By Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
What one may expect to read in the following paragraphs is an analysis of one of the popular people’s movements in South Asia. The article talks of the Assam movement in India, which roughly spans from 1979-1985. Assam, a peripheral state situated eastward of New Delhi, constitutes one of the “Seven Sister” states which collectively are branded as the northeast. The region as a whole has stayed veiled in secrecy for most of the time in history due to its distance from mainland India. The Assam movement, despite superficially being very much regional in its essence, has had repercussions throughout a better part of South Asia. The event, so to say, has been able to leave an imprint on the South Asian consciousness given the fact that it directly concerns two of the South Asian nation states – India and Bangladesh. If one is to write a book on shared South Asian history, the Assam movement hopefully will find a special mention in it.
It has been 30 years now and much water has flown down the Brahmaputra, washing away many of the memories of the movement but its spectre continues to haunt. Here arises a need today to look back and count the successes and failures of the movement and the Assam Accord.
The Movement: A Brief glance.
The Assam movement refers to the popular agitation led by a considerable size of the Assamese population through the period from 1979 to1985. The movement culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985 by the Indian government and representatives of the Assam movement, primarily the leaders of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). It is widely accepted that the immediate cause of the agitation was the discrepancies in electoral rolls, first visible in the Mongoldoi Lok Sabha constituency in Assam. At that time in 1978, the untimely death of the sitting Member of Parliament from the Mongoldoi parliamentary constituency, Hiralal Patwari, created the ground for a Lok Sabha by-election. In 1979, while preparing for the by-elections, it was for the first time, discovered that the number of voters in the constituency had grown phenomenally. It was presented and widely accepted then, that such phenomenal rise accrued mostly due to illegal migration from Bangladesh and the erstwhile East Pakistan. In its aftermath, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded a boycott of the polls until the names of the foreign nationals were detected and deleted. This briefly marked the beginning of the movement which lasted for six long years. The primary concern around which the movement revolved was the detection and deportation of illegal immigrants, but it would be utterly unfair to brand it as the ‘only’ motivating factor. The ‘grievance’ paradigm played an equally crucial role in motivating the agitators.
Thus, another considerable objective of the movement was to stand up against the step-motherly attitude of the Indian state towards this peripheral land, or in terms of Professor Tilottoma Misra - the “colonial hinterland”. The Assamese population for a considerable period had been crying for greater rights over the resources of the region while at the same time seeking the deserved attention of the Indian state towards their genuine grievances. The attempts of New Delhi to keep the region obscured from the imagination of mainland India by claiming the region as “disturbed” ever since the nation came into being had been humiliating the population at large.
The regional intelligentsia and media had been reporting for a considerable time about the reckless plunder of the rich natural resources of the region by forces rooted in New Delhi. The fact that was bothering the Assamese population for decades was the lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities in the region despite being extraordinarily endowed with the bounty of nature. Several successive policies of New Delhi appeared humiliating to the region, one of them to be mentioned was the construction of the Barauni Refinery in Bihar with a capacity of 3mmtpa to process the crude extracted mostly from Assam. Many concerned voices of the time avowed the situation of Assam to be nothing better than a colony wherein the economic mechanism used to be – extraction of the raw materials from the “peripheries” at cheap prices, taking them away to the industrial centre for processing and re-imposing the final products back.
Assam Accord: A Clever Play of Words
The Assam Accord, signed on August 15, 1985 was considered to be the greatest achievement of the six-year long movement and rejoiced by the negotiators and the greater Assamese populace. A close introspection unveils the bitter truth that the accord in itself has numerous loopholes. The irony is that the accord failed to address the very issue around which the movement had its roots, i.e. the issue of deporting illegal migrants. Regarding the issue of illegal migrants, the following provisions of the accord requires mention –
“5.1 For purposes of detection and deletion of foreigners, 1.1.1966 shall be the base date and year.
5.2 All persons who came to Assam prior to 1.1.1966, including those amongst them whose names appeared on the electoral rolls used in the 1967 elections, shall be regularised.
5.3 Foreigners who came to Assam after 1.1.1966 (inclusive) and upto 24th March 1971 shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1946.
5.4 Names of foreigners so detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force. Such persons will be required to register themselves before the Registration Officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1939.
5.5 For this purpose, Govt. of India will undertake suitable strengthening of the governmental machinery.
5.6 On the expiry of a period of ten years following the date of detection, the names of all such persons which have been deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored…”
Thus, it was agreed to, that the people who migrated to Assam prior to January 1, 1966 from East Pakistan would be considered as Indians in all aspects and shall be regularized. On the other hand, the people who migrated to India between January 1, 1966 (inclusive) and March 24,1971 (inclusive) were considered as “foreigners”. The fact that requires consideration here is that, once the people migrating between 1966 and 1971 were considered “foreigners” they should have been expelled from the country unconditionally. On the contrary, the Assam accord provided that the names of such foreigners entering Assam either legally or illegally shall be deleted from the electoral rolls for a period of 10 years. The accord however nowhere mentions that the foreigners whose names were deleted shall be expelled from Assam. The Accord also remains silent in terms of other democratic rights and facilities provided to such foreigners by the Indian constitution. Thus, at the end of the six-year long struggle and sacrifice all that could be achieved was the mere deletion of the names of the foreigners from the electoral rolls, while the foreigners continued to enjoy the rights over land, rights to carry commerce and trade, right to get employed and all other possible rights endowed by the Indian constitution to its own citizens.
Provision 5.6 of the Accord adds further salt to the wound when it states that the names of the foreigners that were deleted shall be re-entered into the electoral rolls after a period of ten years and all such foreigners shall be fully regularized as Indian citizens, provided they registered themselves before the Registration Officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act 1939 and the Registration of Foreigners Rules 1939 at the time of deletion.
As per Article 6 of the Indian Constitution, any person migrating from Pakistan prior to July 19, 1948 shall be considered an Indian citizen. As it seemed impossible for every individual to prove his migration before the said date, it was agreed to that those people whose names appeared in the population census of 1951 shall be full-fledged Indian citizens. Hence, 1951 came as a base year for determining the status of foreigners. In this regard, the people migrating to Assam from East Pakistan post 1951 should have been considered foreigners and expelled. That unfortunately could not happen because the Assam Accord fixed 1966 as the base year.
The Assam Accord has appeared to be a two-edged sword for Assam. On one side there have been serious flaws in the language of the draft and on the other side there has been a shameless dereliction in implementation of the provisions for three decades. Various political parties, students’ organizations and pressure groups have been indulging in the blame game, pushing the ball to each other’s court. The accord has failed at the level of implementation of several provisions and to mention one of them is the provision 9.1.
“9.1. The international border shall be made secure against future infiltration by erection of physical barriers like walls, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles at appropriate places. Patrolling by security forces on land and riverine routes all along the international border shall be adequately intensified. In order to further strengthen the security arrangements, to prevent effectively future infiltration, an adequate number of check posts shall be set up.”
Thirty years now and what stands as facts are rickety fences and large swathes of riverine patches which can’t be fenced. Large swathes of riverine border and rapid change in course by the rivers have rendered the idea of fencing ineffective. The fact that the drafts were made in air-conditioned chambers in urban centres away from the ground reality is the reason behind such apocryphal provisions. In an area prone to severe floods, every year hundreds of people get displaced and a considerable section of the population in the border areas live a nomadic life shifting from one place to another in search of higher lands. Given such strategic terrain it becomes difficult or rather impossible to keep track of the population movements.
(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah is Student,Dept. of International Relations, South Asian University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)