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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 37 New Delhi September 1, 2018

Tribute to Kuldip Nayar

Sunday 2 September 2018

On August 23, Kuldip Nayar, the tallest surviving pillar of our Fourth Estate, breathed his last in the Capital. Just sixteen days earlier he and his wife met me at a function at New Delhi’s India Internation Centre. As usual he warmly told me: “I thought of contacting you. I was thinking of Nikhil.” Then he reminisced of their joint struggle against the Emergency, their staunch support to the MKSS’ Right to Information movement and their visit to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah at the midnight of August 14-15, 1996 to spread the message of peace, friendship and amity with the people of Pakistan.

Then he turned to me and said: ”Do you know, people still throng to the Wagah border on those two days!” And he added that their was wide interest among the young generation in ensuring close relations at the mass level with Pakistan. I was instantly reminded how he had led the Indian delegation to the founding conference of the South-Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) at Islamabad in mid-2000.

An indefatigable champion of human rights and freedom of press, Kuldipji will be sorely missed today when the democratic polity of ours is engaged in a life and death battle for saving the Republic from the fascist forces currently entrenched in power.

While remembering him we are publishing the following last article that he sent to our weekly on August 15 for publication. It is really terrible to even think that his pieces would henceforth not appear in Mainstream. S.C.

Immigrants or Vote-Banks?

by Kuldip Nayar

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is well entrenched in six of the seven North-Eastern States, something not imaginable when partition was discussed. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then a top Congress leader, once admitted that for the sake of votes, the Muslims from neighbouring countries like East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were brought to Assam. He said that the Congress did it purposely because “we wanted to retain Assam”.

This created a serious problem for the people of the State. Since then the issue of infiltration has loomed large in the North-East, especially in Assam. But then the process to check illegal migration in the North-East, which began during the British Empire, remains unfinished despite various efforts made at the national and State levels.

Consequently, a large-scale migration impacted the social, economic, political and environmental scenario which led the people of the North-East voicing concerns. When the Immigrant (Expulsion from Assam) Act 1950 was passed in Parliament, allowing only those people who were displaced because of civil disturbances in East Pakistan into the region, the deportation of people caused much antipathy in West Pakistan. Subsequently, an agreement was signed between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, which allowed the return of those people to India deported in 1950.

During the India-China war in 1962, there were reports that some infiltrators with Pakistani flags were seen on the borders, resulting in the Assam Plan which New Delhi adopted to prevent infiltration from Pakistan in 1964. But the continuing atrocities in East Pakistan in the early 1970s led to an unchecked entry of refugees into India on a large scale. The Indira Gandhi-Mujib-ur Rahman Agreement in 1972 redefined the status of illegal immigrants in India as it declared that all those who had come before 1971 were declared non-Bangladeshis.

The Assamese resented the agreement and launched an agitation, leading to the Illegal Migrant (Determination by Tribunal) Act coming into force in 1983. The Act was meant to detect and deport illegal migrants through tribunals. But it could not resolve the perennial immigrant problem in the North-East. Soon after, when the Assam Accord of 1985 was accepted, it fixed the cut-off date to determine illegal migrants in Assam as March 25, 1971, the day Bangladesh was born.

The accord mentioned that all those migrants who had come and settled in the State on or before this date shall be regarded as citizens and those illegal migrants who are found to have arrived in the State after this date are to be expelled in accordance with the law. The rebel groups, coming under the umbrella of AASU, launched a militant struggle against the Centre seeking to revoke the accord and instead enact a law that deported all illegal immigrants irrespective of their time of immigration.

However, there was no respite for the locals as the immigrants were clandestinely provided with ration cards and their names were included in the voters’ list. The growing clout of the Bangladeshi immigrants made the situation in Assam worse. In fact, the overall Muslim population in the region has grown to over 40 per cent now, according to an estimate. Ultimately, the Supreme Court had to intervene to set aside the Act in 2005. In its judgment, the Apex Court declared that the Act “has created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants”.

However, the infiltration from Bangladesh remains unchecked and illegal immigration continues to be a sensitive issue, exploited by vested political interests. A decade of agitation by the North-East rebel groups, both peaceful and violent, over the illegal foreign national issue, has not brought concrete success.

Unfortunately, the BJP Government at the Centre is bent on bringing an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 which will enable the religiously persecuted migrants to obtain citizen-ship thus distinguishing them on communal lines. The majority of the people of Assam are against the proposed amendment since it goes against the spirit of the Assam accord which states that all illegal migrants from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 would be deported.

The Centre should, instead, initiate measures to address some of the pending inter-State issues, especially the boundary dispute of Assam with Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh as well as Meghalaya. All these States, except Arunachal Pradesh, were carved out of Assam at some stage. Similarly, Manipur also has boundary problems with Mizoram and Nagaland but these are not as prominent as that of Assam.

Yet, the region is united on many important issues like harassment of people from the North-East, particularly the student community, in some parts of the country, including in the national Capital. The feeling is of neglect by the Centre and the lack of sincerity which is telling upon the States. They want more involvement of the government in the development of the region. No doubt, the BJP Government has introduced several measures for the development, trying to connect with the people of the region emotionally.

But then the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been a sore point. The Centre has gradually lifted the Act from many parts of the region but it can do much more, taking into consideration the ground situation which has improved considerably. Illegal migration will remain a security challenge for India if no adequate measures are taken, including checking and deporting illegal migrants.

The ruling BJP must always remember that the North-East is a plural society devoid of much communal violence unlike the Hindi heartland. Hence, it is paramount that the Centre should concentrate more on the development and good governance rather than trying to impose its Hindutva philosophy.

With the general elections due next year, the BJP cannot afford to ignore the problems the North-East is facing. Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the region, Assam has the highest number of seats with 14 members. With the BJP faring badly in the recent by-elections and many regional parties looking to go it alone in the coming elections, winning every seat will be important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After all, he and his party know well that the political loyalty in the North-East can change very fast.

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