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Published in the 16-30 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Illegal Migrants Act to stay

New Delhi: The Union Cabinet decided to retain Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 on October 27 in a meeting chaired by PM Manmohan Singh. 

The NDA government had introduced a Bill in the last session of the previous Lok Sabha to repeal the Act saying it had not proved effective in identifying illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The Bill was then referred to a parliamentary panel, led by Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, but before the panel could finalise its report, the House was dissolved and Bill lapsed. 

The IMDT Act was enacted in 1983 by the Congress government after agitation of All Assam Students Union against the intrusion of foreigners into Assam. 

The law has been the cause of considerable friction between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress has the view that the Act proved to be a bulwark against arbitrary detection and deportation of Bangali-speaking Indian nationals from Assam. 

The BJP criticised the UPA government for deciding to retain the Act. It said that it amounted to providing protection to illegal Bangladesh immigrants at the cost of the country’s security. BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said that "the action of the central government was actually providing constitutional protection to illegal immigrants".

The IMDT Act is only applicable to Assam. Other states including Jammu & Kashmir have Foreigners’ Act to detect illegal intruders.

The Home Ministry’s Task Force on Border management headed by former Union Home Minister Madhav Godbole had criticised the Act as an "ineffective toothless piece of legislation" The law unlike the Foreigners Act divested the police from issuing "Quit India" notice to suspected foreigners. Besides divesting the police from the powers of arrest, interrogation, the Act even shifted the burden of proof to the police from the accused, unlike Foreigners Act. The Task Force had recommended repeal of the Act saying of the 1.5 crore Bangladeshi immigrants only 1494 had been deported to Bangladesh.

The 16 tribunals set up under the Act have till now identified only 9,000 Bangladeshi migrants of which 1,500 have been deported.

In 1998, the then Assam governor Lt Gen (retd) SK Sinha submitted a report on illegal immigration. He had written that illegal migration was a threat to demography and he wanted the repeal of the IMDT Act saying it facilitated continued stay of illegal immigrants. 

There was an accord between former prime minister Rajiv Gandh and All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) leaders in 1985. They had launched an agitation between 1979 and 1985 to oust illegal Bangladeshi migrants of the state. As per the accord it was decided that the foreigners who came to Assam after January 1, 1966 and upto March 24, 1971, would be detected and their names would be deleted from the electoral rolls. And the foreigners who came on or after March 25, 1971 would be expelled after their detection. But owing to the IMDT Act the agreements of Assam Accord could not be implemented. The then Assam chief minister Profulla Mohantha moved the Supreme Court for the abrogation of the Act, with several other northeastern states too subsequently filing affidavits before the apex court for its deletion.

The present Congress Government in Assam recently took the stand in the Supreme Court that IMDT Act protected genuine Indians and it alone could help detect and deport real migrants. 

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