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Monday, 30 May 2016


How to tackle Assam illegal immigrants' May 30, 2016 Email this page Printer-friendly version S.K. sinha.jpg S.K. Sinha I recommended that these illegal migrants be identified and allowed to stay as stateless citizens with no rights to acquire immovable property or to vote. This will be more humane. The BJP for the first time has gone beyond the Hindi heartland and into the Northeast with a landslide victory in the region’s largest state. Assam’s population is over double the total population of the other six Northeast states, and it is much richer in natural resources like tea, oil, forests and water. Assam’s new chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, faces the grave challenge of resolving the illegal migration issue in Assam. On a 1993 visit to Kolkata, I met Lt. Gen. Jameel Mahmood, then Eastern Army commander. Ten years earlier we had served together when I was the Western Army commander and he was commanding a brigade in Punjab. In Kolkata, he told me he was very concerned about illegal migration from Bangladesh as we soon may face a Kashmir-like situation in Lower Assam’s Dhubri. This area abuts the narrow land corridor linking the Indian mainland with the land mass of the seven Northeast states. Little did I know then that soon I would get deeply involved with this issue. In 1997, then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral sent me as governor to Assam when insurgency and violence were at their peak. I found the root cause of the people’s alienation was illegal migration from Bangladesh, that was changing the state’s demography. In 1998, illegal migrant voters were in a majority, or near majority, in 40 of 126 Assembly constituencies. Their presence has only increased in the past 18 years. There was also a disturbing security angle to this. Assam’s Dev Kanta Barooah, of “India is Indira and Indira is India” fame, was Congress president in the 1970s. He said as long as “Ali and Coolie” were with the Congress, the party would always win in Assam. “Ali” stood for illegal Bangladeshi migrants and “Coolie” for tea garden labour, all non-Assamese. This formula worked well for the Congress, which won election after election in Assam. B.K. Nehru, a cousin of Indira Gandhi, was governor of Assam, and B.P. Chaliha, a veteran Congressman, was CM. They recommended that effective action be taken to stop the influx of illegal migrants. The Congress high command told them not to interfere. B.K. Nehru says in his autobiography that the old Congress gave priority to the national interest, not party interest, but now it was the other way around. The Illegal Migration Detection by Tribunal Act, ostensibly to check illegal migration, was designed to aid infiltration into Assam. On taking over as governor, I did extensive research, interacted with political leaders and the intelligentsia and did intensive reconnaissance of the 262-km border, 92 km of it riverine. I visited every border post and drove in a jeep along the border. I also covered the river border on the Brahmaputra in a speedboat. Thereafter I sent a 42-page report on illegal migration to the President, with copies to the PM and Assam chief minister. There were 14 recommendations, including proper fencing, updating the National Register of Citizens, identifying illegal migrants and repealing the IMDT Act. This report is even now used for reference both in international and national circles. It was serialised and published in full in Assam newspapers. All 14 Congress MPs from Assam wrote to the President calling for my recall as I was interfering in political matters. The NDA government had just come to power and the BJP was fully supportive of my views. Being a coalition allied with partners having different views on the IMDT Act and not having a majority in the Rajya Sabha, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government was not in a position to repeal the IMDT Act. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the CM who worked with me for the first half of my tenure, enthusiastically backed my recommendations but could not implement them as his alliance partner would not support him. During the latter half of my tenure the Congress under Tarun Gogoi came to power. I had a good equation with him except over illegal migration, on which we had sharp differences. He issued a press statement requesting the Centre to rein me in from expressing my views on illegal migration. Hardly anything has been done to implement the recommendations in my report to the President submitted in 1998. Sarbananda Sonowal was then president of the AASU and we were in close touch. He took up the illegal migration issue in the Supreme Court, filing my report to the President with his petition. The court struck down the IMDT Act, quoting an extract from my report. The Congress, in power both at the Centre and in Assam, did nothing to check this menace. Tarun Gogoi as CM maintained that illegal migration was a non-issue. CM Sonowal has declared he will ensure that illegal migration from Bangladesh is stopped in two years. There is no reason why it should take that long. Effective fencing, maybe even two lines of border fencing, along a 262-km border on the plains, can be completed in three months. In Kashmir the Army completed fencing 700 km on difficult mountainous terrain in one year. ISIS terrorists are active in Bangladesh and can infiltrate into Assam. Effective sealing of the border is an imperative security requirement. It is not realistic to deport illegal migrants back to Bangladesh, as is being talked of. No government in Bangladesh, not even the friendly one of Sheikh Hasina, will take back over five million people. In 1998 I recommended that these illegal migrants be identified and allowed to stay as stateless citizens with no rights to acquire immovable property or to vote in elections, like non-Muslim refugees from West Pakistan living in Jammu since 1947. This will be a more humane and practical solution. It will mitigate the charges of witch-hunting and saffron oppression which will be raised by the Opposition. Updating the National Register of Citizens and issuing identity cards to bona fide citizens should also be completed. Illegal migrant Muslim votes got divided between the AIDUF and the Congress in the 2016 Assembly polls. Many Assamese Muslims voted for the BJP, like some had supported my report in 1998 which was dubbed as “communal” by my critics. The illegal migrant problem is a national, and not communal, issue. The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

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