Saturday, August 9, 2008

Anti-Bangladeshi wave in Assam

Syed Zarir Hussain Guwahati

  • Cops push illegal immigrants back
  • Bengali-speaking Muslims urge caution

Assam is witnessing a massive uprising against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, commonly referred to as 'foreigners'. The State authorities have stepped up their drive to arrest and push back Bangladeshi immigrants, and student groups are busy identifying suspected foreigners and handing them over to the police.

The spurt in official action against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and anti-foreigners activism follows stinging comments by a Gauhati High Court judge in a recent ruling. "Bangladeshi infiltrators have not only intruded into every nook and corner of Assam, but have already become kingmakers," Justice BK Sarma said in his judgement, ordering the police to detain and deport 49 foreigners, among them a Pakistani citizen, who had appealed against the ruling of Foreigners Tribunals.

Pointing out how the Pakistani man had entered Assam from Bangladesh and contested the State Assembly election in 1986, Justice Sarma commented, "This can only happen in Assam." He went on to add, "The day is not far when the indigenous people of Assam -- both Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups -- will be reduced to minorities in their own land."

The past week witnessed the arrest of seven illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in eastern Assam's Nagaon district after the Gauhati High Court pronounced them foreigners. They were pushed back into Bangladesh through the border point of Mahisasan in southern Assam's Karimganj district.

But six of them were back in Assam by Thursday. "There is no formal agreement between India and Bangladesh and hence the only way to expel such immigrants is by simply pushing them back across the border," a senior Assam police officer said.

Even as the State authorities were enforcing the court judgement, in which 61 persons were found to be infiltrators, student groups -- including the All-Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) -- also started hounding suspected foreigners. Last week, AASU and AJYCP activists rounded up nearly 50 suspected Bangladeshis from various parts of the State and handed them over to the police.

The anti-foreigners issue has gathered momentum with Opposition parties joining the protest. "Very soon, several Assam districts will be swamped by Bangladeshi Muslims and the State will be ruled by a Bangladeshi Chief Minister," warned former Union Minister and senior BJP leader Bijoya Chakravorty.

The sudden surge of anti-foreigners sentiment has resulted in apprehension among Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are at the receiving end of the AASU and AJYCP action against non-Assamese daily wage earners. "The victims being picked up by the student volunteers are mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims. This trend is dangerous, to say the least," warned Hafiz Rashid Choudhury, leader of the Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF), a minority-based political party.

"We want that all illegal immigrants who entered Assam after March 25, 1971, be expelled. But caution is needed to ensure that genuine Indians are not harassed," he added.

The State Government has also cautioned the Opposition against 'communalising' the issue. "It is unfortunate that some parties are trying to dub all Muslims as foreigners. If that happens, even Indian Muslims in Assam would oppose the anti-foreigners drive," State Government spokesperson and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said. "We must defeat such designs. A foreigner is a foreigner, be it Hindu or Muslim," he added.

The AUDF maintains that action cannot be initiated against religious minorities just on the assumption that they could be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. "We are against providing shelter to any illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. But any action such as pushing back or deporting foreigners must be carried out within the existing legal framework," AUDF president Badruddin Ajmal said.

The AUDF chief said that the Government must immediately upgrade the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and make arrangements for issuing identity cards to all citizens. "It will help genuine citizens and avoid unnecessary harassment," he said.

The AASU had led a six-year-long agitation against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants between 1979 and 1985. The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 which fixed March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and deportation of East Paksitanis/Bangladeshis staying illegally in India.

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