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Disputed Citizens of Assam
By Mozaffar Islam, Kolkata

Nearly 3.75 lakh voters of Assam, mostly Muslims, could not exercise their franchise in the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections. Again in the recent Assembly polls they were denied right to cast their votes for the third time due to the Election Commission’s order of January 1998. In the 1997 electoral rolls the letter ‘D’ (Doubtful/Disputed) was suffixed to the name of these voters indicating that their citizenship was in doubt and needed to be verified. The EC by its order of January 1998 disallowed these minority voters to cast their votes. In July 1999 the Chief Election Commissioner also reaffirmed that the cases of illegal migrants must be settled by the tribunals examining them.

During the All-Assam Students Union’s (AASU) long agitation against illegal foreigners in the 1980s the police harassed and humiliated thousands of native Muslims on suspicion that they were Bangladeshis. Random notices were served on them to prove their citizenship. Even Mohendra Mohan Chowdhary, a former chief minister of Assam, was issued a show-cause notice. Government statistics prove this fact. The police identified 3.75 lakh people as illegal migrants. During 8 years between 1986 to 1993 they forwarded the names of 2.87 lakh suspected voters to the Screening Committees comprising of deputy commissioners, superintendents of police, sub-divisional police officers and sub-divisional officers. The SCs could refer only 25,000 cases to the 3-member Tribunals for decision. In the final phase the panels found only 9,625 persons to be Bangladeshi nationals. This clearly indicates that police personnel in general were biased and willing to catch up a large number of the minority people in the name of aliens. In this turbulent situation, at the initiative of Abdul Muhib Majumdar, a minister in the AGP government, the IMDT Act 1983 was passed in Parliament to protect Indian Muslims from undue harassment.

In November 1998 Assam governor Lt. General (Retd.) S.K. Sinha, submitted a 42 page report to President R.K. Narayanan, terming the Act as highly discriminatory and recommending its repeal and revival of the Foreigner’s Act of 1946 to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi nationals. He held the view that the number of migrants had swollen since the Assam Accord of 1985 and it was impossible to deport them according to its provisions which required that those who migrated to India after March 25, 1971 have to go back to Bangladesh.

The minorities, particularly the Muslims, resented EC’s summary order and governor’s recommendations. They strongly felt that the Illegal Migrants Act is a safe-guard for them Assam has the second largest Muslim population in the country. According to 1991 census Muslims comprise 28.43 percent, Christians 3.32 percent, Buddhists 0.28% and Jains 0.07%. The development of these communities has seriously suffered because of near-defunct status of the Assam Minorities Development Board and the State Minorities Financial Corporation. Moreover, the Assam State Minorities Commission has not been constituted by the Mahanta government till now.

The Election commission’s order marking 3.75 lakh voters as ‘doubtful/dispute’ citizens and debarring them from casting their votes is in fact unjustified and illegal. These voters or majority of them had voted during previous elections but were identified as ‘Doubtful Citizens’ in the final electoral roll of December 9, 1998. Secondly, the aggrieved persons were not given any opportunity to prove their citizenship. Thirdly, even some government employees were included in the doubtful citizens’ category. Fourthly, these people have been settled in the state for many years and are well known in their areas. None of the voters has been found guilty of being foreigner by any court of law and as such they deserve to be considered as Indian citizens. This is what justice demands.

Lastly, EC’s order is in violation of the Supreme Court’s 1995 guidelines to determine the status of a person whose nationality is under suspicion. Earlier when the Election Commission had decided to strike off the names of nearly 1.85 lakh voters (allegedly Bangladeshi Muslims) of Mumbai and Delhi from voters’ lists, the apex court, on a petition filed by some victims in its ruling quashed notices of EC and set new directives asking the EC to consider documents like ration cards, school certificates, previous electoral rolls of persons as proof of their citizenship and directing the concerned officers not to be influenced by any other ‘extraneous’ considerations or instructions. The court also clarified that before taking a final decision, the officers should give reasons for adding or deleting a name to enable the aggrieved citizen to file is appeal before a court. Thus EC’s order of January 1988 denied the right of appeal to the doubtful voters.

The National Minorities Commission examined the state governor’s controversial report on the scrapping of IMDT Act and recommended that it should be reviewed by an impartial committee of jurists and social scientists. Prof. Tahir Mahmood former chairman, described the Act as an ‘extremely important human right legislation duly recognized by the Assam Accord of 1985’.

In March’ 99 the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) submitted a memorandum to the President, R.K. Narayanan, demanding removal of the governor and urging him to ensure that the IMDT Act is not scrapped since it provides a sense of security to the minorities and safeguards some of their rights as enshrined in the Constitution. It also demanded that ‘doubtful category voters’ be regularized and given the right to vote.

The Jamait-Ul-Ulema-e Hind filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Election Commission’s order (1998) and praying for its directive to permit the doubtful citizens to exercise their franchise. Their additional petition filed in 1999 asking for expeditious disposal of the original one is still pending.

The IMD Tribunals could not function properly due to inaction of the implementing machinery. The AGP government was not in fact interested in detection of aliens. It largely depended on the votes of minorities who constitute nearly 32 percent of the state population. The home ministry did not provide them with the required strength himself admitted in a statement on 19 July' 99 that ‘the panels are grossly understaffed and that there will be delay on their part in arriving at a decision on the fate of those voters.’ Further, he said that the commission had already asked the home ministry to take steps to ensure that the 3-member panels can work at faster pace and the verdict expedited. The whole process shows that the authorities are lacking in sincerity and urgency and are not willing to detect Bangladeshi nationals.

Meantime the Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, has asked the central government to repeal the Act by January 2001, as it is discriminatory on the ground that it is applicable to Assam only. In case of its repeal, the Tribunals, which were set up under the Act, will naturally be wound up. So the question arises: How the citizenship status of several lakhs of disputed voters will be ascertained?

Revival of the old Foreigners Act of 1946 as recommended by the Assam governor is no solution. It will create suspicion in the minds of minorities that they will again be targeted and that thousand of bona-fide citizens will be branded as immigrants. This Act has vested wide powers in the hands of executives and police who are likely to misuse their authority. Moreover, there are lakhs of foreigners in various states of India such as Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Delhi, Maharashtra etc. despite existence of this law there. As such the outdated foreigners Act can not solve the illegal migrants’ problem in Assam also. The IMDT Act should not be blamed. It is the government machinery in-charge of implementing the central law, which are largely responsible for ineffective functioning of the Tribunals.

Every section of the population has faith in these judicial bodies who only can detect illegal migrants as well as protect the suspected citizens’ democratic right of voting. So the Tribunals should be strengthened, given sufficient number of officers and other infrastructural aids by the government to enable them to perform their work expeditiously. Further, IMDT Act should be amended to the extent that it is applicable to all states of the country, instead of only in Assam as at present. This Act of 1983 ensures that the foreign nationals should be detected by a judicial process so that no genuine Indian citizen is unduly harassed and deported by the district police.

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