The Foreingners issue in Assam


The Ahom rulers of Assam were very suspicious about any foreigner entering the country. Even trade outside Assam was not encouraged. Assam was a closely guarded country. Immigration began only after the annexation of Assam in 1826. The British considered the sparsely populated country as a land frontier and large scale immigration was encouraged by them from mainland India and East Bengal to fulfill their colonial interests. The Saadullah Government (1937-46) encouraged immigration from East Bengal. The immigration issue, the Line system (1920) and the land settlement issues rocked the state politics from the 1920s to 1940s. The immigration issue continuous to remain the major cause of political stability or otherwise since then. After the departure of the British, Jawaharlal Nehru’s liberal policy for the East Pakistan immigrants had a far reaching effect on Assam’s politics in the years to come.

After the Partition, East Bengal became East Pakistan. Unlike the western border with West Pakistan, which was guarded zealously by the Indian Army, the Eastern border was left open. Nehru not only rejected the demand made by Assam’s Premier, Gopinath Bordoloi for an inner line permit but also blackmailed his government to accommodate the East Pakistanis by threatening to block Central funds. In 1964, the Assam Congress Parliamentary party in its memorandum to the Indian government demanded complete sealing of the Indo-Pak borders. The Centre did not approve it. After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Border Security Force was raised and deployed along the Eastern border replacing the Assam Border Police. This lackadaisical attitude of the Center encouraged large scale migration from the densely populated East Pakistan. The population of Assam increased abnormally at the rate of 19.93% in 1951 to 34.95% in 1971 due to the massive influx from East Pakistan. People coming from Nepal and Mainland India also added to the immigration pressure on Assam.

The next policy blunder Delhi made was during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Bangladesh was carved out of East Pakistan by the Indian Army. Migration of people is a worldwide phenomenon. Usually people who are temporary asylum seekers during war/political unrest are repatriated to their parent countries immediately after the war/political unrest is over. But millions of refugees who came to Assam during the Liberation war were not repatriated by the Indian Government after the creation of Bangladesh. And when Muzibur Rehman, the prime minister of Bangladesh refused to take back the pre 1971 infiltrators, the Indian State remained silent, as if its duty was over after having divided Pakistan. The border with Bangladesh still remains porous. In the following years the demographic invasion began with added vigor. Assam was made into a dumping ground for foreigners.

The population of Assam went skyrocketing at the rate of 52.44% between 1971-91. The Assamese people severely threatened by the ever increasing Bangladeshi influx, plunged into an anti-foreigners movement led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The moment was also known as the six years Assam Movement that began in 1979 to detect and deport the foreign nationals. Since India and Nepal has a treaty which allow unrestricted travel of citizens between the two countries with the right to settle, the Nepali influx though in a lesser number was not seriously taken by the Assamese agitators.

Delhi remained insensitive to the Assamese constitutional demand. The fear and anxiety of the Assamese were not taken into account. Suppression of the democratic movement was carried out with brute force. The Indian government instead of enacting stringent anti-foreigners law, enforced a most discriminatory law in 1983 known as Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals)/IM(DT) ACT which shielded and protected such illegal foreigners. Such was the pathetic condition in Assam that the Indian State instead of safeguarding its own citizens tried its best to protect the foreigners. Such a preposterous policy has never been practiced anywhere else in the world. Above 855 Assamese sacrificed their lives. The anti-foreigners movement ended with an Accord known as Assam Accord in 1985.

The Assam Accord was drafted and signed overnight on 14th August 1985. The Accord was signed in such haste that it left many loopholes and was destined to fail. It was simply a tool to hoodwink the AASU and the Assamese people from the agitational path. A Home ministry report about a burgeoning ULFA was also one of the reasons for a hurried settlement. The AASU leaders were a desperate lot to capture political power. The Assamese people’s almost blind trust upon the AASU leaders proved to be the main reason why the Assam Accord never faced any critical examination. There was no time frame for implementation of the Accord.

The Assam Accord of 1985 identified 25th March1971 as the cut off year to detect and deport the illegal foreigners from Assam; and disenfranchised those who entered Assam from 1966 to 1971 for a period of 10 years. That means, apart from the IM(DT) hurdle, the Assam Accord had legalized the foreigners who had entered Assam before 25th March 1971. Interestingly the Citizenship Act, 1985 was amended to accommodate those who entered India on or after January 1966 but before March 25, 1971. But no amendment has been made in the Constitution to subscribe 25th March 1971 as the cutoff date to evaluate the citizenship of India and Bangladesh.

The Assam Accord has failed in its main objective of detection and deportation of foreigners. In the last 27 years of signing of the Assam Accord, two Prime Minister level meetings were organized by the Indian Government with AASU and Assam government to discuss the implementation of the accord .The review meetings on the implementation of the Assam Accord are nothing but periodic rituals. The Indian Government has never really been serious in implementing the Assam Accord in a time bound manner. The National Registration of Citizen (NRC) has not been updated in Assam since 1951. It took another 22 years to strike off the pro-immigrant IM(DT) Act by the Supreme Court in 2005.

The Foreigners Tribunals that were constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 to detect and deport foreigners are facing a mammoth task in the absence of an updated NRC and active support from the government. Only 33 out of 36 Foreigners Tribunals are functioning to dispose off 2, 37,000 cases. Between 1985-2012, the Foreigners Tribunals have disposed 73062 cases and declared 61,774 persons as foreigners who simply vanished. The Central and the State Governments have never taken any measures to stop the vanishing act of the declared foreigners. From 1985-2012 only 2,242 foreigners were deported. In April 2012 when the Centre has directed the State Government to dispose off the pending 2.37 lakh cases within a 60 day period, the State Government demanded 64 more tribunals.

Like Gopinath Bordoloi, Bimala Prasad Chaliha’s ministry also took a strong stand against the immigrants. Between 1964-67, Chaliha’s ministry vigorously implemented the Prevention of Infiltrators (from Pakistan) programme (PIP), identified 2, 40,000 and deported 1, 90,000 illegal migrants to East Pakistan. After Chaliha’s death in 1970, the successive state governments became lenient towards the illegal migrants and slowly fell prey to vote bank politics. The number of illegal migrants in Assam as stated by the Chief Minister of Assam Hiteshwar Saikia was 3 million in 1983.In 1997, Indrajit Gupta, the Union Home Minister stated in Parliament that were 4 million foreigners in Assam while Sri Prakash Jaiswal, the Union Minister of State of Home Affairs maintained the figure at 5 million in 2004. Yet none bothered in declaring any comprehensive measures to solve the problem. The unabated influx from the over populated (161million in 2011) and poverty stricken Bangladesh, comprising 1,43,998 sq km in area continues unhindered along the porous border, thus expanding the population of Assam to 31.1 million (2011) and threatening the socio-politico-cultural identities of the indigenous peoples.

The lack of political will of both the Central and the State Government to solve the Foreigners problem and lack of proper census figures and non-availability of adequate information about the illegal migrants is making the foreigners issue more complex. On the other hand, the implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord which promised constitutional safeguard to the Assamese is a far cry: the State Government has still not been able to define the definition of Assamese people till date not to speak of even by a Committee of Ministers which was formed in 2006.Assam‘s per capita income (2011) is 44.5 % below India’s per capita income which proves that the implementation of Clause 7 of the Assam Accord which assured speedy all round economic development of Assam has not been done properly.

Severe encroachment has taken place in the chars, waste land/grazing reserves, the forest reserves, tribal belts and blocks, satras’ lands and the National wildlife sanctuaries of Assam. No other Indian state, except Assam and Tripura, has confronted such an alarming situation. The massive illegal migration has created a huge pressure on agricultural lands and the abnormal high growth of population has had a severe effect on Assam’s limited economic resources. The density of the population of Assam is 397 which has crossed the national average of 382 in 2011. There is still no protective land policy and proper land records in the state to protect the interest of the indigenous people losing their land from encroachment by the illegal migrants.

The second phase of the anti-Foreigners movement got mobilized in Assam after the BTAD clashes in 2012. This time AASU is supported by all the ethnic student bodies of Assam. NESO (North East Students Organization) has also joined the Anti-Foreigners agitation and demanded expulsion of illegal immigrants from all the North Eastern states. But after three decades of repeated anti-foreigner’s agitation by its own citizens, Delhi has remained non committal and the issue was never raised in the diplomatic talks with Dhaka. The inaction of the Government is pushing the North East to the brink of a civil war. What should government of India do to solve the foreigner’s issue?

First, the Government of India should seal the entire 4095 km border with Bangladesh by deploying the Indian Army. Assam shares only 272 km border with Bangladesh. Even in 2011, when the Indo–Bangla land transfer treaty was signed in Dhaka, the influx issue was not raised by the Indian Government in their bilateral talks. Hence, Delhi should pressurize Dhaka to sign illegal migrants repatriation treaty, without which pushing back off any foreigners cannot be handled legally. The NRC should be updated. A sealed border, a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, an updated NRC and backed by the political will of the Central and the State Government, the foreigner problem of Assam can be solved. If the Indian State cannot push back the illegal migrants then it should redistribute the illegal migrants of Assam in other parts of India.

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The Foreingners issue in Assam

By: Hiranya Saikia Read time: 29 min