What Policy, Mr Sangma?

The National Congress Party (NCP) is all set to have its cake and eat it too in the North-east, given the party’s gameplan in the region that includes the cobbling together an forum, the North-east People’s Alliance (NPA), with local parties. While its leader Purno A Sangma claimed in Itanagar yesterday that the proposed forum was to “fight the perennial problems of insurgency, infiltration and unemployment inflicting the North-east”, one would not need to look far to realise that the NCP’s efforts are aimed purely at political gains----to be made even at the cost of the very region, the welfare of which Sangma and his party claim to safeguard, especially where it concerns the vexed illegal migrants problem in the region. His revelation: the NCP would advocate the granting of citizens’ identity cards to all the people in the North-east, including all illegal Bangladeshis who have entered the country, to date. Why? “Because we haven’t succeeded in doing anything about them in so many years,” he said, quite nonchalantly. Should this have a domino effect, it would mean the granting of citizenship to millions illegal Bangladeshi migrants all over the country (and perhaps the Myanmarese in Mizoram, and the Chakmas and Hajongs in Arunachal), the idea coming as it does from a party that, on the other hand, opposes the one Sonia Gandhi in politics because of her Italian origins!

The NPA is to be formally floated on August 24, at a meeting to be hosted by the Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Singh Chamling. The chief ministers of Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are expected to participate in the meeting.

Should the NCP succeed in implementing its plans in Assam, it would, in a single stroke, manage to not just keep Assam’s Bangladeshi vote-bank intact but also permanently legitimise it. That, in a situation where the vote of the illegal Bangladeshi migrant is at present said to decide the fortunes in more than 25 of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies. In an exclusive interview on August 5, Sangma refused to discuss, for example, the modalities that would go into the issuing of identity cards to Indian citizens, while insisting that it was the only solution to solving the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam (see interview). In this, the NCP would outdo even the Congress---the party singularly blamed for Assam’s infiltration problem---considering that the Assam Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi deems any person who has entered Assam after March 23, 1971, a foreigner, to be detected and deported.

As political inconsistencies go, the NCP in Assam includes leaders such as Bhrigu Phukan, who as a top leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), was a part of the delegation that signed the Assam Accord in 1985. Phukan, who was home minister in the Prafulla Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government, that was elected with the singular mandate of detecting and deporting illegal Bangladeshis, was later a part of the breakaway, Natun Asom Gana Parishad (NAGP), before joining the NCP.

As for the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, the one piece of legislation that prevents the effective detection of Bangladeshis in Assam, putting the burden of proving a person to be a foreigner on the state rather than the accused (which is the case in the Foreigners Act, in force in the rest of the country), Sangma said his party was against the IMDT and wanted it repealed, but only after a legislation guaranteeing the safety of minorities in Assam was in place. The catch: that the IMDT issue is rendered redundant in a situation where the NCP presses for the blanket issuing of identity cards to all people, including illegal Bangladeshis, who are presently in Assam.

In neighbouring Meghalaya, Sangma, while acknowledging that land under local laws in tribal areas was protected, said the law of the land was being circumvented by illegal Bangladeshis who were marrying local women and plying businesses in their wives’ names, while also ensuring that their children enjoyed the benefits given to tribal communities. The NCP’s solution: not the detection and deportation of illegal migrants but the deprivation of family rights to children---after having adopted their mother’s surnames, a common practice under the matrilineal system in the state----of couples where the woman is say a tribal Khasi and the man a non-tribal, but an Indian citizen. “Those who have already done so will be accepted,” says Sangma “but we will not accept new cases. That is our policy.” What the NCP doesn’t say here that the party is, in effect, raking up the age-old issue of ‘Dkhars’ (a derogatory term use for non-tribals such as the Bengalis, Biharis and Nepalis in the state) to play to the gallery, while compromising the rights of people of mixed origin who have made Meghalaya their home, and Khasi their community. Conversely, the NCP’s latest move in the hill state would amount to, say, denying paternal family rights to the child of a non-tribal person from anywhere in India because his wife and the mother of his child is a tribal Khasi, a proposition which Sangma perhaps wouldn’t be open to. However, just a year away from elections, such matters seem to be of no concern, so long as the NCP manages its bit of political mileage from the emotive ‘Dkhar’ issue, one that has been used by locals to target non-tribal communities, especially the Bengalis, Biharis and Nepalis in Meghalaya.

The only good news in all this: that sidelined at the Centre, the plans of the NCP to fish in the troubled waters of the North-east for political survival, have finally come to the fore.

By Pranab Bora (newsfiledelhi@hotmail.com)