New Delhi: A WikiLeaks cable, dated 16 February 2006, authored by a US consulate officer in Kolkata had alleged that then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, campaigning for the May 2006 state Assembly election in Assam, “in a brazen appeal to the Muslims, offered to amend the Foreigners Act to prevent deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”.
According to the report by FIRSTPOST the cable said that the relationship between the Congress party and its traditional vote bank soured in July 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) (IMDT) Act as unconstitutional. It said the Congress supported the act, which made identification, detection and deportation of foreigners in Assam an incredibly complex task, and also protected post-1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
“The Congress has tried to appease the Muslims by not enforcing the Foreigners Act, and in her recent visit, Sonia offered to amend the Act… The Muslim community’s importance has been magnified by a steady influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, and Muslims presently hold 13 Congress seats in the Assembly. Traditionally, Congress had been the party of choice for the Muslims as it protected illegal Bangladeshi migrants from deportation,” the cable said.
But now, with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) throwing up 4 million illegal immigrants after the first phase, the Congress’ response is vague.
Former Congress MP from Assam, Kirip Chaliha, said he doesn’t remember Sonia Gandhi making such a speech in 2006, but said he supported NRC. He has argued that infiltration by illegal immigrants changed the demography of the state. “It is not about Mulsims or non-Muslims, but infiltration that has potential national security implications. Politicians including Mamta Banerjee are trying to fish in the troubled water to protect the vote bank. But Assam Congress failed to tackle the illegal immigration issue and that is the primary reason the party was wiped out from the state. The NRC establishes the fact that there has been massive infiltration by illegal immigrants and now further action has to be taken as per law,” Chaliha said.
Chaliha himself features in one of the 2005 cables that was drafted immediately after Supreme Court repealed the IMDT Act in Assam. He appears to be taking a strong view against the illegal immigrants in the cable, though US officials observed that the Congress government, which passed the IMDT Act in 1983, has been accused of catering mostly to Muslim Bangladeshi migrants in order to use them as a vote bank, and of allowing “demographic aggression” in Assam.
“Although Congress publicly supported the IMDT Act, Kirip Chaliha, an MP of the party from Assam, told Poloff that the repeal has been met with a ‘majority sense of relief’. Acknowledging that the act ‘put the government and all of its apparatus in favor of the migrants’, he said the repeal was important to the people of Assam as a ‘signal that government will not legitimise the presence of Bangladeshi migrants’. Although Congress must publicly oppose the repeal, Chaliha agreed privately that the act was a detriment to security and that the government cannot be blind on infiltration,” the confidential cable from the US embassy New Delhi said.
The current massive exercise to detect, delete and deport is far from over, but there are basic questions which the government officials and even political leaders from the state like Chaliha are not able to answer at the moment. What will the state and the Centre do with 4 million people since Bangladesh won’t take them? Whether the government’s plan is to keep them deprived of even basic privileges like food and legal care after deletion from records? Whether they will get ration cards? Would they be allowed to enter the manual job market? What would happen to the properties they might be holding? Illegal immigrants were not teleported into India, so who allowed them to settle?
The government officials are tight-lipped on deportation while arguing that only draft NRC has been prepared and any mechanism could only be adopted after the process is declared complete. Chaliha too is not sure about deportation, but he said deletion appears to be the feasible option. He also blamed successive Congress governments for branding the party as pro-Muslim because they lost the touch with ground reality. He said even Assamese Muslims were opposing illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh but the leaders failed to assess the simmering anger.
“I can tell you Assamese Muslims would prefer to vote for BJP and they are happy with the NRC exercise to weed out the illegal immigrants. There are rumors being spread in the state that RSS-BJP are playing divisive politics by identifying illegal immigrants, but this is only going to help them to strengthen their base. Political leaders like Mamata Banerjee should focus on national security issue and stop appeasement politics,” Chaliha said.
While politicians including West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee are expending energy to reinvent the wheel, her own state’s situation can be aptly described in another WikiLeaks cable from December 2005. The state was ruled by the CPM at the time, and Mamata’s party was in Opposition. The cable quoted Indian intelligence and security officials and said the state government was protecting illegal immigrants.
Indian security officials, the cable said, were frustrated by the deterioration of security in Bangladesh and the consequences for West Bengal, which politicians were unwilling to debate publicly for fear of alienating Muslim voters. Although, cable did not name Opposition parties, it clearly mentioned they were against the policies followed by the Communist government in the state.
“The Opposition (political parties) also accuse the Left Front of giving immigrants instant citizenship and voting rights to maintain and gain support within the Muslim community,” the WikiLeaks cable said.
Thirteen years later, Mamata is now in power, and has taken the opposite stand. A senior official in the government said her statements may prove to be a recipe for disaster in West Bengal. Picking up some of her recent quotes on Assam’s NRC, he said politicians are masters of fear-mongering, and Mamata is also using the same tool to exploit NRC and appease her electorate.
“Cheap fear-mongering may solidify electoral base and help in pulling off elections but in this issue it may cost the nation, especially the affected state dearly,” he said.