The Union cabinet’s recent decision to repeal the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act might assist the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam where Lok Sabha elections are due next year.
The IM(DT) Act seeks to detain and deport illegal migrants and thus far has been applicable only in Assam. However, its role remains controversial. As official statistics show, much larger numbers of illegal immigrants were deported from Assam in the Sixties and Seventies than after 1985 when the IM(DT) Act came into effect. In its 175th report, the law commission too had recommended the setting up of more effective machinery for speedy detection of illegal migrants.
The act has been criticized on other counts too. It puts the onus of proving a person a foreigner on the complainant who also has to pay a prescribed fee to register the complaint. Second, it is applicable only in Assam, while the Foreigners Act of 1946 that puts the onus of proof on the suspected foreigner is in force elsewhere. Both these pieces of legislation have solely been applied to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh into India. In September 2000, the Supreme Court had directed the Union government to repeal the IM(DT) Act by January 2001. The government had dithered claiming it did not have the requisite numbers in the upper house. The United Minorities Front, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and of late, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Trinamool Congress are in favour of the act.
Both in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP made impressive gains, all at the cost of the Asom Gana Parishad. The BJP’s securing second position behind the Congress in these elections and the doubling of its vote share has made it increasingly seem the alternative to the Congress. But in the last two years, the Congress has won several decisive elections — assembly polls and two hill district council elections in May and November 2001 and panchayat elections in January 2002. The Congress has not only consolidated its traditional support bases in tea gardens and minority-dominated areas, but has made inroads into areas believed to be rival strongholds.
There is a fear among the minorities that repealing the IM(DT) Act will see a return to the early Eighties, years marked by terrible massacres and a certain xenophobia. They maintain that it was promulgated keeping in mind the chaotic situation then prevailing in Assam. But as the short history of the IM(DT) shows, it has been used mainly to serve narrow interests, even as allegations of innocents being harassed under IM(DT) continue to pour in.
More fissures ahead
Both the Congress and the AGP that have ruled the state alternately since 1985 have done precious little to either implement the act’s provisions or to repeal it. Hiteswar Saikia of the Congress in the early Nineties put the number of illegal migrants in the state to three million and said the next day that there was not a single infiltrator. Yet, Saikia wanted the controversial IMDT of 1983 to be retained. The AGP did little in its turn to detect aliens who moved in after March 25, 1971, the cut-off date. The most vital clauses of the 1985 accord that deal with infiltration are yet to be implemented.
It is clear that illegal immigration into Assam is unlikely to abate without the active participation of India and Bangladesh. Thus far, successive Bangladeshi governments have consistently denied the presence of illegal migrants in India. Many detained under IM(DT) have not been successfully “deported”. Suggestions of joint border, local patrolling and the completion of the barbed wire fencing have been ignored.
The heightened campaign on the issue by the BJP and the AGP has, however, fuelled tension in the state. In March, the BJP organized four janjagran rath yatras that travelled through the state’s 23 districts. Even as the state grapples with the Bodo problem, and a new ethnic conflict has erupted between the Dimasas and the Hmars, divisions over the IM(DT) Act may create more fissures in an already embittered state.