by Anand KumarThe illegal immigration of Bangladeshis has become a serious problem for India . To deal with this, the government had earlier decided to deport at least 3,000 Bangladeshi migrants every month. But toward the end of April this year, the government took a U turn. The Union Home Ministry has now decided to do a rethink on the policy, as it felt the deportation exercise was ‘‘unimplementable’’. Almost at the same time people in Dibrugarh district in Assam started a social mobilization against these illegal immigrants. In sharp contrast to the government effort, their approach appears to be working. The economic sanctions imposed on illegal immigrants have forced a large number of them to move out of the district and seek living elsewhere. The non-governmental organization which started a campaign against the illegal Bangladeshis wants other districts to follow their example so that the state as a whole can get rid of them.
Illegal immigrants have been one of Assam 's biggest issues for the last two decades. Assam shares a 272-km-long border with Bangladesh . A vast stretch of that is still unfenced. India says that the large-scale infiltration from across the border was threatening the region's demographic profile. Though the exact number of illegal immigrants is not known, generally it is estimated that about 20 million Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India . Of this number, about 6 million are present in Assam alone. There are no official estimates for the number of migrants in Assam , but state governor Ajai Singh has said that up to 6,000 illegally enter the region every day. The outgoing judge of the IMDT Tribunal, which is supposed to detect and deport infiltrators has also admitted that infiltration is continuing on a large scale. Due to this unabated illegal immigration at least five districts of lower Assam is now dominated by the Bangladeshis.
The Congress led Assam government says that it wants to solve the issue of illegal immigration on the basis of Assam Accord and make 1971 as the cut off date for migrants. But this assertion of government remains only a statement of intent. Very little has been done on the ground to check the influx of Bangladeshis.
To remedy the situation, people of three districts in Upper Assam decided to act on their own within the boundaries of law. It first began in the district of Dibrugarh, where on April 12 this year a group of youngsters got together to form the Chiring Chapori Yuva Mancha. They published leaflets asking residents not to harbour, employ or provide food to suspected Bangladeshis. They also started sending SMS messages through mobile phones. As the messages spread, there was all-round cooperation from people in the district and nearby areas.
After which thousands of Bangladeshis who have been working as labourers and rickshaw pullers have been leaving the town of Dibrugarh . However, the estimate of number of people leaving varies. The group convened a press conference and thanked people for their support. A member of the forum said, “The response to the campaign against illegal migrants has been very encouraging. People from all quarters of this township, irrespective of caste, creed and community, have responded fully to our sincere appeal.” The group urged “indigenous Muslims” not to be frightened. It asserted that its fight was only against those who are illegally settling in Assam . It also ruled out possibility of any clash.
The organization reiterated that it had only appealed to the people to which they have responded.The organization has denied any political linkage. It has asked all conscious and law-abiding citizens to join its campaign. It says that its basic aim is to make Dibrugarh town clean and healthy. It also appealed to people from other districts of the state to launch similar sort of campaign to make the state free from illegal migrants. They have appealed to all political parties to support their cause.
The success of the campaign started by the 'Chiring Chapori Yuva Manch', in Dibrugarh, has encouraged other groups like All Assam Students Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad, Tai Ahom Students Union and Motok Students Union also to join the campaign.
The Bangladeshi immigrants in this area were hired by local contractors in brick kilns, road and building construction works. A large majority of them also pulled rickshaws. Women worked as maids. After the campaign began, these workers started fleeing from Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Golaghat in Upper Assam to the five immigrant-dominated districts of Dhubri, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Morigaon and Nagoan in Lower Assam .
The state government initially did not know how to react. The government spokesman and rural development minister Ripun Bora maintained that the group behind the anti-Bangladeshi campaign, Chiring Chapori Yuva Mancha, had not harassed any suspected illegal migrants. Bora said that those who left Dibrugarh were mostly from the religious minority. "But it was out of fear that they left. The Mancha did not drive them out. Anyway, it is the duty of all Indian citizens to be vigilant on the movement of foreigners."
However, soon the state government feared a communal backlash as certain quarters tried to give the issue a religious colour. Assam Home Minister Rokibul Hussain asked the district administration and the police to remain vigilant to ensure that no genuine Indian citizens are harassed in the name of hounding Bangladeshis and also to prevent any sort of communal tension. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi asked Hussain, Planning Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma and Home Commissioner B K Gohain to rush to Dibrugarh and take stock of the situation.
The government issued a mild warning, saying it would take "appropriate action against anyone found harassing or intimidating minorities in the name of illegal migrants." It has instituted two inquiries into the exodus. Apart from Dibrugarh additional deputy commissioner Mukul Gogoi, home commissioner Biren Gohain has been asked to investigate the development and submit a report within a month. A press release from Dispur said a preliminary investigation revealed that the people who fled Dibrugarh hailed from Darrang, Sonitpur, Goalpara, Barpeta and Nagaon districts.
The Union government took note of the exodus of suspected migrants from this Upper Assam district after Congress MP Anwar Hussain raised the issue in the Lok Sabha. The centre decided to bypass the Tarun Gogoi government, and has asked central intelligence agencies to compile reports on the exodus of suspected illegal settlers from Dibrugarh district. These agencies have been specifically told not to rely on inputs from the state administration or the police.
The fleeing Bangladeshis have caused concern in other states of northeast. The North East Students' Organisation (NESO), the apex body of all student groups in the northeast, has warned the state governments in the region to be alert against fleeing Bangladeshi nationals from Assam entering other states. NESO leader N.S.N. Lotha said, "Some 10,000 Bangladeshis have already left for greener pastures in other states after the economic blockade against migrant workers in Assam ."
Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the State Government started hunting for a political motive behind the anti-migrant campaign launched by a little-known organisation. On May 16, Minister of state and government spokesperson Ripun Bora stated that a “political hand” behind the developments in Dibrugarh could not be ruled out. He said both the AGP and the BJP were on the lookout for an issue to pin down the government with, considering Assembly elections are barely a year away. He said, “They are looking for an emotional issue and this is one. The AGP came to power twice by cashing in on this issue. So nothing can be ruled out.”
However, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which had come into being on the issue of infiltration from Bangladesh , chose to distance itself from the ongoing drive against “foreigners” in Dibrugarh. Its president Brindaban Goswami stated that his party wanted this issue to be resolved on the basis of the 1985 Assam Accord and while seeking a solution to the vexed issue, genuine Indian citizens should not be harassed.
Commenting on the exodus of suspected illegal immigrants, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stated that their oft-repeated claim that Assam has become a hunting ground for Bangladeshi nationals stands vindicated after the reports of the exodus. The zonal organising secretary of BJP V Satish welcomed the move of the Mancha saying this kind of social pressure was needed to remove the illegal migrants. He said, "The Congress government is protecting the migrants for their vote bank so this Mancha had done the right thing."
The All Assam Minority Students Union warned both Delhi and Dispur to be ready to face an unexpected situation if stern action was not taken against the “communal leaders” responsible for the exodus of the “working class” minorities from the Upper Assam districts. The student group claimed that the religious minorities working as wage earners in the Upper Assam districts are actually from the erosion-hit villages of Morigaon and Barpeta districts. It said dubbing them foreigners and imposing an “economic blockade” on them was a conspiracy of both the BJP and the AASU for their narrow political gain, which would ultimately lead to ethnic bloodbath.
Unfortunately this social action against illegal immigration in Assam has now become politicized and communalized. In Assam a law, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1986, was enacted to check the problem of illegal immigration. But later it was found that the law itself has become a big hurdle in checking the problem. Police throughout the border areas of Assam have found it tough to detect and evict illegal migrants who have flooded the North-Eastern states in recent years. Local police says that it is next to impossible to throw out foreigners from Assam because the IMDT Act required "too much documentation before a person can be identified and deported." In such a situation the social action of people against the illegal immigrants was proving to be very effective. But with local elections just one year away, even the initiative of people has taken a political colour. The Assam government has now come out openly in favour of these illegal migrants whom it considers its vote bank. The approach of the state government shows why this problem has been around for so long and its magnitude which has increased over the years.
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