Former Assam chief minister and AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) President Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, though reluctant to get into the blame game (“it’s difficult to say or comment”), suggests dialogue is the only way to negotiate the minefield that is Assam today. He spoke to Uttam Sengupta. Excerpts:
How would you describe the situation in your state now?
A large number of people are still unwilling to go back to their villages. Most of the culprits are still at large and there are illegal arms with a large number of militant groups belonging to all communities. Unless they are reined in, peace will be elusive.
Would you say the violence was a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’?
I can’t say with certainty, but it is possible. The divide between the Bodos and the others has grown. In that area, Muslims constitute the majority of the population and, therefore, they have possibly suffered more. But Bodos are also victims and they’re just as fearful.
Could the state government have done more to prevent this?
The Union home ministry is the nodal agency for the implementation of the Assam accord. Had the foreigners been identified and deported, this situation would not have arisen. The state government, however, did delay the setting-up of peace committees, convening all-party meetings and adopting other confidence-building measures.
Didn’t your government also fail to deport foreigners even though you were in office for two terms?
That is not correct. Foreigners were identified by the courts and the tribunals. The Assam Police did hand them over to the BSF, but there was no arrangement for repatriation. The Government of India must sign a repatriation treaty and get Bangladesh to agree to accept deportees.
What is your estimate of the number of illegal migrants in Assam?
It’s now officially acknowledged that 40,000 foreigners, identified by the tribunals, have gone missing in the state. The Election Commission also put the number of doubtful voters at 42 lakh.
What is the way out of this mess?
Negotiation alone can break this impasse. The situation in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), where non-Bodos complain of being second-class citizens, and the issue of illegal migrants both need to be addressed. The militant groups need to be disarmed and trust rebuilt. A lasting solution is a long way off.