On 24 May 2016, the day he took oath as the new chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition in Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal said, “Our government will strive to make a illegal migrant-free and corruption-free State.” This pledge – made in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost the entire BJP top-brass including party President Amit Shah who were present during the swearing in ceremony – only reinforced the importance and priority the BJP has lent to the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration to Assam and elsewhere in the country.
Throughout the campaign period, the BJP harped on the migration issue. In fact, the party described the Assam election as the ‘last battle of Saraighat’. Fought in 1671, the much weaker local Ahom army defeated the Mughals on the banks of the Brahmaputra River near Guwahati. The Ahom victory in that battle halted Mughal expansionism into Assam. The BJP’s explanation was that if the party did not win the polls, Assam would come to be ruled by people who may not be of Indian origin – implying that it could be governed by the Congress-AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front headed by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal) combine who, BJP leaders said, might win with the votes of alleged ‘Bangladeshis.’ The campaign worked and the BJP and its allies received a huge mandate – 86 seats in the 126-member state assembly.
The question now facing the BJP and the Sonowal government is plain and simple – can one expect steps beyond rhetoric to actually deport those people who have been or who would come to be declared as illegal migrants by the due Indian legal process? After all, New Delhi must first be able to make Bangladesh agree that such a problem – that of its nationals migrating illegally to states like Assam – actually exists. After all, unless Dhaka recognises the problem, the question of Bangladesh taking back its nationals declared as illegal migrants by the Indian legal system does not arise. Of course, one must record the fact that India-Bangladesh relations have reached a new high under Prime Minister Modi and, therefore, New Delhi is expected to make Dhaka agree to reach a deal on taking back its nationals declared in India as illegal migrants.
The first visit Sonowal made as chief minister was to the headquarters of the state agency that is involved in the process of preparing an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC). This visit was symbolic, because a correct and updated NRC is expected to determine the Indian nationals among the residents of Assam. This means those whose names do not figure in the final NRC can be considered as people of doubtful citizenship. Sonowal has also assured providing full logistical support to the tribunals set up by the government to go into cases to determine the nationality of those whose citizenships are considered doubtful.
There is no doubt that there are illegal migrants in Assam, but achieving the ultimate objective – that of freeing the state of illegal migrants – can be extremely difficult. First, there is a lack of clarity on the issue itself because all persons who have migrated are loosely labelled as illegal migrants irrespective of the date of their entry into India. In Assam, there can be several categories of migrants who could claim a legal status. Take a look at the following categories as provided for in the Assam Accord that had set 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date:
a. Persons who came before 1 January 1966 will be entitled to Indian citizenship
b. Persons who came between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 are entitled to grant of citizenship after a lapse of 10 years
c. Persons born on Indian soil between 24 March 1971 and before 1 July 1987 are entitled to claim citizenship by birth
d. Persons born on Indian soil after 1 July 1987 but before the commencement of the Citizenship Act, 2003, are entitled to citizenship if one of the parent is an Indian national and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his/her birth.
The BJP government in Assam will have to begin with two things now – press the Centre to enter into a dialogue with Bangladesh on the issue and to halt fresh influx. The BJP has promised in its election vision document that it would ‘seal’ the border and stop fresh infiltration of people from Bangladesh. Now, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has announced the border will be ‘sealed.’
This has been repeatedly said for the past 30 years and people have come to be cynical on such assurances. To actually halt further infiltration, certain other measures like a second line of defence along the border by settling ex-serviceman and things like that will be necessary. However, theoretically speaking, ‘sealing’ the border and halting fresh influx is possible.
Assuming that fresh infiltration is stopped, how is the new government in Assam going to look at or deal with the issue of Bangladeshi migration? Are people going to bracket every Bengali-speaking Muslim settler who lives in the Char or riverine areas as ‘Bangladeshi’? The Sonowal government will have to address this issue and try to resolve it once and for all. The new government must make a clear distinction between Muslim settlers who are Indian nationals by virtue of the provisions of the Assam Accord as well as other Constitutional provisions, like nationality by birth, and those whose citizenship are doubtful in nature.
Once this distinction is made, the new government must draw up a roadmap to provide education, healthcare, connectivity and power to the areas where the settlers are concentrated. If the sense of deprivation among these people continues, they may fall prey to anti-India forces who may try to exploit their vulnerability. Assam can do without a new security situation, nor does the state want social tensions with a new dimension.