By K.P.S. Gill
More than three decades of ethnic and communal strife, as well as multiple insurgencies, in Assam, have never seen a significant echo outside the Northeast, other than the occasional arrest of, or incident involving, a militant hiding out in some distant part of the country. Indeed, the violence of India’s wider Northeast has remained almost hermetically sealed within the region since its beginnings in 1951, with the Naga insurrection.
Abruptly, a local – albeit sizeable – conflagration in the Bodoland Territorial Administrated Districts (BTAD) of Assam has found violent reverberations in Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra, Ranchi in Jharkhand, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal… even as communal organizations from Delhi and other parts of the country send ‘fact finding missions’ into the affected areas in Assam, to conclude that a great conspiracy against the State’s ‘Muslim citizens’ is afoot. The purported ‘Muslim anger’ over developments in the Bodo areas has congealed with apparent distress over the treatment and violent displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. India’s ‘failure’ to ‘do enough’ for the Rohingyas was one of the supposed triggers for the ‘protest’ in Mumbai and Ranchi, which culminated in pre-planned rioting on August 11, 2012.
Curiously, little notice has been taken here of Muslim-majority Bangladesh’s inflexible position that Rohingya refugees would receive neither admission into nor shelter on, Bangladeshi soil. Indeed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rather curtly told British Secretary of International Development Affairs Andrew Mitchell in London, that ‘countries including Britain, which are concerned over the Rohingya issue, should hold talks with Myanmar instead of putting pressure on Bangladesh.’ If the Indian leadership was susceptible to learning anything, it would see a strong lesson here.
Unfortunately, leaderships and administrators in this country remain tenaciously uneducable. Far from seeing the intentional mischief in the present troubles, they have sought to impose a pall of confusion over the most basic issues, claiming that the violence in the Bodo areas has no relationship to the long unresolved, and implicitly encouraged, problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Thus, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi baldly claimed, on July 27, 2012, “There are no Bangladeshis in the clash but Indian citizens.”
Successive administrations in Assam have refused to address, and indeed, have sought vigorously to cover up, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration that has destabilized the State and the wider Northeast for decades now. The general pretext has been that no authoritative estimate of illegal migrant populations is available, but this begs the question, since it is the administration that is required to produce such an estimate, and has defaulted persistently on this duty. Indeed, even the Supreme Court’s goading on this issue has fallen largely on deaf ears, or has met with fitful efforts at ‘compliance’, quickly abandoned at the first signs of predictable resistance.
On July 12, 2005, the Supreme Court of India noted that Assam was facing “external aggression and internal disturbance” on account of the large-scale illegal influx of Bangladeshi migrants, and that it was “the duty of the Union of India to take all measures for protection of the State of Assam from such external aggression and internal disturbance as enjoined in Article 355 of the Constitution…”
In 2005, the Centre decided to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) ‘within two years’, on the basis of the 1971 rolls. The exercise failed to take off. On April 22, 2009, during tripartite discussions between the Central and State Governments, and the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Government promised to initiate NRC updates in two revenue circles, Chaygaon in Kamrup District and Barpeta revenue circle in Barpeta District. The process commenced on June 7, 2010, as a pilot project, but almost immediately ran into trouble, with ‘law and order problems’ surfacing in Barpeta. On July 21, 2010, protestors under the banner of the Barpeta District Unit of the All Assam Muslim Students Union (AAMSU), demonstrated violently outside the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, demanding a halt to the process. Police eventually opened fire, killing four and injuring 50. While no official suspension was announced, the ‘pilot project’ stood abandoned from this point on.
On March 26, 2012, the Government announced the ‘decision’ to re-launch the Registrar General of Citizens’ Registration pilot project to update the NRC in three phases from July 1, 2012. AAMSU, with 24 other ‘minority organizations’ objected to the decision. The process has not begun till date.
Over the intervening years, Governments, both at the Centre and in the State have done much to muddy the waters. The most perverse initiative was the introduction of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 (IMDT Act), ostensibly intended to ‘facilitate’ the quick detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, but, in fact, designed to disable the far more effective provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, which continue to apply to the rest of the country. With action initiated only on the basis of a complaint, not suo moto by state agencies, and the onus of proof shifted from the accused to the complainant, the IMDT made it nigh impossible to identify and expel any significant number of illegal migrants. The Supreme Court thus noted, in 2005, that though enquiries were initiated in 310,759 cases under the IMDT Act, only 10,015 persons were declared illegal migrants, and even among these, just 1,481 illegal migrants had been expelled in the duration of the Act, till April 30, 2000. On the contrary, it was noted, that West Bengal, where the Foreigners Act was applicable, and which also faced a major problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh, 489,046 persons had been deported between 1983 and November 1998, a significantly lesser period. The IMDT Act, the Court observed, “is coming to the advantage of such illegal migrants as any proceeding initiated against them almost entirely ends in their favour, (and) enables them to have a document having official sanctity to the effect that they are not illegal migrants.”
In September 2000, the Supreme Court had directed the Union Government to repeal the IMDT Act by January 2001. The then Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre failed to comply, claiming it did not have the requisite numbers in the Upper House. Unsurprisingly, the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government failed to initiate any process to implement the Supreme Court’s standing orders, till the Court struck down the IMDT Act in its order of July 12, 2005. Nevertheless, the Congress continues to contest every move seeking any change to the status quo that it has engineered on illegal immigrants in Assam, on its own cynical electoral calculus.
In the interim, efforts to ‘regularize’ illegal migrant populations and entrench their ‘rights’ in what should be protected tribal areas, on the basis of opportunistic arrangements with militant formations seeking accommodation with the State, have continued through the disastrous Assam Accord of 1985 and, more significantly in the present context, the Bodo Accord of 2003. Under the latter Accord, the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, intended to protect the special rights of vulnerable Tribal populations, was amended to guarantee the land rights of ‘all communities’ living in the BTAD. It is this unprincipled and opportunistic legislation that is being used by Muslim communalists within and outside Assam to claim that all Muslims in the BTAD are Indian citizens with constitutional protection to the lands they have acquired.
Through all this, the sheer enormity of the demographic reengineering in the region has been entirely ignored. Since no Government has committed itself to a detailed enumeration of citizens or of illegal migrants, there are, of course, no ‘official’ estimates of the actual illegal migrant population in Assam. Nevertheless, authoritative estimates have periodically come into the open source from official quarters.
In 2005, then Assam Governor Lt. Gen. Ajai Singh, in a report to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), leaked to the Press, had claimed that “upto 6,000” Bangladeshis enter Assam every day. The statement was subsequently modified under pressure from the Congress to claim that the number applied to Bangladeshis entering India, not Assam alone. A 2001 UMHA estimate claimed that “150 to 170 lakh (15 to 17 million) Bangladeshi infiltrators have crossed into India illegally since 1971.” Again, on July 14, 2004, the then Union Minister of State for Home, Shriprakash Jaiswal, conceded in Parliament that, out of 12,053,950 illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators all over India, 5,000,000 were present in Assam alone.”
Census figures also provide significant indices for the scale of infiltration. The Provisional Census 2011 indicated that Assam’s population, at 31,169,272, had registered an increase of 4,513,744 over the preceding decade. Of the State’s 27 Districts, Dhubri, bordering Bangladesh, had recorded the highest growth, at 24.4 percent. The decadal growth rate for Assam, at 16.93 per cent, was lower than the overall national growth, at 17.64 per cent. Details of trends in various population groupings under the Census 2011 are yet to be released.
2011 Census data clearly suggests that the scale of infiltration has declined. Between 1971 and 1991, the Muslim population in Assam grew by 77.42 per cent as against 41.89 per cent for Hindus. Between 1991 and 2001, again, the corresponding figures were 29.3 per cent for Muslims and 14.95 per cent for Hindus. The result was that, currently, of 27 Districts in Assam, at least six have 60 per cent Muslim population, while another six have over 40 per cent Muslims. And of the 126 Assembly seats, 54 Members of Legislative Assembly, are dependent on Muslim ‘vote banks’.
There are numerous troubles between a multiplicity of communities in Assam, and the Indian leadership and administration has failed to keep pace with contemporary trends, with the growth of populations, and with the transformation, opportunities and challenges of new technologies and processes. At base, every administration has to be anchored in principles of justice, efficiency and honesty. If this is the case, law and order automatically falls into place. When there is occasional trouble, people turn to the authorities and not to radical and armed extremist formations.
Unfortunately, the integrity of administrations has been comprehensively compromised across India, and more so in the States of the Northeast. The communalization of politics, a trend that commenced well before Partition, has progressed through the decades of Independence, even under and within purportedly ‘secular’ parties. The external environment has also been radicalized, with a jihadi ideology now entrenched in Pakistan finding reverberations across the world, and, at least in some measure, in India as well. It is significant, in this context, to note that, Lafikul Islam, the ‘publicity secretary’ of the All Bodoland Muslim Student’s Union (ABMSU), had warned the State Government on July 7, 2012, that, if the ‘culprits’ of the violence of July 6, 2012, were not arrested within 24 hours and the atrocities against the minorities did not end, ABMSU would declare jehad and take up arms. Within the current international milieu, such sentiments are sure to find their echoes among the Islamist lunatic fringe – and its mirrors in other communities – pushing India into a widening conflagration.
India’s administrators, enforcement and intelligence officials cannot, within the current global context, continue to remain as ignorant as they evidently are, both of local trends within their jurisdictions, and of international trends impinging on perceptions and motivations of local populations. There is evidence that the current cycle of violence was at least partially linked to Bodo-Muslim competition to encroach on forest land, in the latter case, for the construction of an Idgah in the Bedlangmari area in Kokrajhar. However minor such an incident may appear to be on the surface, no competent administrator or intelligence operative could possibly ignore its potential for mischief – and yet, this is precisely what happened. Vast areas of forest and public land in Assam are being progressively encroached upon, with full connivance of the administration, and this cannot continue without consequences.
Law and order in India can no longer be maintained without understanding the subtle trends in violence all over the world. Terrorism and insurgency are no doubt significant patterns that will demand our attention, but there are other patterns of low-grade violence – such as the rioting in the Bodo areas – which will challenge the state progressively, especially, where terrorist and insurgent movements begin to fail. Unless administrators, police leaders and intelligence operatives are sensitive to past trends, social contexts, and international developments, they will continue to fail to respond effectively. There is tremendous need, today, to enlarge the training programmes for the superior services, whose officers are being found wanting in crises with increasing frequency.
Above all, the corrupt politics of vote banks and crass electoral calculi, to the manifest detriment of the national interest, must be defeated. India’s diversity can only be held together by the unity of law and of justice, not by the unprincipled horse-trading that governs politics today.
Publisher, SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management