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Govt lacks political will to tackle influx: Lt Gen (Retd) Sinha

By R DUTTA CHOUDHURY

GUWAHATI, Sept 25 � The Government lacks political will to solve the problem of infiltration of foreigners to India and the possibility of a Kashmir-type situation in Assam in the days to come cannot be ruled out, said former Governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha.

In an interview with The Assam Tribune, Lt Gen Sinha also lamented the slow progress of fencing the international border with Bangladesh and pointed out that in Kashmir, more than 700 kilometres of border were fenced in little over a year.

The following are the excerpts of the Interview:

Assam Tribune: You submitted a detailed report to the President of India in November, 1998 on the problem of infiltration of foreigners along with your suggestions to deal with the problem. How do you look at the scenario after more than a decade of submitting the report?

Lt Gen SK Sinha: I am most disappointed at the lack of political will to act on my recommendations submitted to the President of India. There were fifteen specific recommendations in my report. The important ones were repeal of IMDT Act, border fencing, photo identity cards, upgrading National Register of Citizens, identifying illegal migrants and declaring them Stateless citizens with no voting rights.

I had endorsed copies of my report to the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister, and the Chief Minister. It had upset the Congress very much and their MPs from North East called for my recall. I K Gujral was the Prime Minister at that time. His Government fell soon thereafter. The Vajpayee Government, despite supporting my recommendations could not do much for two reasons. First, it did not have the required majority in Rajya Sabha to repeal the IMDT Act and second, Congress came to power in the State with its vote bank agenda. My illustrious predecessor B K Nehru, a member of the dynasty, was Governor of Assam in the late Sixties. He along with the veteran Congress Chief Minister B P Chaliha, had taken up the illegal migration issue but they were told by Indira Gandhi not to pursue the matter. In his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Second, B K Nehru laments that the old Congress accorded priority to national interests over party interest but that had been reversed by the new Congress.

I faced a ticklish situation in 2001 when the Congress returned to power in the State. My working relations with the new Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi were alright, except for our very divergent views on illegal migration from Bangladesh. He was of the view that this was not taking place while I maintained that this unabated influx was a very serious problem for the State. I had to address the Assembly, reading out the speech prepared for me by the State Government. I read stating that IMDT was necessary to protect the minorities and illegal migration from Bangladesh was not taking place. There was an uproar in the Press at what was considered my total volte face. I had a statement issued from Raj Bhavan that my address did not reflect my views. It is incumbent on the Head of the State in a parliamentary democracy to read the address prepared for him by his government. There had been no change in my personal views on the subject as in my report to the President. This cleared the air but Tarun Gogoi felt that I had committed a constitutional impropriety by having such a statement issued and he would take up the matter with the Centre. I heard nothing further about this matter. Our divergent views on this crucial issue continued.

Ultimately the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act while delivering its judgment on a PIL filed before it. Extracts from my report to the President were quoted extensively in the judgment. However, the State Government virtually brought back the provisions of the IMDT Act through the backdoor by amending the Foreigner's Act. Demographic aggression from Bangladesh into Assam continues unabated and the situation today is worse than what it was in 1998, when I had taken up the matter.

Apart from my recommendation regarding the IMDT Act, my other recommendations were almost all put in cold storage with hardly any action taken on them.

AT: It seems that infiltration of foreigners not only posed a threat to the identity of the indigenous people but also a threat to the security of the nation. What is your view in this regard?

Sinha: Large-scale infiltration into Assam from across the border not only is a threat to the demography of Assam but is also, a grave threat to our national security. I think I was one of the earliest persons to articulate this concern. There has been a long history of leaders from East Pakistan and now Bangladesh wanting more living space for their phenomenally rising population in a country with the highest density of population. The changed demography of Lower Assam around Dhubri, abutting the narrow Siliguri corridor, can develop into a Kashmir type situation. This can have very serious consequence for our national security as it can lead to snapping the country's land link with the entire land mass of the North East and resultant redrawing of our national borders.

AT: The Government of India has now announced that the fencing along the border with Bangladesh will be completed by the end of 2012. What, according to you, took such a long time to complete the job? Do you think that the fencing could have been completed much earlier?

Sinha: Border fencing was part of the Assam Accord of 1985. Thirteen years later in 1998 I toured the entire Assam-Bangladesh border by road and in speed boat on the Brahmaputra. I was horrified to find the fencing not complete and most of the areas did not have watch towers and were not electrified. Assam has 262 km long border with Bangladesh of which 92 km is riverine. The alignment of the fencing was not tactical and the barbed wires did not have any anti-rust compound. High quality fencing with searchlights covering a border of over 1000 kilometres in Punjab had been completed in three years. While I was Governor in Kashmir, the Army completed a 750 km long border fencing on the mountains in one of the most inhospitable terrain, in a little over one year. Given these facts one is now amazed to hear that fencing in Assam will be completed only by 2014. This is deplorable. It only shows lack of political will and complete lack of efficiency

AT: In recent times, relations between India and Bangladesh improved considerably after the Sheikh Hasina Government came to power. Do you think it will be beneficial for Assam and other parts of North East region?

Sinha: In her first tenure as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina was hamstrung by a slender majority. This time she has to come to power with a thundering majority and she has been pursuing a very friendly policy towards India. We should reciprocate generously, as indeed we are doing, to build bridges over troubled waters. There is great potential for having most cordial mutual relations for the benefit of both countries. This is having a good impact on the security situation. Bangladesh has handed over Indian militants who were being sheltered in that country and the militant camps have been closed down.

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Govt lacks political will to tackle influx: Lt Gen (Retd) Sinha

GUWAHATI, Sept 25 � The Government lacks political will to solve the problem of infiltration of foreigners to India and the possibility of a Kashmir-type situation in Assam in the days to come cannot be ruled out, said former Governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha.

In an interview with The Assam Tribune, Lt Gen Sinha also lamented the slow progress of fencing the international border with Bangladesh and pointed out that in Kashmir, more than 700 kilometres of border were fenced in little over a year.

The following are the excerpts of the Interview:

Assam Tribune: You submitted a detailed report to the President of India in November, 1998 on the problem of infiltration of foreigners along with your suggestions to deal with the problem. How do you look at the scenario after more than a decade of submitting the report?

Lt Gen SK Sinha: I am most disappointed at the lack of political will to act on my recommendations submitted to the President of India. There were fifteen specific recommendations in my report. The important ones were repeal of IMDT Act, border fencing, photo identity cards, upgrading National Register of Citizens, identifying illegal migrants and declaring them Stateless citizens with no voting rights.

I had endorsed copies of my report to the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister, and the Chief Minister. It had upset the Congress very much and their MPs from North East called for my recall. I K Gujral was the Prime Minister at that time. His Government fell soon thereafter. The Vajpayee Government, despite supporting my recommendations could not do much for two reasons. First, it did not have the required majority in Rajya Sabha to repeal the IMDT Act and second, Congress came to power in the State with its vote bank agenda. My illustrious predecessor B K Nehru, a member of the dynasty, was Governor of Assam in the late Sixties. He along with the veteran Congress Chief Minister B P Chaliha, had taken up the illegal migration issue but they were told by Indira Gandhi not to pursue the matter. In his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Second, B K Nehru laments that the old Congress accorded priority to national interests over party interest but that had been reversed by the new Congress.

I faced a ticklish situation in 2001 when the Congress returned to power in the State. My working relations with the new Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi were alright, except for our very divergent views on illegal migration from Bangladesh. He was of the view that this was not taking place while I maintained that this unabated influx was a very serious problem for the State. I had to address the Assembly, reading out the speech prepared for me by the State Government. I read stating that IMDT was necessary to protect the minorities and illegal migration from Bangladesh was not taking place. There was an uproar in the Press at what was considered my total volte face. I had a statement issued from Raj Bhavan that my address did not reflect my views. It is incumbent on the Head of the State in a parliamentary democracy to read the address prepared for him by his government. There had been no change in my personal views on the subject as in my report to the President. This cleared the air but Tarun Gogoi felt that I had committed a constitutional impropriety by having such a statement issued and he would take up the matter with the Centre. I heard nothing further about this matter. Our divergent views on this crucial issue continued.

Ultimately the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act while delivering its judgment on a PIL filed before it. Extracts from my report to the President were quoted extensively in the judgment. However, the State Government virtually brought back the provisions of the IMDT Act through the backdoor by amending the Foreigner's Act. Demographic aggression from Bangladesh into Assam continues unabated and the situation today is worse than what it was in 1998, when I had taken up the matter.

Apart from my recommendation regarding the IMDT Act, my other recommendations were almost all put in cold storage with hardly any action taken on them.

AT: It seems that infiltration of foreigners not only posed a threat to the identity of the indigenous people but also a threat to the security of the nation. What is your view in this regard?

Sinha: Large-scale infiltration into Assam from across the border not only is a threat to the demography of Assam but is also, a grave threat to our national security. I think I was one of the earliest persons to articulate this concern. There has been a long history of leaders from East Pakistan and now Bangladesh wanting more living space for their phenomenally rising population in a country with the highest density of population. The changed demography of Lower Assam around Dhubri, abutting the narrow Siliguri corridor, can develop into a Kashmir type situation. This can have very serious consequence for our national security as it can lead to snapping the country's land link with the entire land mass of the North East and resultant redrawing of our national borders.

AT: The Government of India has now announced that the fencing along the border with Bangladesh will be completed by the end of 2012. What, according to you, took such a long time to complete the job? Do you think that the fencing could have been completed much earlier?

Sinha: Border fencing was part of the Assam Accord of 1985. Thirteen years later in 1998 I toured the entire Assam-Bangladesh border by road and in speed boat on the Brahmaputra. I was horrified to find the fencing not complete and most of the areas did not have watch towers and were not electrified. Assam has 262 km long border with Bangladesh of which 92 km is riverine. The alignment of the fencing was not tactical and the barbed wires did not have any anti-rust compound. High quality fencing with searchlights covering a border of over 1000 kilometres in Punjab had been completed in three years. While I was Governor in Kashmir, the Army completed a 750 km long border fencing on the mountains in one of the most inhospitable terrain, in a little over one year. Given these facts one is now amazed to hear that fencing in Assam will be completed only by 2014. This is deplorable. It only shows lack of political will and complete lack of efficiency

AT: In recent times, relations between India and Bangladesh improved considerably after the Sheikh Hasina Government came to power. Do you think it will be beneficial for Assam and other parts of North East region?

Sinha: In her first tenure as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina was hamstrung by a slender majority. This time she has to come to power with a thundering majority and she has been pursuing a very friendly policy towards India. We should reciprocate generously, as indeed we are doing, to build bridges over troubled waters. There is great potential for having most cordial mutual relations for the benefit of both countries. This is having a good impact on the security situation. Bangladesh has handed over Indian militants who were being sheltered in that country and the militant camps have been closed down.