Assam Accord, a pernicious deception
23 September 2012
The Assam Accord, the denouement of the six years (1979-85) of popular surge against illegal influx from Bangladesh, once vaunted as the answer to the problem and now a symbol of betrayal and a lightning rod for popular frustration, has been brought to the fore by President Pranab Mukherjee in his address to the nation on the eve of Independence Day. He touted the accord as one of the "concrete attempts to heal the wounds of Assam" and, apparently in tacit acknowledgement of its failure, stated the need to "revisit" it and adapt it to "present conditions in the spirit of justice and national interest". Spates of violence in lower Assam that accounted for some 100 dead, several hundred thousand displaced and that once again stirred the visceral existential fears of the natives over continuing illegal migrations provided the context.
Like the weasel-worded accord astutely crafted on 15 August 1985 by New Delhi and Dispur to calm a hysterically fearful and exasperated people and hoodwink their immature leadership, the glib words of the honourable President apparently are intended to re-do the magic. Ambiguities inherent in these words qualify them more for a text in a diplomatic demarche, usually reserved for a foreign country than words of hope and solace to one's countrymen in dire distress. The system that drafted and vetted the speech of the President betrayed its cursory, if not contemptuous, concern for an issue that evokes profound existential angst and apprehensions among a large section of the people.
The words of the President unveil the mind of the government of India that characteristically lacks empathy for the people and reflexively seeks to defeat them through obfuscation, Machiavellian manoeuvres or military might should they ever dare to challenge the status quo, however iniquitous. Instead of resonating with the legitimate fears and concerns of the people and taking bona fide measures to allay them, the government habitually deals with them as adversaries with all its attendant implications. In this game the government is ably aided and abetted by its bureaucracy steeped in imperial ethos and baptised for running a colony.
The Assam Accord is a classic product of such an adversarial game. Instead of forging a corporate synergy with all the stakeholders for tackling the influx, the governments , the Union and the state, took unethical and imprudent advantage of its huge resources and institutional experience since the colonial days for thwarting the popular movement. They marshalled their staggeringly superior negotiating skills vis-a-vis the young and immature movement leaders and crafted an accord to defuse the agitation and spite its protagonists.
A discerning glance at the accord illuminates its amateurish character and the queered pitch. It was designed to doom.
Of the 15 clauses in the accord only the reluctant four are somewhat relevant to the issue while the remaining 11 are preambles and peripherals like good intentions of the government and the Prime Minister, promises of economic development, clemency to the protagonists of the Assam Agitation, etc. The core concern was mischievously obfuscated in the thicket of irrelevancies and lollypops.
The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983 that mandates punitive obligations on a whistleblower and thus a potent shield for illegal migrants, was mischievously legitimised in the accord. This made the accord dysfunctional, indeed oxymoronic at its very birth. It took 29 years before the Supreme Court struck it down in 2005 holding it ultra vires of the Constitution.
Given the enormity of challenges inherent in dealing with the complex issue of influx, robust institutional and procedural innovations, commensurate with the problem, should have been spelt out in the accord. Instead, the Union ministry of home affairs conned the movement's leaders into believing that it would do the rest. One is reminded of a billboard on a funeral parlour: "You die, we do the rest."
Assam is ethnically the most heterogeneous state of India. Its social harmony is fractious. A guardian angel of a government should have appreciated the divisive potential of the sectarian character of the leaders, like Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Bhrigu Phukan and Biraj Sharma, engaged with it in hatching the accord. It should have encouraged them to broaden it and make it representative of the Assamese society by including other crucial stakeholders, including the tribes, the Adivasis and the Indian Muslims of Assam. Instead the governments acted with instinct of a cunning predator stalking its prey to fall at every move. Today the MHA eminences marvel at the feat of their predecessors and are gleeful when one after another the native communities distanced themselves from the accord, grossly eroding its political and moral heft.
The accord has created an illusion of a solution and lulled the natives. It is a nostrum, indeed an opiate of the masses that has stifled their rage over the issue and emasculated their ingenuity to deal with it.
The All Assam Students' Union leaders, enthused over their MP becoming the Prime Minister, met Manmohan Singh in his office in 2005. They plaintively pleaded for implementation of the accord. They were disposed of with tea, cookies and platitudes.
The accord has miserably failed in its stated objective. Today the illegal migrants are threats not only to Assam but the whole region. Their impact is palpable on Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. In Meghalaya and Manipur their presence is tangible.
The government of India has wilfully limited itself to a ritual of occasional review meetings with the AASU and the Assam government on implementation of the accord. Such meetings are sickeningly banal and arid. In one such meeting in 2005 chaired by Shivraj Patil, then Union home minister, in the presence of chief minister Tarun Gogoi, I was stunned at a brazen assertion of the governor of Meghalaya RS Mushahary and the then director general, Border Security Force, the guardian of India's border with Bangladesh, that the illegal migration was a phenomenon of the past. Nobody present, including the AASU leaders contested his claim.
The cheeky assertion of the DG BSF spurred me to look beyond the competing rhetoric and contested census data on the issue of influx. I undertook an empirical field research, I am not aware of another study of this kind, to ascertain the reality and nuances of the illegal migration. Unauthorised urban clusters sprung up in the last two decades were chosen for the study. Ample households were selected through random sampling method for forensic scrutiny. The DG of BSF was wrong. Over 25 per cent of the residents were migrants of recent vintage from Bangladesh.
It is ironical that an issue of core existential concern is also the most schismatic. It tends to divide people along communal lines. They rub lies in the way the issue has been framed and prosecuted. Instead of a rational, pragmatic and secular treatment of it, the vested interests just play on popular fears, whip it into hysteria with communal overtones and push it into an orbit of the impossible. It must be appreciated that tackling the illegal influx of Bangladeshis without co-opting the Indian Muslims of Assam as a credible partner in the enterprise is a pipe dream.
The tragedy is that the guardians -- the Union and state governments -- are obtusely complacent to, if not outrightly complicit in the unfolding tragedy and the gatekeepers -- the natives are disenchanted, despondent and befuddled.
The recent resurgence against the illegal influx is an opportunity to do things the right way. To muff it will be a tragic loss.
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