In law and public policy, what matters is what works. It is good that the Union government has realized at long last that the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act has not worked in Assam. It came into existence in 1983 at the height of a violent agitation on the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. The All Assam Students’ Union, which led the stir, and other organizations complained that the alleged migration was drastically changing the state’s demography. The act was meant to tackle the feeling of insecurity among the majority of the Assamese and to defuse an explosive political situation. But after the agitation ended in the signing of the Assam Accord of 1985 between the Centre and the AASU, the implementation of the act became a purposeless ritual. Governments in New Delhi and Guwahati had only to look at their own records to be convinced that the act had completely failed to detect illegal migrants and thereby lead to their deportation. From its inception till the end of last year, only 1,501 of these migrants were “physically deported” from Assam. The act’s inadequacy was further exposed by the fact that during this time over 300,000 “inquiries” were started and 43,255 cases were referred to the tribunals, which finally detected 10,181 people as “illegal migrants”.
If the act lacked teeth, its repeal was delayed by the lack of political will in successive governments at the Centre. It is no secret that the “foreigners” issue had become a tool in vote-bank politics. Since most of the alleged migrants are Muslims, wooing or baiting them became crucial in the electoral politics of a state where Muslims form nearly one-third of the total population. The timing of the Centre’s decision is politically significant because it has come at a time when the Congress is back in power in Guwahati. The Congress and its ally, the United Minorities Front, have always opposed the repeal of the act. It is, therefore, important for the National Democratic Alliance government to assure all sections of the Assamese people that its decision is not inspired by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva agenda. Assam has had a sad history of bloody communal and ethnic strifes. The act’s repeal should not be misinterpreted to stoke irrational fears among the minority community. It should be treated for what it is — a legal issue. If the Foreigners’ Act of 1946 has successfully worked as the basis for the detection of illegal migrants in the rest of the country, there is no reason why it should not work in Assam. Politicians can help by letting this law work.