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Archive for September 2012

This is Jhina Hikaka’s very first detailed interview with media after being reunited with his family.(Published on May 13, 2012)

The irony is stark. Odisha legislator Jhina Hikaka feels “claustrophobic” in his well-guarded official residence. “It seems as if I have been chained,” says Hikaka.

Indeed, it looks as if the 36-year-old tribal MLA from Laxmipur constituency in southern Odisha has been held captive in his own house. Eleven policemen guard him round the clock. His six-room apartment is like a fortress. A security guard at the front door wants to know your business. Inside, there are more armed guards in the lobby.

Days after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) member was released by Maoist abductors, Hikaka is still to taste freedom. “The security was provided by the government after I was released by the Maoists,” says Hikaka, wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of bermuda shorts, in his first detailed interview after the release. Before he was kidnapped in March, just one police officer in plainclothes guarded him.

Hikaka is still shaky about his 33 days in captivity. He recalls how it all began. He was picked up by the Maoists at around 1.30am on March 24 when he was barely two kilometres from his village.

“Around 30 armed men stopped my car. My driver and security officer were ordered out. Our cellphones were taken away. Then I was taken into the jungle.” The trek was long and arduous. After walking for over 30 kilometres through a hilly terrain, he was brought to a Maoist camp. “They had told me that they would let me go after having discussions with their leaders. But the days passed, and no discussion took place. I started getting worried,” says Hikaka, who was provided with a lungi, a towel and a shawl at the camp.

Some days later, he was told by the Maoists that they had placed their demands before the government. But when he heard that the government had not responded, he wrote a letter to chief minister Naveen Patnaik, alleging that his abduction was not being taken up seriously because he was a tribal. “I was very frustrated and depressed when I wrote the letter.”

When the negotiations did not work out, the rebels told him they would take up the matter with the praja — or people’s court. On April 25, he learnt that he was being released. “But funnily, my first thought was how I’d walk all that way back to village,” he says with a smile.

A day later, he was left near a mango orchard in Balipeta where his wife Kaushalya and advocate Nihar Ranjan Patnaik were waiting for him. Hikaka was overwhelmed when he saw his wife. “I was shocked to see that she’d turned so frail in a month,” he says. The MLA too lost 8kg in the jungles. “I wanted to hug him but didn’t get a chance in the presence of hundreds of villagers who’d come to greet him,” adds Kaushalya.

After his release, Hikaka was asked to move to Bhubaneswar for security reasons. “But I am waiting to go back to my village and my constituency,” Hikaka, who belongs to Koraput district’s Dumuripadar village, stresses.

That’s not going to be easy. In fact, even his tenure as an MLA is uncertain. His abductors had taken a written undertaking from him that he would resign as an MLA and sever ties with his party after his release. But 17 days since his return, Hikaka is still a legislator. “The Maoists did not give any deadline. I haven’t discussed the issue with my senior party members yet,” he explains.

But there are rumours that he may be kidnapped again if he doesn’t resign. There all kinds of stories in Odisha about the abduction, with some holding that Hikaka was picked up because a deal between the ruling BJD and the Maoist-backed Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) fell through.

The Opposition has claimed that the tribals helped the BJD get their candidate elected in the Koraput Zilla Parishad elections in March this year. In return, it further alleged, the government had agreed to the CMAS’s 10 demands — which included leniency.

The BJD has denied that there was a deal — and Hikaka echoes that. “We did not have any such agreement with the CMAS.”

Hikaka is a quiet man. Not fluent in Hindi or English, his answers are brief. A Kui tribal, he is the only son of his parents, his railway gangman father and homemaker mother.

After finishing high school from Laxmipur, he graduated in political science from V.D. College in Jeypore in 1999. He began working as a community organiser in the Centre-funded District Rural Development Agency in Koraput, where he worked for 10 years, while doing a masters degree in mass communication and sociology from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.

He entered politics in his thirties. He was given a ticket for the first time in the 2009 Assembly election.

Kaushalya didn’t want Hikaka to join politics, convinced that it was a dirty world. But Hikaka, who is also a qualified lawyer, knew his calling. “I had to be either a politician or a community worker — my effort has always been to come closer to my own people,” he says.

But his constituents differ. Though he is popular in the Laxmipur and Dasmantpur blocks of his constituency, villagers in the other two blocks — Narayanpatna and Ban-dhugaon — complain that he hasn’t done much for them. “We haven’t seen him ever in our village,” alleges Rassai Nachika, a villager in Narayanpatna.

Tilsui Hulka, a farmer in Basnaput village, is more scathing. “There is a single primary healthcare centre with just one doctor. Schools have no teachers. Acres of cultivable land lie barren because of lack of irrigation facilities. There are barely any roads in the village. He has not worked for our development,” he says.

Hikaka doesn’t deny the charges, but holds the Maoists responsible for the lack of development. “These are the blocks most affected by the Maoists. A sum of Rs 15 crore is lying unused because the Maoists and the CMAS don’t allow development projects,” he holds.

He adds that he did try to bring up the issue during his days in the jungles. “I tried to convince them but they don’t want development.”

At one point, Hikaka even asked the Maoists to give up the gun. “But they didn’t listen,” he rues.

Kaushalya, his wife of 10 years, has been sitting quietly all this while. She now gets up to receive guests who’ve come from the neighbouring Malkangiri district. Pleasantries are exchanged, and then the guests want to know what he ate in the Maoist camp.

“I was served roti and tomato chutney for breakfast, and rice and daal for lunch and dinner,” he says, adding that the rebels did not hurt him in any way.

Since his return, Hikaka and his wife have barely got any time to spend with each other because of the crowds of visitors. The two, however, did manage to go to Puri to pray at the Jagannath temple there. “We went also to Chilika to see the dolphins. The kids were very happy,” says Hikaka, whose sons, Rohit and Kiran, are seven and four, respectively.

Right now, he is thinking of getting back to work. He doesn’t know when that’s going to happen. He admits that he fears for his life. “But that will not stop me from working for the people,” he says.

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The recent violence between Bodos and Muslims in Assam that claimed more than 70 lives and left around four lakh people homeless has once again thrown the spotlight on the contentious issue of illegal migration.

The Bodos have alleged that illegal migrants have been occupying “their” land for decades and this is what led to the conflict. The settlers, on the other hand, insist that they are bona fide Indian citizens and that the Bodos have no right to try and oust them from there.

In this context, questions are now being raised on the effectiveness of the laws that are meant to detect and deport illegal migrants.

Indeed, right from the time of Partition, the country has had a whole spectrum of laws to deal with illegal migration. Unfortunately, each has been fraught with loopholes. The Foreigners Act, 1946, and Foreigners Order, 1948, were introduced to check the entry of aliens into India. But experts say that these could not be properly implemented because there was a huge — and inevitable — influx of people from Pakistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan after Partition.

A few years later, yet another law — Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 — was passed to stem the tide of foreigners into the northeastern state of Assam from neighbouring East Pakistan. But this too proved to be ineffectual as it came with a rider.

“The proviso to Section 2 of the act allowed minority communities of Bangladesh to migrate to Assam on account of ‘civil disturbances’. But there was no effective mechanism to ascertain the actual beneficiaries of the law. So many Muslims from Bangladesh came in even though they were not protected under this clause,” says Supreme Court advocate Shuvodeep Roy.

The chequered history of illegal migration into India took yet another turn after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. A year later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed a pact with Bangladesh’s first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, wherein it was decided that Bangladeshi nationals who came to India on and after March 25, 1971, would be sent back. In other words, the status of those who had migrated illegally before this date was legalised. As former director general of Border Security Force (BSF) E.N. Rammohan explains, “All those who were detected as foreigners under the 1950 Act were absorbed.”

Though Bangladesh denies that its citizens come into India illegally, experts say that economic migration from Bangladesh to the whole of India, especially to Assam and West Bengal, is rampant. “There are three types of illegal migrants. First, those who came with valid visa and documents but overstayed. Second, those who came with forged visa and documents. And third, those who entered surreptitiously,” says former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, Veena Sikri.

Assam, which has received wave after wave of illegal migrants, has always been deeply resentful of the settlers. In 1979 the issue sparked a violent statewide agitation. But in the Assam Accord of 1985 — a pact between the All Assam Students’ Union, All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and the Centre to deal with illegal migration — the same cut off date of 1971 was taken into account. Furthermore, under the terms of the accord, all those who came to Assam before January 1, 1966, had the right to vote. It also said that those who came on or after March 25, 1971, would be expelled from the country.

Two years before the Assam Accord was drafted, a new law called the Illegal Migrant Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act was enacted in 1983 exclusively for Assam. (The Foreigners Act was applied in the case of the rest of the country.)

Critics say that the IMDT Act didn’t serve any purpose because the onus of proving citizenship rested on the accuser and the police, and not on the accused. Says former home secretary G.K. Pillai, “In most cases, it was impossible for the police to produce documents against the accused, thus making it difficult to prove that the suspect was a foreign national.”

In the end, the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act in 2005 while hearing the case ofSarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India. Petitioner Sonowal had submitted that 1,494 illegal migrants were deported from Assam till June 2001 under the IMDT Act while 4,89,046 Bangladeshi nationals were deported from West Bengal between 1983 and 1998 under the Foreigners Act — thus underlining the ineffectiveness of the IMDT Act.

After the apex court struck down this law, cases of illegal migration to Assam came under the purview of the Foreigners Act. All pending cases were transferred to the tribunals under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.

However, experts point out that these tribunals have been quite ineffective in dealing with cases of illegal migration. Often, hearings can go on for as long as 10 years because they are overburdened with cases. Says retired judge B.K. Sarma, the sole member of the Foreigners Tribunal in Assam’s Baksa district, “We have no basic infrastructure to run the tribunal. There are 4,698 pending cases in our tribunal since 2006.” This tribunal has declared 35 people foreigners in the past six years.

But the other reason for the delay in the disposal of cases is that suspects often go absconding. Last year the Gauhati High Court observed that those absconding are often not traced by the police.

Even if the illegal migrant has been declared as such and apprehended, the process of deportation is complicated. After being declared an alien, he or she has the right to challenge the order in the high court and later, in the Supreme Court.

If the apex court upholds the tribunal’s order, the person has to be deported. But this is a tricky process as India and Bangladesh do not have a bilateral agreement on repatriation.

As Supreme Court lawyer Arthi Rajan says, “Often, these suspects stay in detention camps for many years since the Foreigners Act mentions no specific time frame for deportation. The law should specify a time limit for deportation of foreign nationals.”

The Foreigners Act also doesn’t lay down a mechanism for deportation. So the Indian government follows a “push back” policy where foreign nationals are taken to the border and handed over to the Border Guards Bangladesh by the BSF. Around 134 declared illegal migrants were deported to Bangladesh from Assam in 2011-2012.

But Pillai feels that those deported will soon make their way back into India — as has been the trend all these years. “Unless the Centre shows the political will to implement laws to deal with illegal migration and also adopt an effective mechanism for their deportation, a deported Bangladeshi will keep coming back through different border points,” he says.

And Assam, at least, will continue to seethe over the issue.

Seminars and roundtables are expected to give us a bird’s- eye view on any issue.We attend these discussions for a deeper understanding of current affairs as “experts” invited in these symposiums are supposed to apprise us of a broader view that we journalists ( who usually suffer from myopic vision) may not be aware of.

Two weeks back, I walked into Mir Anis Hall at Jamia Millia Islamia, where the varsity’s NE centre had organised a roundtable on “Assam situation,” with a view to get different perspectives on the recent conflict. Given the spectrum of speakers –  researchers, a Planning Commission member, a Supreme Court lawyer and a journalist- my expectations were high.But much of it transformed into disappointment as we inched closer to the evening.

Curiously, none of the speakers gave any cursory rundown on the recent violence in Bodoland. Instead, some unautheticated facts floated in the three-hour long discussion. Most speakers appeared to be misinformed.

 For example, one of the speakers vociferously pointed out that the development in the Bodoland has gone down since the formation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. I agree with the statement because I have visited Bodoland. But a mere statement is not enough to convince a room of 200 listeners (mostly students and researchers). The speaker had nothing more to substantiate her observation.

She made a careless mention on Bodoland’s high dropout rate without stating what the actual dropout rate is. (Btw, the dropout rate in Bodoland is 28 per cent and the literacy rate is 56.5%).

Further on, she mentioned that Bodo boys and girls are very good in sports but they don’t get right opportunities to exhibit their talent. I agree with her first part of the sentence but  beg to differ with the second.

 Here is why. For your information, there is a residential coaching centre run by Sports Authority of India (SAI) for honing the skills of the budding talents in Kokrajhar, one of the four Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD).

Archers and boxers hailing from this SAI centre have won gold and silver medals in the international tournaments in the past few years.(For more on this, refer to my story http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120805/jsp/7days/story_15815346.jsp)

One interesting point that came out in the discussion was how militant groups operational in the Bodoland have, in a way, aggravated the recent violence. But strangely enough, the issue of illegal immigration –  which is believed to be the genesis of the conflict was deliberately skirted by the speakers.

Nobody pondered over the fact there are several estimates of illegal migration and the courts have repeatedly pointed out that the ineffective mechanism by the state government to detect and deport illegal migrants.

In a bid to convince the audience that the recent rupture is not a fallout of illegal migration, one of the speakers even eagerly stated that the Kokrajhar Foreigners Tribunal has detected just one foreigner. Later, I discovered that number of foreigners declared by the Tribunal is 35 since 2006.No person has been declared a foreigner in the past three months, additional superintendent of police of Kokrajhar told me.

A Jamia friend later pointed out that illegal immigration was deliberately not discussed keeping the sentiments of minority community at Jamia in mind. This argument sounded very puerile because the issue is not about Muslims but about illegal migration from Bangladesh.  Jamia has students from all communities and I believe, a student is a seeker and is always open to hear all sides of a debate.

Needless to mention that  the Assam situation is a veritable tinderbox and one should always be careful while discussing it because political leaders and a faction of “intellectuals” tend to give it a communal colour but then why should we have seminars if the speakers don’t stick their neck out? Why should we abstain from discussing the real issues on public forums?

Another shocking statement by one of the speakers, that too a lawyer, was that Manipur was a part of undivided Assam (FYI, Manipur and Tripura never were part of undivided Assam).  At this juncture, I thought to leave the room but  stayed back  till the Q&A session.

But again, the  other disappointment was that none of my questions on Indo-Bangladesh dialogue on illegal migration and deportation of migrants were satisfactorily answered.

It is true that it is not possible to keep every  data handy but the minimum that a listener expects from speakers of a convention is the correct presentation of facts.

At the end of the three long hour long debate and discussion, I asked myself -Do we really need such roundtables?