the law on issues that may not be so easy to evaluate. In suddenly deciding that illegal migrants must be treated as citizens, the government of the day is tacitly asking the people to forget the difference between what is legal and accepted by the government as such and what had so far been regarded as illegal, and to treat illegal migrants as no different from legal migrants! This is a preposterous stance for any government, and we cannot recall any civilized government having ever advised people not to distinguish the legal from the illegal. One cannot call to mind any instance of any government in the civilized world actually telling its people to forget the difference between legal migrants and illegal ones. When any government stoops to this, it is not very far from telling people that they do not have to worry about lawful conduct as opposed to unlawful conduct. The government itself has decided that what was hitherto deemed illegal is now legal.
However, moral and ethical issues apart, there is also the matter of what the Assam government’s latest stance on legality is likely to do to the future of Assam. The State government’s stance is about to legalize the existence of millions of illegal migrants from Bangladesh who are concentrated in one State of the Indian Union. With the fil updating of tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) now postponed to 31 December 2017, further updating and validation of the NRC is now rather unlikely to happen. In any case, one of the prime objectives of the NRC updating (that of distinguishing the illegal migrant from the Indian citizen) has now been rendered a pointless exercise by the government’s decision to regard illegal migrants as Indian citizens. The State government’s present stance will be seen as a determined attempt to jeopardize the very existence of Assam and to make it a part of a greater Bengal. And our own elected government is doing this to our own people at the bidding of higher powers in New Delhi.