The Assam Chief Minister spoke to Siddharth Varadarajan , Editor of The Hindu , at his office in Dispur on Saturday about the revival of the ‘anti foreigner issue’ in Assamese politics in the wake of the recent clashes between Bodo and Muslim groups in Kokrajhar that turned lakhs of villagers into refugees. Excerpts:
Six weeks after the first killings in Kokrajhar, tens of thousands of displaced persons remain in relief camps but the fear of renewed violence appears to have subsided. Instead, there is talk of a revival of the so-called “anti-foreigner” agitation in the rest of Assam. As Chief Minister, how do you assess the possibility of the revival of this agitation. Is this something that worries you?
They are trying to. I do feel they are trying to do. But I have my doubt. It is not easy to do. It is not easy to revive the sentiment …
But the recent bandh was quite successful.
Any bandh in Assam is successful! If anybody gives a bandh [call], it will be 100 per cent successful. The success of a bandh is not a yardstick of success or mass support… Anybody, a small group or even if a community gives a bandh call where other communities are not involved, there also they observe the bandh.
When you say “they,” who do you feel is behind the attempt to raise the “foreigners” issue again? Is it mostly the Asom Gana Parishad? Or the Bharatiya Janata Party?
The BJP is number one.... But we will also expose them. [We will ask] what you did when you were in power? How many foreigners did you detect and act against? Now just because elections are approaching in 2014, they are making this an issue.
What is the Assam government’s own information on the number of non-citizens living and working in the State? Have you done any internal study about migration, say over the past five years? Has there been any significant rise in the number of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh?
I have all along been saying that migration is on the decline. Where does migration take place? Where there is ample job opportunity, where there is land that is available. Today, land availability is not there. Earlier, why did they come? Today, [that is] why they do not come? Now migration has been there since the British came. Migrations here started during the development of the tea, coal, oil industries in Assam. Biharis and other groups came. Then to construct railway line who came? The workers were Biharis, in clerical jobs there were Bengalis. Then again during British times, more Bengalis came in because there was a push to grow more food.
Now population growth in Assam according to the 2001 Census was less than the national average. Yes, the Muslim population has risen, there is no doubt. Just as even in the tea garden areas, population has risen. This is because of illiteracy. Even in the tribal communities. Illiteracy is the number one cause of higher population growth rates. Now, when the AGP was in power and they had a chance to prove they were different. They could have registered cases [against foreigners living here]. Why did they not do it? In the case of voters list A,B,C, D, so many lists were made to exclude the foreigners.... The Election Commission also tried. How much could they do?
I suppose so far it has proved difficult to disentangle citizens from migrants.
See the number of cases. Three lakh cases are pending. Not that they have all been identified as foreigners… Many of the people they are talking about, they are Assamese, they speak Assamese. And “migration” has become a convenient issue for someone to raise for political ends.
When one of the Bodo leaders was arrested recently [after the Kokrajhar violence], he admitted, ‘Why should I indulge in attacking the Muslims when I myself have engaged them in my business.’ The same thing is true elsewhere in Bodoland also. All development activities, construction, you will find migrants.
Now, in Guwahati there has been migration. To construct your house, to buy chicken, you are dealing with migrants. Now they are all foreigners and they are engaging them! Those who are agitating on this issue, whether AGP or BJP leaders, their pandals , their houses were also constructed by them … In the peak [of the anti-foreigners agitation], I myself saw the AGP building was constructed by them, those who they allege are illegal migrants. We do not say [this]. The politics they are doing is wrong. They say that Tarun Gogoi is giving protection. But [the Muslims] have not voted me for last two elections…
How worried are you about the growth of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal among Muslim voters in Assam?
There is a wrong perception that Muslims always vote for the Congress. They never voted more than 50 per cent. Out of 26 [‘Muslim dominated’ seats in an Assembly of 126], the maximum Hiteswar Saikia got was 15 … Second highest I got that time they were with me in 2001. I won 13 of the seats; the other 13 were individuals with the Samjwawadi Party, independents, etc.
The AIUDF has brought all these individuals on one platform. In 1996, we got 9, and 11 of those seats were won by the AGP. Where is the question of Muslims all along being with the Congress? But [the Opposition] goes on blaming the Congress. I am not worried. The same accusation [of bias] is made against me by some Muslims.
Now just because I am Hindu does that mean I should play Hindu politics? As far I am concerned, if Hindus are also accusing me of ‘vote bank politics’ and Muslims are accusing of me playing the ‘Hindu card,’ this means that I am balanced…
Some of your critics have said the requirement of proof of land documentation for rehabilitation of the inmates of refugees from the Kokrajhar violence is unfair.
It is the first stage. If he has land, he had a house, he had properties, these make immediate rehabilitation easier. Now 2.40 lakh people have already returned to their homes. Others are also returning... But one problem the government is facing is you cannot rehabilitate people back in forest areas... A good percentage of [the victims of the violence] were living there.
Why did the Army take so long to deploy in Kokrajhar after the violence started and you asked for assistance?
It took very long, five days. All kinds of procedural problems were there. The Defence Secretary told us he did not have the authority. So I myself had to speak to the Defence Minister and then the Army came out.
But you feel the situation there is under control now?
Yes, now it is controlled.
We keep hearing there are a lot of arms there….
Arms are there … Arms are there with every insurgent group. Whether ULFA, the… KLO [Kamtapur Liberation Organisation]. Even with the ceasefire groups, there are anti-talk [factions]. … though we have recovered 80 per cent, their strength is reduced by 80 per cent. [But] they cannot cause damage, as much damage.