January 18, 2020
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'1971 Will Be Cut-Off Year'

Assam’s first BJP chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal on his roadmap to deal with illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

'1971 Will Be Cut-Off Year'
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
'1971 Will Be Cut-Off Year'

Assam’s first BJP chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal—at 53, one of the youngest CMs--has let it be known that his government’s first priority is to seal the border with Bangladesh and deal with illegal migrants. Bula Devi caught up with him to get an idea of his road­map. Excerpts from the interview:

Himanta Biswa Sarma had dec­lared that if BJP were voted to power, it would make 1951 the cutoff year for citizenship.

It was his personal observation. The party’s stand is very clear. In any case, this statement was not considered very seriously by the people and the party got a sizeable number of seats even in Muslim-dominated areas. This time, the BJP won 13 seats in Muslim-domina­ted areas; earlier, it didn’t even have one.

What do you think prompted Muslims in Assam to vote for the BJP?

We have worked hard to win over Muslim minds, build confidence and create a perceptible sense of security. They have developed the faith that with BJP in power, they would be protected.

Could it be fear—or desperation?

“The BJP could instil in Muslims the confidence that the party could not only give them protection, shelter, clothing and food, but also dignity.”

No, the BJP’s campaign was so mild and so positive. We have a beautiful, secular society; both communities have been living together without prejudice or conflict for centuries. They value coexistence. The BJP could influence them through positive initiatives and statements. The BJP could instil in them the confidence that the party could not only give them protection, shelter, clothing and food, but dignity as well.

Why did you fail to instil faith earlier?

People have tremendous faith in Narendra Modi’s leadership.

Even Muslims?

Modi has proved that ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ is not just a slogan. Even the younger generation has seen the style of functioning of the Congress, which was repeatedly warned that it should govern the state, yet it repeatedly failed to give justice to anybody in society. Where was the alternative?

What happens to those who fail to produce ‘legacy data’ to prove residence since 1971 or earlier ?

Legacy data has to be connected to the 1971 voters’ list. Something should be there to verify antecedents. If a person’s statement is genuine, he should be able to substantiate it with at least some factual event to develop the legacy. The entire proceeding is being monitored by the Supreme Court.

And those who cannot prove legacy will be pushed back to Bangladesh?

Their matter will be verified according to the law, and if they fail to prove legacy, they’ll be declared illegal migrants. If you are in the US or Europe, you’ll have to have some kind of document, wouldn’t you?

Is the BJP really serious about giving citizenship to Banglade­shi Hindus who came after 1971?

Of course, the BJP is serious about the issue. If you have seen the notification, there are religious minorities including Hindus, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists who have come from Pakistan and Bangladesh due to religious persecution; they will be protected in India.

Clause 6 of the Assam accord promises constitutional, judicial and administrative safeguards to indigenous Assamese for the protection of their identity and culture. Is there a plan to relook at or revisit Clause 6 because there is no political consensus on this?

“If people fail to prove legacy, they’ll be declared illegals. If you are in the US or Europe, you would have to have some kind of document, wouldn’t you?”

This has been discussed time and again in the assembly. Due to the presence of a large number of illegal migrants, loc­als have been reduced to a microscopic minority and are losing their land and territory. This is why the Assam accord speaks of providing constitutional safeguards to indigenous Assamese. Since this is one of the principal commitments of the accord, the government will definitely take it up positively. We will take up consultations with all stakeholders.

The Rabhas and Tiwas, BJP supporters, have been demanding territorial councils like the Bodo Territorial Council. Has anything been promised to them?

It’s necessary to hold discussions with them. Nothing has been promised so far; it’s a question of overall development of those territories. Whatever demands they are making, we will positively discuss them. We also have to discuss with other sections of the society who are living in that particular area.

What about the Bodos, who have opp­osed giving ST status to six communities, including the Koch Rajbongshis, a major community in the Bodo Tribal Council area? How does the BJP plan to tackle the tricky issue?

The home ministry set up a committee a month back under the chairmanship of the special secretary (internal security) (Mahesh Kumar Singla). The committee will be submitting the report on May 31.

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