Secret Centre-ULFA parleys may lead to a fresh Nellie

By Our Correspondent

Guwahati: In a possible replay of the 1985 Assam accord, the Centre is again “actively considering” denial of voting rights to migrants of East Bengal origin who settled in Assam between January 1966 and March 1971 for at least ten years.

The tripartite accord of 1985 was signed between the Union government, state government of Assam and the leadership of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to mark an end to the bloody chapter of the state’s history known variously as “Assam movement” or “Bengal Kheda [Bengali expulsion] movement” which claimed thousands of lives including the Nellie Massacre of 1983. The ethno-nationalist ideology of the movement ultimately gave birth to the Assamese militant outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) along with a regional political party Asom Gono Parishad (AGP).  

Highly placed sources in the Union Home Ministry said that this option is being considered following ULFA’s insistence on working out a “safeguard” formula for the indigenous Assamese population who fear marginalization and loss of identity that could slowly turn them into a minority in their own homeland.

The people who will thus be disenfranchised would get back citizenship and enjoy government development benefits but will be debarred from voting for a period of ten years at the end of which their voting rights will be restored.

“This arrangement would not only discourage illegal foreign migrants from entering Assam but would also push out many illegal migrants from the state,” said a Home Ministry official.

 He said the ULFA leadership led by its chairman Aurobindo Rajkhowa has discussed this matter with the Centre’s representatives including the Union Home Secretary R K Singh, Assam Interlocutor P C Haldar and other officials during their last round of talks at the North Block on 9 April.

Home Ministry officials said that the ULFA, during their 9 April talks in Delhi, had expressed serious concern over the “largescale infiltration of Bangladeshi citizens into Assam even today” and wanted a dependable safeguard formula alongwith proactive measures to detect and deport illegal migrants from Assam.

It is reliably learnt that the confidential report available with the government also indicates “continuation of illegal infiltration into Assam although on a much smaller scale despite several measures introduced by both the state and the Central governments.” The report said that illegal migrants from Bangladesh continue to enter Assam in some numbers, mainly by using the riverine routes.

 Assam Governor Janaki Ballabh Patanaik has already sent a detailed report on illegal migration from the neighbouring Bangladesh and explained how this has impacted the state’s socio-economic and cultural identity. Patnaik’s report, in its tenor and detail, is not much different from the controversial one sent to the Centre by his predecessor, retired general S K Sinha.

 General Sinha’s report to the Centre on 8 November 1998 had expressed serious concerns, highlighting “dangerous dimensions of the unprecedented migration of Bangladeshis to Assam and the security threats and the strategic and economic consequences thereof.” The report observed that “the unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam and the consequent change of demographic pattern in the state has been a matter of grave concern. It threatens to reduce indigenous Assamese people to a minority in their own state, like it happens in Tripura and Sikkim.”

 During their April 9 discussion with Central officials, ULFA leadership is said to have referred to the rise of Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) led by Badruddin Ajmal which had won 18 assembly seats in the last assembly elections. ULFA urged the Centre to take note of the “growing influence of this political group and the unnatural growth of Bengali-speaking Muslims and also Hindus in different districts, particularly in border districts including Karimganj, Silchar, Hailakandi and Dhubri” and said that the “indigenous Assamese locals today feel insecure in their own traditional homeland and have been left far behind.”

Interestingly enough, identification of these four districts by ULFA leaders is a travesty of history of partition and reorganization of the province of Assam. It is also a fact that demographically these four areas have been dominated by Bengali-speaking people for centuries. The traditional homeland of the “Assamese” never expanded beyond Nogaon district since their forefathers came here in the 13th century.  More interestingly, ULFA leadership is silent about Bodo demand for a separate home state.

The ULFA leadership is believed to have also pointed out that the National Register of Citizens Act 1951 was not updated till date. Its leaders observed that some “sporadic attempts in this regard did not yield much result” and that “a coordinated exercise is a must to get effective results on this sensitive issue.”

 Besides debarring the 1966-1971 migrants from voting rights, ULFA also wanted a massive exercise to update the NRC and to continue this exercise at regular intervals to monitor illegal migration.

Even other militant outfits belonging to different minority tribes of Assam, including the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), have also demanded debarring of the voting rights of those who entered Assam in 1951. The Centre is not averse to the proposal of disenfranchisement of those who entered after January 1966 as the Citizenship Act 1955 was amended and Section 6A was introduced covering all the issues after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985.

As such, this formula is not new or unique. The 1985 Assam accord, clause 5.3 to 5.6 reads as follows,
“5.3 Foreigners who came to Assam after 1.1.1966 (inclusive) and upto 24th March, 1971 shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964.

“5.4 Names of foreigners so detected will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force. Such persons will be required to register themselves before the Registration Officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939 and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1939.

 “5.5 For this purpose, Government of India will undertake suitable strengthening of the government machinery.
“5.6 On the expiry of a period of ten years following the date of detection, the names of all such persons which have been deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored.”

The progress of the talks is more or less a rehash of the Assam Accord. On other substantive issues such as rights of people over natural resources, the talk has not yielded much as yet.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 May 2012 on page no. 1

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