The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Refugee haunts Assam’s polity

Guwahati, 27 July (Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - Since the last four weeks or so, Assam has been witnessing lots of political noise and hectic parleys over issues linked to neighbouring Bangladesh. In June, the state government rejected the new visa norms for Bangladeshi citizens announced by the Ministry of External Affairs. Now the Gogoi cabinet has decided to grant citizenship to lakhs of refugees coming from Bangladesh. Both the government decisions, especially the later one, have generated huge controversies in Assam.

The question of permanent settlement of Bangladeshi refugees often created volatile situation in the past and continues to be a thorny issue in Assam politics. The flow of migrants from united Bengal to Assam began in the colonial period and persisted even after the independence of India. The two major politico-historical developments which resulted in exodus of refugees from Bengal and subsequently East Pakistan were the partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion in 1947 and the birth of Bangladesh through a protracted nine-month long Liberation War in 1971.

According to various estimates, nearly 10 million people, mostly Hindus took shelter in India during the war period as murderous Pakistan Army and their local collaborators had been particularly targeting non-Muslims. Many of them returned home after the end of civil war but a sizeable segment stayed back in Assam. Migrants who crossed over into India on or before March 25, 1971, were accorded “refugee” status and eventually granted citizenship by the government of India. It is important to note that the emergence of a secular and independent Bengali nation under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could not stop migration and the process continues till today. Those who crossed border after March 25, 1971 are treated as illegal migrants in Assam.

Large numbers of migrants have entered Assam to escape religious persecution, social discrimination and growing threats to their lives and properties in Bangladesh. The plight of these people is seen from a humanitarian perspective. Reports suggest that the total strength of the refugees could be approximately 85 lakhs. A vast majority of them consists of Bengali speaking Hindus. There are also Buddhists, Garos, Rajbongshis, Adivashis and Bishnupriya Manipuris among the refugees. Most of the Bangladeshi refugees have settled in Assam owing to its close geographical proximity to neighbouring Bangladesh, Bengal and Tripura.

Political parties outside North East are not opposed to granting citizenship rights to the refugees coming from neighbouring South Asian countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh under difficult conditions though they do not make public statements on such issues too often. But BJP is vocal on the issue of refugees and generally raises during the election period. The party leaders maintain that the minorities, both ethnic and religious, continue to suffer in Bangladesh due to the resurgence of religious extremism and hence should be treated sympathetically. States like Rajasthan and Gujarat amended the Citizenship Rule in 2004 to rehabilitate refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thousands of people belonging to Sikh and Hindu communities had been displaced as result of 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan and settled in those two states over the years.

In a significant policy decision, the Assam government on July 16 approved a proposal to grant Indian citizenship to lakhs of refugees from Bangladesh taking shelter in the state for the last four decades. The Gogoi cabinet observed that the refugees who had fled religious persecution and discrimination in Bangladesh and entered Assam after March 25, 1971, the cut-off date for determining an illegal migrant as per the provisions of Assam Accord of 1985, would not be treated as foreigners. The cabinet decision says, “These people should not be treated as foreigners, should be accorded basic human rights like access to courts and education, should not face the threat of deportation and should be granted citizenship in the same manner as in Gujarat and Rajasthan where people under a similar situation were granted Indian citizenship”.

However, the state government clarified that there would be no relaxation of the existing laws for detecting, trying and deporting illegal migrants, particularly those languishing in detention camps after being declared as illegal Bangladeshi migrants by the Foreigners Tribunal since 2010. According to official records, there are more than 200 declared foreigners in three detention camps of Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Silchar.