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Elections come and go. But the immigrant issue goes on forever

Elections come and go. But the immigrant issue goes on forever

Author: Kunal Majumder
Publication: Tehelka
Date: April 9, 2011
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main49.asp?filename=Ne090411ELECTIONS.asp

A quarter century post the Assam Accord, political parties in the state still seek votes on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigration

THE BORDER district of Dhubri, sandwiched between the Brahmaputra and Gangadhar rivers in Assam, has traditionally been a river port. After partition of the subcontinent, this Muslim-majority district turned into a major transit point for illegal trade on the Indo-Bangladesh border. The 44.5-km water border also allows Bangladeshis to cross over in boats on the pretext of trade and quietly merge with the Indian population, first in Assam and then the rest of the country.

With Assembly elections from 4 April, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is on the top of everybody's minds. Even the banned separatist group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) talks of the 'threat', though its leaders get sanctuary in Bangladesh. ULFA foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury confirmed to TEHELKA that the presence of foreigners in Assam will be part of the peace talks with the Central government.

On 3 February, Dhubri Police had caught two trucks full of cough syrup. Earlier that day, the police caught two men trying to pass off fake currency amounting to Rs 49,000 in the market near Pathor Ghat. The prime accused was a 28-year-old farmer Karim Ali, whose farmland is attached to the border fence. "A person called Bokhar Ali came to my farm in Jhowkutti and gave me 98 notes of Rs 500," he says in Bangla. Dhubri Police Station officer incharge HC Deha says, "Bokhar Ali promised to pay him Rs 5,000 if he could use these fake currency." Karim didn't know how to spend so much of money, so he took the help of 24-year-old mason Noor Islam. Somebody in the village tipped off the police and they were arrested in Dhubri town. Where did Bokhar Ali come from? After much reluctance, Karim says softly "Oi pare" (the other side).

People like him from 'the other side' have been an emotive issue since 1979, when Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and other student leaders of All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad agitated for the expulsion of illegal immigrants. After the 1985 Assam Accord with then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Mahanta won the elections as head of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to become the youngest person in India to become the chief minister. The AGP returned to power in 1996 and was also part of the NDA coalition under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Having been in power, he now claims nothing can be done on the issue of illegal immigrants at the state level. "I did my best. Nothing more can be done at the state level. It is completely up to the Centre," says Mahanta.

His former ally BJP has a different view. Though chances of it coming to power in this poll are dim, the BJP has promised to detect and deport all illegal Bangladeshi nationals. To pump up the tempo, it put Varun Gandhi in charge of the poll campaign. Immediately after his appointment in October last year, Gandhi organised a big rally in Nagoan with party president Nitin Gadkari wherein he declared that Bangladeshi influx is the main poll plank of the BJP, along with corruption.

ON THE criticism that BJP did nothing on the issue while in power at the Centre, P Chandra Sekhar, BJP organising secretary for the Northeast, has a quick rebuttal. "It is absolutely not true. The main obstacle in detecting and deporting the illegal migrants was the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act. We challenged the Act in the court, which was later stuck down by the Supreme Court in 2005," says Shekhar.

THE IMDT Act was enacted in 1983 and provided special protection against undue harassment to the 'minorities' affected by the Assam agitation. The BJP, along with many indigenous groups, alleges that the Act basically makes it difficult to deport illegal immigrants from Assam. But what is worrying now is that the illegal immigrant issue might fuel the larger antiminority sentiment. The ghost of the Nellie massacre still lingers. (On 18 February 1983, more than 2,000 alleged Bangladeshis in 14 villages of Nagaon district, including Nellie, were brutally hacked to death.)

In Dhubri, just a few yards from the Circuit House, stands the grey colonial building that houses the Foreigners' Tribunal Office. The IMDT Act is now withdrawn, around 20,000-25,000 cases of d-voters (doubtful voters) are still pending. In the past decade, many districts of Assam have seen an abnormal rise of immigrant population. In a border district like Dhubri, it is even more difficult to distinguish between an Indian Muslim Bengali and a Bangladeshi Muslim Bengali.

Next to the tribunal office is the busiest riverbank of the town - Pathor Ghat. Each morning, scores of men and women from the 262 riverine islands on the Brahmaputra called chars come to Dhubri town on passenger ferries with fresh vegetables, milk, goats, sheep, ducks and hens. They sell their produce in Dhubri market, make their own purchases and return by the evening ferry. Chars are formed and flooded every few years based on the level of water in the Brahmaputra.

There is no specific figure on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. Indrajit Gupta, the then Union home minister, stated in Parliament on 6 May 1997 that there were 10 million illegal migrants in India. Some say this figure is vastly exaggerated and it should not be more than a few lakh. While some in politics propound the conspiracy theory that the immigration is due to the neighbouring country's geopolitical ambitions of a greater Bangladesh, social scientists point out that it mostly due to poverty and a serious crisis of lebensraum (living space). Due to continuous flooding, stable land is hard to come by. "It is a natural phenomenon, which is difficult to control," says Arup Jyoti Saikia, social science professor of IIT, who is writing a book on the same issue. "But the fact remains it is happening rapidly and changing the demography and culture of Assam."

A half-hour ride on the ferry from Pathor Ghat takes you to Motichar, 7 km from the Bangladesh border, an island that was formed only 10 years ago. Abdul Battein, 70, speaks like any other rural voter of India. "The MLA comes only when there is fruit in the tree. He doesn't care about our welfare," he says. His brother Ali, 50, says the family's only asset is a tubewell. "The local counsellor Najma Begum is a relative, yet we have not got anything from the government," says Ali.

During the 2009 Lok Sabha election, they voted for the All India Democratic United Front (AIDUF). "Traditionally we have voted for Congress, but last time we thought Maulana saab is a better man," says Battein. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, founding president of the Bengali Muslim- dominated AIDUF became the surprise winner from Dhubri Lok Sabha seat. Battein is quick to add: "Even he didn't do much for us. Since the first election in 1950s, we have not got a single needle." So why do they vote at all? Before any of the brothers could reply, one of the daughters commented from inside the house. "Vote na dile, oi pare pathiye debe!" (If we don't vote, they will send us to the other side.)

THIS ADMISSION unleashes an outburst. "The politicians indirectly threaten us," says Ali. "We have no options. We have to vote or else they call us Bangladeshis. Whenever we go to Guwahati to get some work, we suddenly become foreigners." Battein adds: "Our forefathers spent their entire life here. We have grown up on the river. If you call us foreigners, where do we go?"

Police intelligence sources told TEHELKA that often Bangladeshis stay in the chars before moving into the town, paying char-dwellers to stay silent.

With the brothers reluctant to respond, Rafikul Islam, 28, is more forthcoming. "Sir, it's true. They do come," he says. "Many nights, we have seen cattle being herded across the Brahmaputra."

Islam adds that it is easy for the illegal immigrants to get a passport or PAN card. Apparently, all you need is a false letterhead with logo of the panchayat and a local address. Battein adds: "Our relatives from Bangladesh get all the papers. But we are the people who get harassed."

Monirul Hussain, 48, who works on a farm, says, "They generally use the time gap between BSF shift changes ," says Hussain. "Many times they use women as fronts. If BSF personnel catch the women, they are threatened with rape charges."

One of the biggest facilitators in recent times have been cell phones. Standing on any of the chars or on the river, you get clear connectivity from both Indian as well as Bangladeshi telecom providers. "Informers near BSF camps use mobile phones to communicate and warn each other," reveals Hussain.

The AIDUF, which has nine seats in the outgoing Assembly, now plans to contest 74 seats. General Secretary Baharul Islam calls the whole immigrant issue a Congress political gimmick and RSS propaganda. "If there are illegal immigrants, please deport them. Ask the BSF jawans at the border, how do Bangladeshis enter the state?" he asks. He goes on to question the very premise of the issue - rise in Muslim population in five districts of Assam. "When there is 75 percent increase in tribal and Christian population, there are no questions asked. Why not talk about the infiltration from Nepal and Burma?" he rationalises.

But the immigration issue looms so large over Assam's consciousness that the political agenda is unlikely to change anytime soon. An unfortunate consequence is that other pressing people's issues get short shrift.

Kunal Majumder is Correspondent with Tehelka
- kunal@tehelka.com

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