Thursday, Jun 30, 2022

Of Aliens, Natives And Politics

The introduction of a Bill to repeal the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) [IM (DT)] Act in the Parliament has brought the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and its large-scale impact on the state of Assam into fresh focus..

The introduction of a Bill to repeal the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) [IM (DT)] Act in the Parliament has brought the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and its large-scale impact on the state of Assam into fresh focus..

Whether or not the Act is finally repealed - given the fact that the Congress and the Left parties remain opposed to such an eventuality - it is high time that the seriousness of the threat is recognised, and the exploitation of this issue for partisan political objectives and 'vote bank' politics is brought to an end.

The IM (DT) Act was enacted in 1983 with the purported objective of the "establishment of Tribunals for the determination, in a fair manner, of the question whether a person is an illegal migrant to enable the Central Government to expel illegal migrants from India and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto." Some of the requirements of the Act have proven discriminatory and biased in favour of illegal migrants. These include:

  • Every application made against any person 'shall be accompanied by affidavits sworn by not less than two persons residing within the jurisdiction of the same police station in which the person referred to in the application is found, or residing.' (No authority can, consequently, take cognisance of an offence under the Act without such a complaint. Such complaints are rare, since people living close by may be intimidated or may not wish to antagonize neighbours of a community that is increasingly numerically stronger, and that is seen to enjoy substantial political patronage).

  • The application shall be accompanied by a "fee, being not less than ten and not more than one hundred, rupees, (later fixed at Rupees Twenty-five) as may be prescribed". (The provision of a fee is a further deterrent as people refrain from filing complaints to avoid personal expenditure).

  • The onus of proof lies with the complainant.

There is no authoritative estimate of the actual number of illegal migrants in the state. Figures vary from a few hundred thousand to as much as four million. Former Union Minister for Home Affairs, Indrajit Gupta had put the figures at four million in a statement to Parliament in 1997. Nearly two decades ago, the then Chief Minister of Assam, Jogen Hazarika, had estimated the number of foreigners in Assam at only 200,00.

At the same time, however, other claims by other organisations and individuals placed the population of illegal migrants variously between 1.3 million to 4.5 million, accounting for between 10 and 50 per cent of the total population in the state. Former Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia, on April 10, 1992, indicated that there were three million illegal Bangladeshis in Assam, only to retract his words two days later.

The Congress party, as the prime beneficiary of this 'vote bank', has always tended to underplay the numbers. The divergent contentions apart, however, the fact that cannot be missed by anyone travelling through the State is that migration has affected the demography of several districts in Assam.

Migrants are also alleged to be responsible for the denudation of forest areas, for the encroachment of the living space of the locals, and for monopolising the service sector by undercutting local labour. It is, of course, a different matter that the Assamese have generally been disinclined towards manual labour. Additionally, it now increasingly being established that sections of the migrant population bring the fundamentalist and overtly anti-Indian sentiments along with them, creating fertile grounds for the designs of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Police sources reveal that Islamist insurgency in Assam has its genesis in the unabated migration from Bangladesh. Even though few would risk asserting a direct co-relation between Bangladeshi migration and the growth of Islamist insurgent groups in the state, the fact remains that it is the migrant inhabited areas that provide a steady recruitment ground for the organisations such as the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) in Assam. The existence of as many as eleven Islamic militant organisations in the State has significantly widened the options available to the forces of destabilisation in the region.

The absolute impact of illegal migration in Assam, however, is political. Demographic movements are, of course, a fait accompli, with the State situated in close proximity to a region that is comparatively less attractive for its own population in terms of economic opportunities. Many proud Assamese would agree, albeit silently, that political power has slipped away from the hands of the ethnic Assamese over the years.

It is noticeable that the Congress party in Assam, which remains the preferred political party for the minority community (the indigenous Muslims who are, according to one estimate, nearly 20 per cent of the State's population), has systematically extended its sphere of influence over the immigrant Muslims as well.

As a result, the Muslims of Assam have never felt the need to organise themselves into communal political groupings (the formation of the United Minorities Front in 1985 was a localised aberration and the whole experiment was a failure), unlike states like Kerala, where parties like the Muslim League have carved out a niche for themselves.

'Vote bank' politics has made Muslims in Assam (indigenous as well as illegal immigrants) more secure under a Congress regime. The enactment of the IM (DT) Act by the Congress Party at the centre in 1983 was essentially an attempt to protect its traditional vote bank from harassment and legitimate expulsion.

Political patronage and the demands of realpolitik have made the makeover from migrant status to 'legal citizens' of the State relatively uncomplicated. Political leaders have not only prevented the existing machinery from identifying and deporting aliens, but have legalised their presence through instrumentalities like generous distribution of ration cards and even citizenship certificates.

The IM (DT) Act itself is an anomaly. It is far from judicious to try to deal with the problem of illegal migration within one State under a separate Act, while the rest of the country continues to be governed by the Foreigners Act. It is probably even more ludicrous to fall back upon an Act which protects the illegal migrant by putting the responsibility of proof on the complainant. Given the way successive State Governments have manoeuvred the setting up of tribunals under the IMDT, with retired judges at their helm, a Guwahati based English language newspaper, The Sentinel, in an editorial in the early 1990s, calculated that 'at the rates the tribunals were going, it would take 200 years to identify all the foreigners illegally residing in Assam, even if there was increase in their (the tribunals') number.'

Only 1,501 illegal migrants had been deported by the tribunals set up under the IM (DT) Act over the past 16 years, even though an amount of Rupees 128,928,385 has been spent on these tribunals (figure quoted by the Minister in charge of Assam Accord Implementation, Pankaj Bora, in the State Assembly on March 13, 2003).

Assam's illegal immigrants have, over the years, acquired enormous mobility, and now threaten to impact on the demography of neighbouring States like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh as well. Places like Dimapur and Niuland in Nagaland now have a significant Bangladeshi population, with estimates putting their numbers around 300,000. The Nagaland Government claim to have deported 20,000 foreign nationals between 1994 and 1997. The Garo Hills area in Meghalaya is also being swamped by the Bangladeshi migrants.

In his report on Illegal Migration into Assam in 1998, to the President of India, the then Governor of Assam, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S.K. Sinha maintained that "as deportation of such a large number of illegal migrants is no longer a viable option and because of the numerous infirmities in the IM (DT) Act which have rendered its continuation a wasteful exercise, it is imperative that this Act be repealed." Lt. Gen. Sinha recommended that the IM (DT) Act should be "replaced by a more just, workable and fair enactment."

The moot question is: will the proposed repeal of the act be able to deal with the problem? The answer is probably in the negative. According to the Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's admission earlier this year, 20 million Bangladeshis are staying illegally in India.

If the performance of the rest of India, which is not under a discriminatory Act like the IM (DT) and is governed by the Foreigners Act, is any indication, ground realities in Assam cannot be expected to undergo any dramatic transformation after the IM (DT) Act is annulled. It will also be foolhardy to imagine that migrants in search of greener pastures will abruptly be stopped by any successor arrangement.

The repeal of the Act may, however, pave the way for an atmosphere in which deportation is not handicapped by the presence of a bad law, and illegal migrants cannot benefit from their lawless acts to secure the protection of easy citizenship. The repeal of the Act will also be consistent with India's dealings with the Government of Bangladesh, which has recently been accused of providing shelter to 155 training camps for terrorist and insurgent groups operating in India's Northeast.

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Acting Director, Institute for Conflict Management Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati. This article appears here courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.