Posts Tagged ‘Assam

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

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?

The ball soars in the air and lands on Fwidan Basumatary’s chest. He then drops the ball, let it bounce and again kicks it up to his chest. Dressed in black T’shirt and matching shorts, this 16-year old Bodo boy of Titaguri in Kokrajhar plays a mean game. It keeps his mind off death and mayhem.

More than 57 people have been killed, over 3 lakh have been displaced and hundreds of villages have been burnt in the past two weeks after a riot broke out between Bodos and Muslims in the four districts of Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) –Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa. “My family members too had to shift to a relief camp. I feel helpless but football helps me maintain equilibrium,” adds Basumatary, who played Asian Football Confederation U14 Festival of Football in Iran last year as part of the Indian team.

A few meters away, another international player, 18-year old Minu Basumatary – a pugilist of Chirang’s Bandaguri is hitting the heavy bag hard. She says it gives her the strength to fight against all odds. “Boxing helps me to channelise my energy in a positive way,” says Minu, who won gold medal at the 1st AIBA Youth and Junior Women’s World Championship in Turkey last year.

At a time when villages in Bodoland are burning due to communal riots, away from home at this residential complex of Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Kokrajhar’s Kathalguri village, there is a different fire singeing in the hearts of these young players. It isn’t easy for them to rise. Yet, these young Bodo men and women have emerged from the strife.

“Local clubs spot such talents. Most of them come from poor families. The first attraction for them was free food and lodging in SAI but now, they have a zeal to create a name for themselves,” says Kokrajhar district sports association general secretary Sarada Prasad Paul. Three other promising Bodo footballers – Milan Basumatary, Situ Basumatary and Kapil Boro from Kokrajhar are presently being trained at the All India Football Federation’s regional academy for U16 team in Mumbai. They were also selected for a Pune camp by Manchester United this year.

Similarly in boxing, besides Minu, Pwilao Basumatary of Chirang won bronze in the Turkey tournament. There were five Bodo girls out of eight Indians who participated in the event. But sports is not the only arena where young Bodos are making a mark. There are stories of success from other fields too. Thirty-one year old Rupjyoti Brahma Karjee of Kokrajhar’s Dotma village is one such example. After former Indian Ambassador Upen Boro, he is the second Bodo to be selected for the Indian Foreign Services (IFS).

But raising a child in the conflict stricken area wasn’t easy, says his mother Himani Brahma Karjee. “First, he used to go to a local government school but when government education system collapsed during the Bodo movement in late 80s, we shifted him to a missionary school,” says Karjee, a clerk at public health engineering department, who had later sent her son to study in Shillong’s St Anthony’s college for graduation and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for postgraduation.

With a population of roughly 11 lakh in Bodoland, traditionally Bodos have been backward, experts say. “Bodoland is the most underdeveloped part of Assam. Only a few Bodos moved out of Bodoland and pursued higher studies but a large number remained illiterate,” says Monirul Hussain, professor, department of political science, Gauhati University. Chief election commissioner Hari Shankar Brahma and Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary are among the few eminent Bodos to make it big.

But not many could rise from Bodoland especially in late 80s as a literary vacuum was created in the Bodo society after All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) started the Bodo movement demanding a separate statehood in 1987. “Students studying outside were called back to join the movement. Violence and disruption jeopardised the future of many,” says Shekhar Brahma, registrar of Bodoland University.

Things continued to remain uncertain in Bodoland for nearly two decades. Though a first tripartite agreement was signed among the ABSU, centre and the Assam government in 1993, paving the way for the creation of the erstwhile Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) and the suspension of the statehood movement, ABSU revived the movement again in 1996. Meanwhile, the erstwhile militant outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) launched an armed struggle for statehood. Then in 2003, Bodo Accord was signed by the BLT with the centre and the Assam government. A Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created for the administration of BTAD. Things started moving slowly then, says BTC’s deputy chief Khampa Borgoyari. “We have been able to achieve political stability. Education has become a priority slowly,” says Borgoyari.

But many complain BTC hasn’t done much to promote education. There are only nine government run colleges and 213 higher secondary schools in BTAD after BTC was formed. “BTC doesn’t have autonomy to set up schools but it has failed to push the Assam government to open new educational institutions,” a senior BTC official says. In the past nine years since BTC came into existence, only three major institutions have come up in BTAD -Central Institute of Technology in 2006, Bodoland University in 2010 and Bineswar Brahma Engineering college in 2011.

But there are Bodos who have taken it upon themselves to make education a priority in Bodoland. For example, 45-year old Dominic Basumatary of Chirang’s Bengtol village, a first generation literate in his family, started a school called Centre for New Learning for 515 children in 2006. “It is learning through activities such as gardening, paddy cultivation, theatre and dance,” says Dominic, a master of social work from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

ABSU president Pramod Boro however says that the Bodo society has no contribution to these achievements. “Our youth has lot of potential but the Bodo society or the administration has never facilitated them in any way to excel,” feels Boro. On top of it, communal violence like the recent one often discourages people from doing anything progressive.

Forty-three year old tea planter Bijit Basumatary from Nayekgaon in Kokrajhar, who provides employment to 100 workers from all communities of nearby villages, laments that he has incurred a loss of Rs 30,000 each day as his workers didn’t turn up for two weeks during the recent ethnic clashes. “Also, convincing the Bodo and Muslim workers to work together again is the biggest challenge now,” feels Bijit, the sole organic tea exporter in Bodoland.

Instead of making the environment conducive for its people, government often dampens the spirit, complain some. For example, the football pitch of SAI was destroyed and the goal post was uprooted for constructing a helipad for choppers that carried Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former home minister P Chidambaram during their recent visits to the riot affected areas. “Our boys have no place to practice for the inter district tournament this month,” football coach Pranab Basumatary complains. Also, many schools in BTAD are now turned into relief camps after the recent riots thus leaving the fate of students uncertain. “We have no clue when people would start moving back to their villages. Till then, classes will have to remain suspended,” says BTC education director RS Borgayary.

The recent riots are not an one off instance. Earlier, riots have broken out between the Bodos and Muslims in 1994 and 2008 and Bodos and Santhals in 1996 and 1998 over issues of land rights. This has badly affected the image of Bodos. A senior Bodoland university official says, “People think Bodoland is all about bloodbath and violence and Bodos are the biggest troublemakers.” “Hence, it is important for the young generation Bodos to dispel this belief,” feels former Bodo Sahitya Sabha president Brojendra Kumar Brahma.

Experts believe that Bodos have to show to the rest of the world that they are peace loving. “For that, the former BLT militants who have formed the BTC need to give up arms first,” suggests Gauhati-based social critic Udayon Misra. A former BLT militant Bijoy choudhury who have started an NGO called Manas Sousi Khongkor Eco tourism society in Baksa district, could show the way. “Guns have failed to bring any change, we have to look for positive ways of progress and development,” says Choudhury.

Hope floats in this land of conflict as there are young English speaking Bodos like Bhuma Rani Borgayary who thinks Bodoland needs an immediate image makeover. Borgayary, who came back to Kokrajhar to work as an assistant information officer in BTC’s tourism department after working in travel agencies in Mumbai for five years, says, “The onus is on us to promote it in all possible ways, tourism could be one.”

There is a strong sentiment of Bodoland identity that runs in the minds of many young Bodos as archer Mainao Narzary puts it. “One day, we want to represent Bodoland as separate state at the national level,” says Narzary, who won gold in Asian Grand Prix in Dhaka last year. In fact, the BTC is trying to get a no objection certificate from the Assam government to ensure that the Bodo players represent a separate team at national level. “At least 60 per cent players in all sports teams of Assam are Bodos. A separate Bodoland team will boost up the confidence of the players to bring more trophies.” says Mano Kumar Brahma, sports and youth welfare executive member of BTC.

But the bigger question remains if trophies alone can bring peace in Bodoland. “These success stories can’t take away the real problem of land rights of Bodoland which should have a long term solution,” feels a skeptical Misra.


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