New Delhi: From 1979 to 1985, the Assam movement proved to be the foundation stone that laid the basis for the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC). More than 4 million people were excluded from the draft list of citizens released last month.

Spearheading that movement was Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a former chief minister of Assam and former president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The campaign culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Mahanta. In an interview, Mahanta shares his views on illegal immigration and the NRC. Edited excerpts:

What was the genesis of the Assam movement?

After the 1950 earthquake of Assam, people lost their land, agriculture income decreased and the economy had taken a beating. The Assam movement was started in 1979 and the Assam Accord was signed. As per the provisions of the accord, they (illegal immigrants) should be detected and deported from India. Assam has sacrificed a lot and I don’t think Assam should be required to sacrifice any more.

When the agreement was signed on 15 August 1985, it was observed that Assam’s population had skyrocketed because of the infiltration from Bangladesh. So a provision was made to filter out the illegal immigration that had taken place from Bangladesh.

A struggle to recapture resources is what sparked off the movement and the Assam movement was started. It was realised that at the time of the revision of the electoral roll more than 70,000 names of foreigners had appeared on that list and the names of the Bangladeshi people had made their way into the electoral rolls of Assam. Therefore, the electoral rolls should be revised and their names should be deleted. That was when the Assam movement started. But the first NRC was prepared in 1951 and, at that time, there was no objection. In 1985, when the then prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) called us for a discussion, we put forth the demand that an NRC should be prepared in Assam for Indian citizens. Now, the Supreme Court (SC) has been monitoring it and, as per the SC’s directive, people of Assam will be correctly mentioned in the NRC.

Does the NRC serve as a band-aid solution to the state’s problems?

Once things are on track with the NRC process, the state and central governments should work more on communication and education sectors in Assam. The centre also needs to come forward because Assam has abundant natural resources like oil and tea gardens.

As of now, the process has excluded 4 million people. Estimates suggest around 2 million people will be left out of the final list. However, people claim that legitimate cases have also been left out. Is the process really fair?

Such cases are different in different areas. There are cases where there are MLAs (members of legislative assembly) whose names have not appeared. There are allegations that immigrants from Bangladesh who migrated after 1971 have been included. There are several controversial statements that are doing the rounds. We just want that the final list should be published and it should include the names of all legitimate Indian citizens. As per the provisions of the Assam Accord, those who came to India before 24 March 1971 should be treated as citizens.

Once the final NRC is out, how will the state take care of the displaced, since we are not immediately labelling them as foreigners?

The question of detention centres is different. Why should Assam alone be a dumping ground? At the time of independence, too, Assam had taken in lakhs of foreigners who migrated from East Pakistan and during the 1965 war, too, we absorbed immigrants. The same thing happened after the 1975 war, when refugees started living in Assam. There are other states, too, so why should they not share the burden? Assam alone is not a part of India.

Has Assam witnessed any law and order issues because of illegal immigration?

It has created major law and order issues. First, the illegal migrants enrolled their names in the electoral rolls, then they started grabbing land of the ethnic Assamese and the indigenous people started suffering especially in areas such as Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, etc. This entire issue is not a religious issue at all. It is an ethnic issue and it is the duty of the government of India to see this through to its logical end.

Why do you label this an ethnic issue?

The language of the Bangladeshis is different from what is spoken in Assam and Tripura. During the partition, the people of East Pakistan were given the option and some of them did not take that option. After that, too, they got the chance in 1965 and 1971. They did not come in then. So, why now? Now at the rate at which they have come, the Assamese people have become a minority.

Even if 500,000 people are omitted from the final list, we are looking at a crisis that is larger than the Syrian and Rohingya exodus. When you started the movement, were you prepared to witness a civil backlash that the state may be grappling with in the future?

Let the centre take the onus for it. Why should Assam suffer alone every time? Like in Tripura, the indigenous Assamese population are now a minority. The crisis is currently going on. The Bodos have been sidelined by the immigrants.

After the release of the final NRC draft on 30 July, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said that the Bengalis were being discriminated against. Your thoughts?

What she has said is not correct. A lot of the Bengali-speaking people have been living in Assam because they had migrated at the time of the British rule and during the partition. A large number of the Bengali people have been here and none of the Assamese have ever created any trouble. I think an NRC should be prepared for West Bengal as well, because that is when the problem of illegal migrants taking refuge in West Bengal will also be solved.

Eventually, will it not result in a loss of votes, especially with the general elections next year?

The nation’s interest should come first. Then we must think about vote bank. First, the centre should protect the country and prepare a correct NRC. A person may have migrated from any place—West Bengal, Haryana or Kerala—but if he is not a citizen of India, then their names should not be on the NRC.

But Bangladesh is not willing to cooperate. What then?

We had met Sheikh Hasina and had asked her about the problem of the Bangladeshi people. She said that she had no knowledge of it. Therefore, we demanded a tripartite relation—between the government of Assam, the government of India and the government of Bangladesh. Then it will be easy to solve the problem. If you go by the census, then the population of Bangladesh has actually gone down because the people migrated to other countries. And those people who have migrated to India, will be detected during the NRC process. Interestingly, the Hindu population in Bangladesh has also decreased, which shows that we are not treating it as a religious issue at all—but a genuine one where we are housing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

Why then has Bangladesh washed its hands off the problem?

There is a political reason for Bangladesh to have washed its hands off the problem. The Rohingyas had moved into Bangladesh and were offered shelter and support. But how can we allow the immigrants to stay here when they are not citizens of our country? India is a secular country and you can’t divide it into Indian Muslims and Hindus in case of citizenship.

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