PRIME Minister H.D. Deve Gowdas recent visit to the North-east appears to have left behind a trail of misunderstandingsespecially about the contentious migrants issue in Assam. Gowda told the media that the Government was considering repealing the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT), 1983. The statement sent an uneasy message to minorities and several political parties, including the Congress.
In a state which has witnessed the highest percentage of illegal migration, largely from neighbouring Bangladesh, Gowda invited trouble as soon as he categorically told a delegation of the All-Assam Students Union (AASU) that "the act will be repealed soon". At another press conference, Gowda said: "Existing laws for the detection of foreigners, such as IMDT, have not proved to be effective. We will take steps to repeal the ineffective laws and strengthen the legal and administrative measures for dealing with foreigners in consultation with the states."
The AASU and its allies allege that the statement is not clear. On the other hand, minority communities are living in fear. They say that if the IMDT Act is repealed, they will be harassed on the excuse that foreigners have to be detected and deported. Aware of the extent of the crisis, the AASU has gone out of the way to explain that "genuine Indian citizens have nothing to fear if the Act is scrapped." Even Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who led an anti-Congress alliance to power with considerable help from the minorities, has had to repeatedly assuage their fears: "Irrespective of whether the IMDT Act stays or not, our government is committed to provide security to the lives and properties of minorities." At another press conference, he declared that the minorities fears were unfounded.
Why is the IMDT Act controversial? The Act, which received the Presidents assent in December 1983, actually came into force with retrospective effect from October 15 the same yearonly in Assam. The rest of the country is governed by the Foreigners Act, 1946, and therein lies the catch. Under the IMDT Act, the onus of proving that a person is a foreigner lies with the complainant while under the Foreigners Act, it is the accused who has to prove he is a bonafide Indian citizen. The AASU and, later, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have repeatedly sought the repeal of the IMDT Act but despite an assurance in the Assam accord of August 1985, the Centre has never seriously considered scrapping it. Under the current United Front dispensation, however, the AGP is a major component and it can no longer be treated lightly.
Under the IMDT Act, tribunals were set up to oversee the detection and deportation of foreigners who came to Assam after March 25, 1971. According to the latest fig-ures (up to June 1995), of the 2,89,767 cases taken up for scrutiny under the Act, 2,88,626 cases have been disposed of. Of the 25,000 cases referred to 16 tribunals, 9,170 persons were declared illegal migrants. The tribunals served deportation notices to 5,421 persons, and 1,305 migrants have already been deported.
The AASU claims these figures are proof enough that the entire procedure is too cumbersome. But they have only Abdul Muhib Majumdar to blame, the man credited with drafting the IMDT provisions and now a minister in the AGP-led alliance. He helped frame the Act in 1983, when he was law minister in the Hiteswar Saikia ministry. He soon left the Congress fold to form his own party, and later, made friends with the AGP. After a few threats, Majumdar now says that "there is no harm in repealing the IMDT Act provided there are suitable amendments in the Foreigners Act which gives adequate opportunity to the accused to "defend himself before a tribunal if any allegation is made against an Indian citizen".
GOWDA was perhaps unaware of the pressure groups he would have to face once he declared his intentions to repeal the Act. Its reverberations are being felt even in New Delhi. The Congress, which is desperately trying to win back the support of the minorities, says it will resist any such move. The Assam Congress president and former minister Tarun Gogoi led an indignant party delegation to meet the Prime Minister. It took all of Gowdas persuasion to convince them that it was no more than a proposal and that there was no need for the Congress to get too excited.
The Prime Ministers allies do not seem to be too enthused either. Says CPI(M) General Secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet: "I do not know how this issue came up and how the Prime Minister made the assurance. We will oppose it at the UF steering committee meeting. I have no doubt that the problem will be solved." But parties like the BJP are quite elated at the talk of the repeal. Says senior leader K.R. Malkani: "The Act is useless. It has become ineffective and deserves to be scrapped."
Though Gowda appears to have adopted a wait-and-watch policy since the announcement, the Home Ministry discussed the Act at its consultative committee meeting on November 12. Predictably, Congress member V.N. Gadgil and Muslim League MP G.M. Banatwala opposed the scrapping. Instead, they wanted the Government to find out what certain religious organisations were doing in the state. Banatwala went a step further to say the Act was tantamount to launching a witch-hunt against the minorities. The BJP members, led by Sikandar Bakht and V.K. Malhotra, said the migrants issue was being politicised to help certain parties. Others like Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Shiv Sena were more virulent and called for "firm action" against illegal migrants. At this point, some of the members pointed out that there were enough Bangladeshis in Mumbai and wanted to know how the Shiv Sena was tackling the problem.
But Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, who heads the consultative committee, declined to take a stand. He also would not say when the bill would be introduced on the floor of the House. But if preparations in the Home Ministry are anything to go by, the Government does not seem to be in any particular hurry. Says a Home Ministry official on the North-east desk: "Despite all the talk, we have not got any indications or instructions. There are no backgrounders being prepared, no files being reopened."
Amid this controversy, another chapter was added by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Ranganath Mishra. On receiving several petitions from Assam against the proposed scrapping, he said the question of repeal did not arise "at this stage". The commission, he said, was looking at all such controversial laws and the reversal of the IMDT was not "possible immediately". The NHRC is credited with playing a significant role in abolishing the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (prevention) Act.
The issue is far from resolved, and it appears at this stage that the UF Government is going slow. But UF sources admit that there may be considerable pressure from the United Liberation Front of Assam and other ethnic groups to force the repeal. They say that even though Mahanta is a much mellow politician these days, there is considerable pressure from AGP workers. That the AGP is an important element in the coalition just acts as a catalyst. According to experts, however, the opposition to the repeal is so great that the Prime Minister has probably triggered off another agitation unwittingly.