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July 26, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Lt General (retd) S K Sinha

'National security is being seriously threatened'

He resigned as deputy chief of the army staff when the Indira Gandhi government superceded him with General A S Vaidya. Although embittered, Lieutenant General (retd) Srinivas Kumar Sinha soon forgot about his supersession and immersed himself in academic pursuit. He went on lecture tours to various universities and defence institutions, sharing his military experience and expertise in national security affairs. He wrote columns in leading newspapers and analysed developments in South Asia.

He caught the attention of then prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and was appointed India's ambassador to Nepal. The general won the admiration and respect of the Nepalese by fluently speaking their language.

Given his track record in the army, the general was appointed Assam governor two years ago to combat militancy in the state as also the burgeoning influx of Bangladeshi people from across the border. The governor's efforts in stemming the tide of the influx was sought to be politicised by various politicians because of the vote bank factor. He submitted a confidential report to the central government on the refugee situation in the bordering state and contends that a few of his recommendations have been positively received.

Lt Gen Sinha spoke to Special Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay about the demand for more autonomy to Assam by state Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the Bangladesh refugee problem and militancy in the state.

After Dr Farooq Abdullah, it is Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta who is demanding autonomy for the state. Will it put you on a collision course with him?

No, there is a qualitative difference between the demands of the two chief ministers. Mahanta's demand did not voice the desire to revert back to the pre-1953 status, have an elected governor, have a separate flag and the chief minister's nomenclature changed to that of prime minister. As far as Mr Mahanta is concerned, he has entirely disassociated himself from the Kashmiri demand. Mr Mahanta has, of course, asked for greater devolution of powers.

So far as autonomy is concerned, all states in India have been enjoying it since the Government of India Act, 1935. The only question now is the extent of autonomy. What you can talk about is more powers, more financial powers and things like that.

Has Dr Abdullah's demand established a trend for more autonomy as more states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu seem to be voicing it?

The central government has already said that it is willing to discuss reasonable and deserving cases in this regard.

Compared to a year ago, how do you assess the magnitude of the illegal migration from Bangladesh?

I can't give you an answer to that because no doubt this is a very serious problem in Assam. I cannot quantify it because there is no basis for doing so. And based on observations, there appears to be no reduction in the ongoing influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, the border is very porous. We are having a census which will be concluded in the next few months. The 2001 census may be able to identify the extent to which this has continued because the 1991 census, through extrapolation and analysis, did give us a picture of the prevailing situation.

In the 1991 census, we have had to talk in terms of the Hindu and Muslim populations, not because we want to look at the matter from a communal angle but to get an idea of the enormity of the problem. The influx from Bangladesh is almost 100 per cent Muslim. Hindus from Bangladesh are not coming into Assam.

Why is this so?

There were these anti-Bengali (Muslim) riots and things were disturbed in Assam. So Hindus coming out of Bangladesh are mostly going into Tripura or Bengal or elsewhere in India. So the growth of the Muslim population in Assam is an indicator of the extent to which infiltration is taking place.

Now, to give you precise figures, the 1991 census showed that there had been an increase in the Muslim population in Assam by 77 per cent. The Hindu population had increased by only 41 per cent. There is another indicator. The Muslim population in the rest of India during this period -- 1971 to 1991 -- had increased on an average by 55 per cent. And the same percentage applied to the Muslim population in Bangladesh. So the growth pattern is 55 per cent in Bangladesh, 55 per cent in the rest of India.

Compare this with the Muslim growth pattern of 77 per cent in Assam. This is suggestive of the fact that this 22 per cent differential is mostly the illegal migrants who have come in. So, the 2001 census may be able to tell us to what extent this infiltration has been going on.

Do you agree with the apprehension of the indigenous Assamese people that if the influx continues, they will soon be swamped?

There is no doubt about that. Not only on the indigenous population, way back in 1931, the British census superintendent had voiced the same fear. His name was Mr Mullen. In those days, there was no question of international boundaries, it was all within the same country. Mullen said if the influx continued, except for Upper Assam and the Sibsagar district, there would be no Assamese left in Assam.

The same feeling was voiced by Lord Wavell who was the viceroy of India during the Second World War years. There was a grow-more-food campaign going on and the Muslim League ministry was getting Muslims from East Bengal from Mymensingh district and settling them in Assam and giving them virgin land to cultivate. Wavell, in his book, Viceroy's Journal, made a very caustic remark. He said, 'What the Muslim League is doing is not growing more food but growing more Muslims.' These are pre-Independence incidents and the same has continued unabated even after Independence.

Now there are two angles added to it. One is a change in the demographic pattern affecting the identity of the indigenous people of Assam, whether Hindu or Muslim. The second, which is a matter of concern for the rest of India, is with this ongoing influx connected with the long standing demand in Bangladesh for living space for their people and which has dangerous dimensions. Leave alone what Jinnah said before Independence, after Independence Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto, in his book, Myths of Independence, wrote that besides Kashmir, the other very serious problem in Indo-Pak relations is Assam.

There, Pakistan has some very legitimate rights for districts. Even a friend of India like Sheikh Mujibur Rehman wrote in his book that East Pakistan should be given more space and mineral wealth of Assam for his people to improve their lot. And in the 1990s, intellectuals in Dhaka began talking about lebensraum which in German means living space and they have been targeting Assam and the northeast. They have even been saying that with globalisation, you have free movement of goods across international boundaries. There should also be free movement of labour which means movement of population.

But these are dangerous signs, particularly when you look at the geographical picture. The whole of the northeast is connected with a tenuous land link with the rest of India through what is known as 'Chicken's Neck'. The Lower Assam districts have already become a Muslim-majority district -- there is nothing wrong in that. But if that Muslim-majority district is primarily a foreigners' district of people infiltrating from Bangladesh, they may raise a hue and cry tomorrow for a Greater Bangladesh. If that happens, the entire landmass of the northeast will get severed from the rest of India.

Therefore, it is not only the identity of the indigenous people of Assam which is being threatened but also the national security of India which is being seriously threatened.

Did you give a report to the Centre on the illegal migrants issue and if so what happened to the it?

Yes, I did, but my report was addressed to the President of India. I submitted it in November 1998. It is being examined. The important recommendation was repeal of the Illegal Migrants Detection by Tribunal Act. But unfortunately, vote bank politicians coupled with their communal variety have given a completely communal twist to this. All I had said was that the IMDT Act is highly discriminatory. It applies only to the state of Assam, excluding the rest of India.

Bengal is reported to have six million Bangladeshis. Assam has four million. Why should there be a different set of laws for Bengal and Assam? It doesn't make sense. If people are so worried about the minorities being harassed when special measures have been taken to protect them, then apply the IMDT Act to the whole of India. Why only Assam?

The second point is the implementation of the IMDT Act. It puts the onus on the government to prove that a particular person is a foreigner. In the Foreigners Act which applies to the rest of India, the onus is on the individual to prove that he is an Indian citizen. So, there is a completely different thrustline And then various provisions of the IMDT Act make the whole process of detection impotent. The police cannot arrest anybody, enough time is given to these chaps with the result that hardly anyone get identified and deported.

In the last 16 or 17 years, the government has spent crores on maintaining this IMDC paraphernalia and what has been the result? About 1,300 or 1,400 people have been identified out of four, five million. And many among these 1,300 or 1,400 people, who have been sent back, have returned through the other door. So it is an exercise in futility.

I said repeal IMDT, try and identify who these people are. The then Union home minister, Mr Indrajit Gupta, said in Parliament that there are one crore illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India. You cannot deport one crore people. The Bangladesh government says there are no illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India. There is no meeting ground. How do you deport them?

So my suggestion is identify them and declare them to be stateless citizens with no right to vote. This is nothing new. We had this arrangement with regard to Turks in Germany and other people in different parts of the world. And here in India, the non-Muslims from Pakistan who came in 1947-1948, they were all given full citizenship rights and got the highest ranks like for instance, Mr Inder Kumar Gujral who was a refugee from Pakistan. He became an Indian citizen and subsequently became the prime minister of India.

Mr Advani is also a refugee who became an Indian citizen and is now our Union home minister. But those who went into Kashmir -- I think the figure is a couple of lakhs -- have to this day not been given Indian citizenship rights. They do have the right to vote and are living in and around Jammu for the last 50 years.

Now, there was a moral and legal commitment on India's part to accept people coming from erstwhile India and giving them citizenship rights. That has still not been done for these people. So the heavens will not fall if these illegal migrants, for whom we have no moral or legal responsibility, are made stateless citizens.

I have given other recommendations also. Some of them are being acted upon. For instance, fencing of the border in Assam has been completed. The prime minister has announced that the entire Indo-Bangladeshi border will be fenced by 2007 and Rs 1,335 crore (Rs 13.35 billion) has been allotted for this purpose.

There are other measures too like the issuing of identity cards to people of the border, updating our national register of citizens and so on. But they are being acted upon, I am afraid, much too slowly.

Is it a fact that ISI agents have joined hands with ultra groups in Assam?

Last year, we apprehended in a major breakthrough, four ISI operatives in Assam. We recovered documents and a large amount of cash and it was established that these chaps were in touch with various fundamentalist organisations. In fact, there were young Muslims from Assam who had been sent to Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan for training. There is a militant organisation called the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam. There is another organisation called MULTA. All these activities are going on and we have definite evidence of the ISI connection. We are trying to keep them in check and are exercising scrutiny.

So, what in your opinion, is the panacea?

So far as the militancy of the Assamese people is concerned, in spite of the fact that ULFA and Bodo militant cadres have sanctuaries in Bhutan from where they can come on the hit-and-run raids, we have succeeded in our operations against the militants in Assam to a large measure. We have been able to kill 700 militants in encounters during the last three years. We have recovered 200 weapons, apart from Rs 95 lakh (Rs 9.5 million) in cash. All this has, to an extent, broken the back of militancy which is reflected in the large number of surrenders which are taking place. About 2,000 militants have surrendered to us.

But what is important is that we have been able to win the people of Assam over to the mainstream. The press in our state is freely writing against the militants unlike before. The people have begun participating in public functions like Republic Day in Assam. We have managed a peaceful election, far more than Bihar and other states. What is more, our voter turnout was 72 per cent, the highest. The people ignored the militants's call for the boycott of the election. The patriotic upsurge of the Assamese people in the Kargil war was as great as that in any other state.

People today have started fighting the militants in Assam on their own, there have been 20-odd incidents wherein militants in our state have been lynched by villagers or apprehended and handed over to the security forces. This shows an attitudinal change among the Assamese people which is a great victory for the state. It shows that Assam is emerging out of the dark tunnel of violence and is poised to enter an era of peace and prosperity.

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