Cross-border: 'Citizenship to Post-1971 Hindu migrants from Bangladesh suicidal'
Akhil Gogoi, RTI activist and leader of the left-wing Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, has been at the forefront of the struggle of peasants and the downtrodden in Assam. Branded an anarchist for his anti-Constitutional stance, Gogoi has recently formed a political party which many say could play a major role in the next elections. Sadiq Naqvi caught up with him in his spartan office in Guwahati. Excerpts from an interview:
You just formed a political party. Are you going to contest elections?
No. I formed the party to take forward the fight for bringing in systemic changes. To me the meaning of this change is clear. We need to overthrow the capitalist system and fight for a socialist state. The Independence movement did ensure that the colonial system was thrown out but it was not complete transformation in the real sense.
What was the need for a political party? You already had a social organisation working on the ground.
You cannot bring about systemic changes with a mass organisation. You may build issue-based movements with such an organisation, like an India Against Corruption movement. Look at the Congress party prior to Independence. They were also engaged in a people’s movement. They also contested elections. But the decision to contest elections constituted just one per cent of the whole strategy. The movement was more important. The strategy was to go for a people’s movement and, among the various tactics, the decision to contest elections was just one of them.
So you might contest elections in the future, as part of a similar strategy?
Maybe, if we are well-prepared, as a tactical strategy, we might also contest elections. There is no decision on it yet. At the moment the only decision which has been taken is that we have to keep the people’s movement alive and strengthen it. Contesting elections is just a part of this bigger fight.
What is your take on this renewed debate on who constitutes an Assamese?
The Assam Accord with the Government of India defines who is an Assamese. People who have come or have been here before March 24, 1971, are Assamese. Section 6 of the Accord, however, mentioned the need for Constitutional safeguards for the indigenous Assamese population. It didn’t speak of economic or political safeguards but just mentioned cultural and linguistic ones. That movement was launched to throw out bideshis. Naturally, they don’t need safeguards.
But who constitutes an indigenous Assamese?
I think we should go by the UN resolution on indigenous people.
Do you think a lot of people are crossing over from Bangladesh to Assam?
This ‘foreigner’ issue is very complex. In my reckoning, people are still coming in from Bangladesh and Nepal. There is, however, no statistics or study to zero down on their numbers. But when I was in jail I did meet a few Bangladeshis who had come recently. That is why there is a need to fence the borders properly. Sometimes, even fences can’t stop people from coming. The most important thing is to make the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) for people who came till 1971.
It is being done now…
I think the Congress government in Assam and even the BJP don’t want it to happen. They don’t want it because they know once this issue is solved their politics around it will fail. We have been demanding that this register be prepared as soon as possible. Once it is done, and the foreigners identified, they must have a treaty with Bangladesh and Nepal, and deport all such people.
There are a lot of people who have come after 1971, especially the Hindus…
The state government of the Congress and the BJP at the centre are trying to give citizenship rights to this group. I think it is a suicidal step. We Assamese people will never accept that. These Hindu Bengalis must be 15 lakh in all. We have told the government that if you want to give refugee status to this group then take them to some other state. The Prime Minister can easily take them to Gujarat or Delhi. Assam is already overburdened. There is so much of infiltration from Bangladesh and Nepal plus there are people coming in from other states as well. The indigenous Assamese have no rights even over the natural resources in the state. The centre has given all the resources to the corporates to exploit. Even the tea gardens are owned by private companies, the wholesale market is controlled by Marwaris and the retail business is controlled by Bengalis.
The tribes working in the tea gardens are living in very poor conditions. As an activist what have you done for them?
Their wages continue to be `94 a day. I am challenging the Prime Minister and the chief minister of Assam to live on `94 per day. Since the tea tribes came from Central India a long time ago, the local Assamese people have accepted them. Their wages need to be increased. And the housing facilities in the gardens should be transferred to the labourers instead of the private companies owning them.
They have been facing violence, especially in Bodo Territorial Development Council areas…
The government has given relaxation in the form of Schedule VI or any other means, but we still don’t have any rights to our resources. That’s why we have been demanding that 371 A be implemented in Assam and the indigenous Assamese people be given control over the resources of the state. We have also been demanding that, like Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya etc., outsiders should not be allowed to purchase land in Assam. Third, there should be reservation in Parliament and the Assembly for the indigenous Assamese population. This will ensure economic and political empowerment of the people.
Do you think that the BJP is communalising the polity in Assam?
The BJP has been playing a very dirty role in the state. We will not allow them to succeed. In Assam, Hindus and Muslims have lived in perfect harmony for years.
But Bengali-speaking Muslims are being discriminated against…
Had they prepared the NRC for people who came till 1971 and deported all those who came later, this communal feeling would have been defused. The Indian State wants to keep this issue of foreigners coming in and encroaching on our resources alive.
(The interview has been translated from Hindi)