Tarun Gogoi Sitting On a Ticking Time Bomb

Guwahati: Assam is a state simmering with discontent. The natives fear that their culture is being swamped by the immigrants in large numbers, making them minorities in their own state. The immigrants on the other hand feel growingly alienated and are apprehensive of their own safety. To make matters worse, the religio-linguistic divide at times burst at the seams.

And to add to the inferno, the Bodo-Naga-Karbi tribal warfare for control of territory take the shape of ethnic cleansing, plunging the state into a blood-bath. With regions being too remote and infrastructure almost non-existent, preventing or controlling a tribal conflagration is often practically impossible.

Said Sanjoy Hazarika, head of the centre for north-east studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, “There is a need to devise a rational response to the problem of immigration in Assam, or else the tide of emotions will just lead to another big mess.”

Experts point to political indecision and flawed decision making as one of the leading causes of the crisis. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi faces an uphill battle convincing the opposition that he has the problem of illegal immigration under control. In an unprecedented move, Gogoi published a White Paper on illegal immigration in October but this barely dented the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state.

“Parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) accuse me of playing vote-bank politics, but it is they who are playing vote-bank politics in their attempt to polarize the Hindu vote,” says Gogoi.

Congress-led government is facing a particularly difficult time as the crisis has united their Bodo allies with the opposition.  Even moderates who feel the threat from immigration is overhyped feel Congress has done little to resolve the issue and allowed discontent to fester in the past 11 years of its rule in Assam.

Student leaders who formed AGP and rode to power in the 1985 state elections on the primary plank of evicting foreigners had very little to show on that front at the end of their term. They adopted the same vote-bank politics they had railed against, wrote Hazarika in his book. The IMDT – Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act – also made detection of foreigners extremely difficult, and was eventually struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005.

The apex court judgment in 2005 was projected as a threat to minorities in Assam, and led to the rise of a new political party, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by a perfume merchant and preacher, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, and backed largely by Bengali Muslims.

The party successfully played upon the past fears of harassment to polarize the immigrant vote and, in 2011, became the state’s largest opposition party, eclipsing the AGP and the BJP.

The rise of the AIUDF fed into Assamese fears of being marginalized. The strident anti-immigrant rhetoric by both AASU and Bodo leaders in the wake of the July violence, in turn, has antagonized the Bengali Muslims, who feel discriminated against.

Many analysts say that a majority of the illegal immigrants in Assam are those who crossed over between 1971 and 1991, and the pace of influx from Bangladesh has likely declined in the past two decades. But the lack of reliable estimates of the number of illegal immigrants leads to intense speculation and politicking on the issue.




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