The release of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam indicating that around four million of the state’s residents could be illegal migrants has generated loud protests from the national leadership of the Congress, followed by some confused, calibrated responses from its leaders in Assam. Although the party knew that the final draft of the NRC would be out around this time, it appears to have gifted away the initial advantage to the BJP by failing to acknowledge its past commitments to the detection and deportation of foreigners.
While the Congress’ seasonal fellow travellers—regional and caste-based parties far removed from the realities of Assam—can afford to raise their voices against the NRC in the hope of signalling solidarity with Muslims in their areas of influence, India’s Grand Old Party just cannot be whimsical about it because of its repeated commitment to detect and deport foreigners—a commitment first made by PM Indira Gandhi in 1971 and firmly reiterated by PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1985.
Ms Gandhi initiated the dialogue with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) and the negotiations eventually culminated in the Assam Accord in 1985.
Looking at the Congress’ flip-flop on this issue, one is reminded of the party’s angry protests over the nuclear tests conducted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in May 1998 (Pokhran-II) and its subsequent volte-face. When it realised that the nuclear tests had given the NDA government a major political boost, its leaders began sheepishly claiming that it was actually Ms Gandhi who had turned India into a nuclear state with Pokhran-I in May 1974! But the realisation came a bit too late. The BJP had walked away with the prize!
Here again, the Congress’ ambivalence on the NRC issue is inexplicable. Apart from Ms Gandhi’s public declarations in this regard, the Assam Accord—signed on 15 August 1985 between the Union government headed by Rajiv and the AASU and AAGSP—gave specific guarantees to the people of the state. The accord said that in February 1980, the AASU had conveyed its fear about the adverse effects this infiltration had on the state and Ms Gandhi, being “fully alive to the genuine apprehensions of the people of Assam”, initiated the dialogue with the AASU and AAGSP, leading to the agreement of 1985.
The main points of the agreement were: Foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 shall continue to be detected and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners; foreigners who came to Assam after 1 January 1966 and up to 24 March 1971 shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964; names of foreigners so detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force and on the expiry of 10 years following the date of detection, names of all such persons which were deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored; all persons who were expelled earlier, but have since re-entered illegally into Assam, shall be expelled.
Although the Illegal Migrants (Determination) Tribunals Act (IMDT Act) was brought in with much fanfare, it failed to fulfill its purpose. The failure of the Act to detect and deport foreigners also resulted in some adverse observations by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Sarbananda Sonowal Vs. Union of India & Anr. The petitioner is the CM of Assam today. The court, in its judgment delivered on 12 July 2005 declared the IMDT Act ultra vires the Constitution.
It said the initial affidavit filed by the state government showed that 85 per cent of the enquiries initiated were rejected and no reference was made to the tribunal. Similarly, the restrictions imposed on an applicant, a citizen of India doing a national duty of pointing out the presence of an illegal migrant in Assam, “does not carry any sense”. The court concluded thus: “A deep analysis of the IMDT Act and the rules made there under would reveal that they have been purposely so enacted or made so, so as to give shelter or protection to illegal immigrants who came to Assam from Bangladesh on or after 25 March 1971 rather than to identify or deport them.”
Later the court stepped in once again in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors Vs. Union of India & Ors. In this case, the court issued several directions and asked the Union government to expedite the border fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border. The court also declared the schedule to govern the work of updating of the NRC in Assam so that the entire updated NRC is published by the end of January 2016.
In other words, the preparation of the draft NRC has its origins in the firm commitments given by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to detect and deport foreigners from Assam and is subject to the directions given by the Supreme Court, which is closely monitoring this exercise.
The Congress does not even acknowledge the fact that this issue is being closely monitored by the country’s apex court. It is trying to tell the people that the NRC is part of the BJP’s divisive politics. It is also trying to pretend it has nothing to do with this issue in the hope that this will help it retain its share holding in what is called the Muslim vote bank.
Since millions of illegal migrants have entered the country and spread themselves out with the patronage of some political parties, leading to social tensions and security concerns, this is a major issue agitating the minds of genuine citizens. By not standing up for the rights of citizens, the Congress could well be ceding more political ground to the BJP like it did after Pokhran II, and that too in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls!