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Illegal Migration in Assam: A Concern for India's National Security

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 04, 2006

    Assam, a strategic border state of India, witnessed the influx of migrants since the British period from then East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The influx was largely engineered by the British, given the economic rationale of cheap labour that the migrants provided for the sprawling tea estates in Assam. However, this issue of migration assumed political and communal overtones after independence, and continues to be an issue of concern. Illegal Bangladeshi migration threatens the demographic pattern of Assam, so much so that the majority Assamese community stands threatened of being relegated to minority status.

    In a report to the then President of India K R Narayanan dated November 8, 1998, the then Governor of Assam, Lieutenant General (Retd) S K Sinha warned that the illegal Bangladeshi migration influx "poses a grave threat both to the identity of the Assamese people and to our national security. Successive governments at the Centre and in the State have not adequately met this challenge." He insisted that by viewing the illegal migration issue as a largely regional affair, affecting only the state of Assam, policymakers in New Delhi failed to recognize its negative impact on the overall security landscape. This limited view in New Delhi increased the ability of external actors to influence political developments not only in the peripheral states of the Northeast but also created vital destabilizing linkages within India's strategic heartland.

    In order to tackle illegal migration into Assam, the Centre set up the Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 on December 12, 1983 under an act of Parliament. Applicable only to the state of Assam, the IMDT Act provided that anybody settled in Assam before March 25, 1971 was a legal citizen. Significantly, for the rest of India, the cut off date for acquiring Indian citizenship is July 19, 1948. The IMDT Act also laid the onus on the complainant - the police, rather than the accused to prove the latter's citizenship status. (The Foreigner's Act, 1946, in contrast, lays the responsibility on the accused, and not the complainant, to prove his/her citizenship status).

    The implementation of the IMDT Act evoked a lot of acrimony in Assam. It was enacted during the turbulent 1983 elections. At that time, the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) leaders, spearheading the Assam Agitation against illegal Bangladeshi migrants, questioned the validity of the 1983 elections. For them, the elections lacked legitimacy as they were held without resolving the illegal migration issue. Subsequently, AASU leaders argued that the political favouritism shown towards the illegal migrants under the IMDT Act rendered it ineffective in dealing with the issue at hand. The leaders of the Assam Agitation were also by and large suspicious of the IMDT Act given that it was enacted by the Hiteshswar Saikia government, which was perceived to be pro-illegal Bangladeshi migrants for its own political gains.

    On August 15, 1985, the Assam Accord was signed between the Assam Agitation leaders and the Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre. The accord stated in Para 5.9 that "the government will give due considerations to certain difficulties expressed by the AASU/AAGSP regarding the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983." Significantly, the agitation leaders, who under the banner of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) formed the government twice, took an ambiguous stand with regard to the annulment of the IMDT Act. Indeed, they did little to remove the difficulties of the Act, which prevented a judicious handling of the migration issue. Yet, an analysis of the ground realities till date reflects the inability of the IMDT Act to effectively identify and deport illegal migrants. As a result, polemics in Assamese civil society increased the demands for scrapping the IMDT Act.

    On July 12, 2005, a three judge Bench of the Supreme Court (SC) comprising Chief Justice R C Lahoti, Justice G P Mathur and Justice P K Balasubramanyan ruled that the IMDT Act "created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in identification and deportation of illegal migrants." It held the Act unconstitutional and stated that it contravened Article 355 of the Constitution. Article 355 of the Indian Constitution entrusts upon the Union of India the duty to protect every state against "external aggression and internal disturbances". The SC also stated that the presence of a large number of illegal migrants had a profound negative impact on the Northeast and directed the setting up of fresh tribunals under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Foreigners (Tribunal Order) 1964. The IMDT Act had a provision for setting up tribunals in different border districts of Assam to decide the cases against illegal infiltrators. However, estimates indicate that there are nearly 250,000 cases pending with the 16 IMDT tribunals. In this context, the Bench of the SC noted that despite the fact that enquiries were initiated in 310,759 cases under the IMDT Act, only 10,015 persons were declared illegal migrants and out of the declared number, only 1,481 were physically expelled as of April 30, 2000. In comparison, West Bengal, which also has a huge influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, has deported nearly half a million till date under the Foreigners Act, 1946. Thereafter, a Group of Ministers (GoM) was set up to study the SC's ruling and prescribe a future course of action. The Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided on February 10, 2006 to set up tribunals under the Foreigners Act, 1946, for determination of illegal migrants in Assam.

    The scrapping of the IMDT Act and implementation of the Foreigners Act, 1946 should bring about an effective management of the illegal migration problem. Official estimates reveal that under the provisions of the Foreigner's Act, 1946, over 300,000 illegal migrants were deported from Assam between 1962 and 1984 (174,349 between 1962-66, 69,174 between 1967-73 and 58,148 between 1974-83). However, from 1983 onwards, after the implementation of the IMDT Act, the number of deportees fell sharply, with just 1,501 being deported in the subsequent 18 years. Thus, re-engagement with the illegal migration issue under provisions of the Foreigner's Act, 1946 should bring about better management of the situation.

    It is vital for India's national security to check the influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants into Assam. The state shares a 262 km border with Bangladesh of which 92 km is riverine. The logistical difficulties to set in place a foolproof border fence have been a strong obstacle for the Border Security Force (BSF) to check illegal migration inflows from Bangladesh. Illegal migrants are estimated to be around 6 million in Assam. The continuation of the immigration influx would not only destabilize Assam's socio-cultural and political parameters but also enable external actors like Pakistan and China to influence events in the Northeast. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has established strong linkages with Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) and has shifted base to Bangladesh after the Royal Bhutan Army destroyed ULFA training camps in Bhutan in 2004. In fact, the ULFA has given up its earlier anti-illegal Bangladeshi migrants' stand on account of the bases provided to them by Bangladesh. Given that, the SC's decision is the right step towards strengthening internal legal procedures in dealing with a politically volatile issue within Assam.

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