The ethnic-cum-communal violence in Kokrajhar, resulting in 100 people brutally killed and four lakh rendered homeless, has been a great humanitarian tragedy. The root cause for this mayhem is the changing demographic profile of the region. Ethnic violence of greater dimension took place in Assam during the 1983 Nellie massacre when over 2,000 Bangladeshis were killed in one night, but far fewer rendered homeless.
Assam has been in the eye of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, for over a century. In 1905, the Muslim League demanded “Bange-Islam”, merging sparsely populated Assam with heavily populated Muslim majority East Bengal. Mass migration from East Bengal into Assam continued. In the 1931 Assam census report, the British Census Superintendent expressed grave concern over Assamese people getting engulfed by this influx. During the Second World War, Sir Mohammad Sadaulla, the chief minister of Assam, gave a big fillip to this influx. Lord Wavell in The Viceroy’s Journal wrote that in the name of “Grow More Food”, Sadaulla was “growing more Muslims”. The 1946 Cabinet plan placed Assam and Bengal in Group C. Had this been accepted, Assam would be part of Bangladesh today. During a visit to Guwahati in 1946, Jinnah confidently declared that he had Assam in his pocket.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in The Myth of Independence, asserts that the dispute between India and Pakistan is not only about Kashmir but also some districts of Assam adjacent to East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in his book Eastern Pakistan: Its Population, Delimitation and Economics, wrote, “Eastern Pakistan must include Assam to be financially and economically strong.” Various intellectuals in Bangladesh have been advocating lebensraum (living space) for Bangladesh in Assam.
The Congress has been encouraging illegal migration from Bangladesh to build its votebank. Dev Kant Barua, of “Indira is India and India is Indira” fame, as Congress president declared that his party will always win elections in Assam with the help of Alis and coolies; the former standing for Bangladeshi migrants and the latter for tea garden labour.
B.K. Nehru, a respected member of the ruling family, was the governor of Assam in the Sixties. He writes in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Second, that three politicians from Assam in Delhi guided the Congress’ policy on Assam. They were Dev Kant Barua, Moinul Haque Chowdhry former private secretary to Jinnah and then a Cabinet minister and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, another Cabinet minister who later became President. B.K. Nehru and B.P. Chaliha, the then chief minister of Assam, took up the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh but were restrained.
He laments, “Chaliha placed the national interests above the party but the party high command thought otherwise.” Lt. Gen. Jameel Mahmood, the Eastern Army Commander in the Nineties, advised Jyoti Basu and Hiteshwar Saikia, the then chief ministers of Bengal and Assam respectively, that if action was not taken against the Bangladeshi infiltrators, we would have to redraw the boundaries of India in the Northeast. He also wrote to the Army Headquarters that a Kashmir like situation would develop in Dhubri, abutting the narrow Siliguri corridor.
On April 10, 1992, Hiteshwar Saikia stated that there were three million Bangladeshi illegal migrants in Assam. Some MLAs threatened to withdraw support from his government. This would have resulted in his falling. Two days later he committed a volte face and issued a statement that there were no illegal migrants in Assam.
Indrajit Gupta, the home minister told Parliament on May 6, 1997, that there were 10 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, of which three million were reported in Assam. In 1998, as governor of Assam, I submitted a 42-page printed report to the President, pointing out that these illegal migrants were not only changing the demography of Assam but also posing a grave threat to our national security.
I made 15 recommendations, including effective border fencing, multi-purpose identity cards, updating national register of citizens and repeal of Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act. The latter applied only to Assam and facilitated illegal migration. I also recommended that as the Bangladesh government, including Sheikh Hasina, did not accept the fact about illegal migrants, it was not possible to deport them. They should be declared stateless citizens with no voting rights nor be allowed to acquire immovable property.
Twenty Congress MPs from the Northeast appealed to the President to recall me for dabbling in politics. No action was taken on my recommendations. Halfway through my tenure in Assam, Tarun Gogoi became the chief minister. He issued statements to the press about what he referred to as my constitutional impropriety in raking up Bangladeshi migrants’ issue. He asked the Centre to restrain me. He was unaware of any Bangladeshi illegal migrants in Assam. Today halfway through his third term as chief minister, he seems to have become wiser. He now admits that Assam is sitting on a volcano. He has even accepted that there are 39,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam.
The Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act in 2005, quoting extracts from my report to the President. The government brought back the IMDT Act through the backdoor by amending the Foreigners Act. This, too, has been struck down. The judiciary has referred to the Bangladeshi infiltration as “demographic aggression”. Gauhati high court, in a judgment delivered on July 23, 2008, has observed that Bangladeshi migrants have become kingmakers. Eleven out of 27 districts of Assam have migrant majority.
Two Muslims were killed possibly by Bodos on July 6. The migrant militants retaliated by shooting four Bodo leaders. This led to widespread violence. Both communities have suffered grievously. On July 20, the state government asked for military help which ministry of defence approved on July 24 and the Army got deployed on July 25. The blame game is being played between the Centre and the state. Apart from accusing the Centre of delay, Mr Gogoi has even blamed it for not providing intelligence. The latter, in such cases, is the responsibility of the state government.
Neiphun Riyu, the chief minister of Nagaland, has been reporting that Bangladeshi migrants are receiving arms training in the jungles bordering Assam and Nagaland. This was ignored. The recent ethnic clashes in Kokrajhar show new-found aggressive militancy among Bangladeshi migrants. The All-India United Democratic Front is the second largest party in the state Assembly. It is primarily a communal party of Bangladesh migrants functioning as rival of the Congress. It has been garnering support from minorities all over the country. The recent violence unleashed in Mumbai and Pune is also a result of this.
Apart from ensuring peace and rehabilitating the affected people of both communities, the government must declare illegal migrants stateless citizens. It has all the justification to do so. Over one lakh non-Muslim refugees of 1947 living in Jammu are still stateless citizens with no voting rights nor the right to acquire immovable property. Elsewhere in the country these 1947 refugees were immediately given full citizenship, with two becoming Prime Ministers and one deputy Prime Minister.
A pusillanimous and appeasement approach to the Assam problem is suicidal for national security.
The author, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir