If the Opposition had pushed the issue vigorously, they could have dethroned Indira Gandhi on this.
An obnoxious predecessor of the Citizenship Bill, which forms a part of the BJP manifesto, was such, if widely pushed by the then Opposition, could have dethroned Indira Gandhi. Fortunately for her, it went unnoticed outside of Assam. For those in the Northeast who understood it, it was more bitter than poison. It was placed in the statute books in 1983 soon after the cursed Assembly elections of February that year. The poll was boycotted by those who loved the soil of Assam, they observed an all Assam bandh for five days straight. Most of the polling staff for the constituencies in the Brahmaputra Valley was brought from Delhi. Voting in these areas was thin; in one constituency only 269 votes were cast and the Congress candidate was declared elected.
Soon after, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983 was passed: popularly called IMDT. To give an idea of its perversity, it is set out below. It applied only to Assam, while all other states continued to practice the Foreigners Act 1946. When one drives to Meghalaya, it was difficult to realise when one had crossed over from Assam. But on two sides of the invisible border, two contradictory laws applied to foreigners. IMDT was legislation by Parliament to identify Bangladeshi infiltrators.
Under the 1983 Act, any person could make an application to the tribunal on whether or not the person whose name and other particulars given in the application, was an illegal immigrant. However, to make such an application, it was conditional that the “illegal immigrant” about whom the application was made, had to reside within 3 km of the applicant’s residence. One stringent condition was stipulated in the Act of 1983, which provided that the application in the prescribed form was accompanied by an affidavit sworn by not fewer than two persons residing within 3 km of the area in which the person was found or residing, corroborating the averments made.
Another outstanding feature of the Act was that the burden of proving that a person was a foreigner was on the applicant who complained that a person was an illegal migrant. The Foreigners Act, 1946, which applies to the rest of India, places the burden of proving a person to be a citizen of India on the suspect. So does the law in most countries. In the UK, a person claiming to have the right of abode there shall have to prove that he has that right by means of either his passport or a certificate of entitlement. Canada places the burden upon the concerned person to establish his right to have a permanent residence. Australia has a similar requirement. The United States has the Immigration and Nationality Act and its Section 291 places the burden of proof upon the person concerned.
If the tribunal is satisfied that the person named in the application is not an illegal migrant, it should, after giving the applicant an opportunity to be heard, reject the application. Or if there were reasonable grounds to believe that the person was an illegal migrant, the tribunal should issue a notice to the person named in the application, calling upon him to make, within 30 days from the date of receipt of the notice, such representation with regard to the averments made in the application and to produce such evidence as he might think fit in support of his defence.
How lenient was the procedure prescribed by IMDT in order to judge a suspect to be an illegal migrant was evident. But not merely that, there was a provision for two layers of appeal beyond the judgement of the tribunal, namely the Appellant Tribunal as well as the High Court. This made it well nigh impossible to declare anyone an illegal migrant. The IMDT was made into law by the Congress government in 1983. Its single aim was to placate the minority sentiments, which welcome infiltration from Bangladesh in order to increase the Muslim population of the state of Assam.
The first Chief Minister of Assam, especially after 15 August 1947, Gopinath Bordoloi saved his province (as it was then called) from going to Pakistan. He rushed to Delhi to convince the authorities that the Adivasis were Hindus and they should not be called animists and therefore non-Hindus. This animist theory was propagated by the Muslim League as it reduced the Hindu population percentage to 38%. Thereafter, however, subsequent Congress governments adopted a policy of depending on “Ali, Coolie (tea garden workers) and Bengali” to win elections. Little wonder that between 1971 and 1991, the Muslim population rocketed by 78%, whereas the Hindu population grew by only 42%.
The Governor of the state in 1998, Lt Gen (R) S.K. Sinha, in his report to the Centre stated that the long cherished design of Greater East Pakistan/Bangladesh to take over the entire landmass of the Northeast was progressing quite rapidly through infiltration. Long before the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had written that the economy of East Pakistan would not be truly self-reliant without the inclusion of Assam. The province then included all the northeastern sisters, with Shillong as the capital. M.A. Jinnah’s follower and the Premier of Assam after 1939 followed the same policy of encouraging infiltration. In fact, he was the author of the propaganda that Adivasis were animists and therefore non-Hindus. It is indeed uncanny that the Muslim League, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur as well as the Indian National Congress had identical intentions for Assam.
The Chief Minister of Assam (AGP led by Prafulla Mahanta) had requested the then Prime Minister, vide his letter dated 22.6.96, to repeal the IMDT. The Chief Minister again reiterated this, vide his letter dated 31.7.96 addressed to the Home Minister, Indrajit Gupta. Government of India stated that there was need for a uniform Act for detection and deportation of foreigners in the entire country including Assam. The state of Assam filed a counter affidavit on 28 August 2000, wherein it is stated that it has been persistently asking to the Centre that the IMDT Act is operating against national interest.
In 2001, the Congress led by Tarun Gogoi came to power and filed a new affidavit on the excuse that the previous one did not reflect the correct position—that the IMDT is Constitutional and must not be repealed. In the recent election, the Congress manifesto stated that IMDT was enacted to save Indian citizens from harassment in the name of detection. The party is committed to oppose any move to repeal the Act.
The Centre took a contrary view and stated that tolerating illegal migrants was doing the citizens injustice. The state was enforcing IMDT but the entire expenditure was being reimbursed by the Centre. Assam deported less than 1,500 infiltrators, whereas West Bengal deported nearly five lakh under the Foreigners Act, 1946 between 1983 and 1998. This entire case filed by Sarbananda Sonowal (now Chief Minister) was before Justices R.C. Lahoti, G.P. Mathur and P.K. Balasubramanyan. Their final order dated 12 July 2005 stated that ideological support was given to the phenomenon by Islamic fundamentalists, creating the vision of a larger country comprising Bangladesh and the entire Northeast where its economic problems would be solved and security ensured.
Large scale illegal migration from Bangladesh is like an invasion both for the people of Assam and for the entire nation. No misconceived and mistaken notions of secularism should be allowed to come in the way of stopping this. As a result of this influx from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their own state. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control weakened and their employment opportunities undermined. The loss of lower Assam would sever the entire landmass of the Northeast from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the nation. The Supreme Court judgement declared that the IMDT Act and the rules framed there under were ultra vires the Constitution of India and ordered them struck down.