How many more Kokrajhars?

The seeds of violence in Kokrajhar were sown decades ago. Years of political perfidy, bureaucratic apathy and national neglect led to the present tension and violence, which is a repeat of earlier such incidents. Illegal immigration first from East Pakistan and then from Bangladesh has been the cause. Throughout these years, the politician, interested in his vote banks, had little time for national interests as he played his games, the civil servant played truant and the men guarding the borders found this game lucrative. Over time, the rights of the illegal migrant became equal to the rights of the local. Let us not obscure this basic fact.

Besides, the North East is somewhere remote for those in Mumbai and New Delhi; Guwahati the main city of the North East is 1,930 kilometres away from the national capital and 2,740 km from the commercial capital. The road from Guwahati to Kolkata is 1,003 km long just 125 km shorter than the road to Kunming, Yunnan. Many here in Delhi still look vaguely at a person from the region and wonder if he or she is an Indian. We also do not realise that the problem in the Valley of Kashmir is far less intricate than the one in the North East. We do not adequately realise in our public discourse the importance and the richness of the entire north east and therefore the need to work it into an economic infrastructure grid with the rest of India and Myanmar. Distance lends enchantment, it also creates indifference.

Not again: Bodo tribals flee their village and make their way to a camp, as paramilitary soldiers walk past in Gambaribil village, Kokrajhar district, Assam. Pic/AFP

Seething with rage at New Delhi's sustained apathy, the north east went up in flames in 1979 once the talks with the All Assam Students Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad collapsed. The secessionist ULFA and the BDLF resorted to armed rebellion, demanding the repatriation of illegal migrants. Others in other states followed in the pursuit of their grievances.

Insurgent organisations mushroomed encouraged by the Khaleda Zia government and its ally the Jamat-e-Islami. Sanctuaries in Bangladesh, financial assistance, weapons and training were provided and insurgency itself became a lucrative profession in the north east.

Terrorism watch portals like the South Asia Terrorism Portal of the Institute of Conflict Management have listed as many as 36 terror organisations in Assam, (many may have become defunct or were merely front organisations), there were 39 in Manipur, 30 in Tripura while a far fewer number in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. Most of us do not realise that the problem in the north east is far more serious and intricate than we care to believe. Bangladeshi immigrants have established their own organisations like the Muslim United Liberation Front and others, in retaliation to the ULFA and other forces like BTF.

The controversial IMTD Act took 22 years to be overthrown by the Supreme Court in 2005, by which time enough damage had been done to the socio-economic and political landscapes. Local leaders now seeking vote banks have converted immigration into a Hindu-Muslim issue whereas this is a local-immigrant problem. This includes other immigrants too. This just cannot be sidestepped or swept under the carpet forever.

We also need to have mutually cordial relations with Bangladesh to succeed in our efforts to control immigration. Today we have a government in Bangladesh which has co-operated in tackling our security related issues. There is no guarantee that Sheikh Hasina will retain power in the next election. The known alternative is unlikely to be too friendly to India, if not hostile. India’s interest lies in securing the peace in our north east, encouraging Bangladesh to continue to cooperate with us. In order to succeed we need to give some adequate quid pro quo, whether in the form of a Teesta Water treaty, economic and financial assistance which encourages Bangladesh’s manufacturing and trading capacities which in turn discourages search for livelihood in India. There has to be waiver of tariffs and duties of all kinds while ensuring regulated entry.

At all times, the state must have the ability to react quickly to situations, something that is always lacking. For this we must ensure adequate systems that identify illegal immigrants for repatriation while fresh immigration is prevented. Work permits are for the future not for the past. All this needs is political will, strong borders and bureaucratic determination. Otherwise we will continue to have more Kokrajhars.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) 

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