Media consensus on Assam

IN Regional Media | 29/07/2005
In a rare consensus, the media backs the Supreme Court judgment on the controversial IMDT Act.


Dasu Krishnamoorty


National security is an area where media perceptions seldom clash. There was a chorus of approval when the Supreme Court shot down a "contentious and highly divisive" piece of legislation aimed at identifying Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. Without exception, editorial writers saw the problem as one of national security. That is because Assam grows not only tea and teak but also insurgency and internecine strife. And it has oil. Some columnists have argued that the immigrants be seen as economic refugees. This is a suicidal interpretation of the concept of hospitality and diplomacy. The media have rightly refused to see it that way. The Supreme Court declared the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act as ultra vires of the constitution.


"The report of the Governor, the affidavits and other material on record show that millions of Bangladeshi nationals have crossed the international border and have occupied vast tracts of land. Their willingness to work at low wages has deprived Indian citizens and specifically people in Assam of employment opportunities and led to insurgency in Assam. The presence of Bangladeshis in such large numbers has changed the demographic character of the region and the local people of Assam have been reduced to the status of minority in certain districts," the Supreme Court observed. The judgment in one stroke liberated the issue of illegal influx from the clutches of an extremely skewed national debate on the status of minorities. 


Newspapers too have refused to see the Assam events as anything to do with the minorities. The most vocal editorial came from the Express building. "The verdict must be welcomed because it places the issue of illegal immigration firmly on the national stage. We need to re-examine it without the political baggage that has inevitably, and unhappily, always accompanied it." Contrary to the kind of ivory tower analysis that marks much our editorial output, the Indian Express offered a solution. "We need, first of all, to recognize not just that there is a problem but the enormous significance of the problem in terms of the country’s security and social harmony." The Express appreciatively cited West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s efforts to highlight the activities of jehadi groups operating in the border regions without let or hindrance.


West Bengal also is a victim of the Assam experience and the Telegraph’s editorial reflected that reality. It began with the beginning itself. "If the Act did not work in Assam, it was because successive Congress governments used it as an excuse for their inaction. The governments’ unwillingness had to do more with politics than with the actual difficulties in implementing the law." It is disappointing that that was all it could bring itself to say before it called attention to the fallout of the verdict. "This gives an edge to the argument by opponents of the Act, who complained that it had been used actually to prevent the identification of illegal migrants in Assam. The Act, in their view, was aimed at the Muslim vote bank in the state." But the Telegraph did not tell us if this was its view also. Yet, the journal was right in appealing to the BJP and other parties not to convert the judgment into an anti-minority campaign, though it is really not possible at election time not to recall the genesis of the problem. At the end of the editorial came a classic diagnosis of the problem. "The politics over the influx of Bangladeshis has gradually overshadowed the larger issue of the threat to demography and national security."


The Tribune saw the Supreme Court verdict as a "watershed in the relationship between the centre and a North-Eastern state" and in the future politics of Assam and the region as a whole. But this is only part of the total truth, that is, the threat to national security lurking in the demographic change that has already taken place in the border districts of Assam. Though immigration is a central subject, the state had to bear the brunt of the problem that has now snowballed into a matter of national concern. The Tribune drew attention to how the failure to extend the ambit of the Foreigners Act was symptomatic of vote-bank politics. Welcoming the verdict, the Tribune, like the Telegraph, appealed to all parties to ensure that Muslim minority citizens in Assam are not unduly targeted. Unexceptionable. But the crux of the problem is separating the Bengali-speaking Indian Muslim from the Muslim of Bangladesh who speaks a chaster Bengali.


The views of the Hindu need notice if only to measure its success in walking the tight rope between its ideological proximity to the Left and the Congress and its need to accommodate the concerns of non-Congress and non-Left sections for national security.  For the Hindu, the Act reflected the profound contradictions underlying the functioning of the executive, legislative and judicial organs of the Indian state. This is not the heart of the matter and the Hindu knows it. In its editorial, it mentioned how the majority of the Assamese people saw the Act as favouring "foreign nationals." But why the quotes? Again, it pointed out how the "court saw the presence of millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as amounting to aggression against Assam and also as a cause of serious disturbances." The sting came, however, at the end. The editorial said, "In an unusual departure from its traditional reserve, the Supreme Court has entered the debate on the politically divisive foreigners’ issue in the state." Does this mean that freedom of expression is the exclusive domain of the press?


The most authoritative voice was that of the Sentinel of Assam. It warned, "Those who rejoice at the Supreme Court verdict may know that another piece of legislation is being conceived with the same objective and purpose but couched in a different language." It asked the Congress and the CPI-M in Assam to learn a lesson from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s book. But the Sentinel’s most important observation focused on how the Congress’ preoccupation with minority protection imparts a sense of insecurity to the minority community and alienates it from the mainstream. 


The BJP-friendly Pioneer expended more emotion on the response of the government at the centre to the apex court judgment. It linked the UPA government’s move to appoint a group of ministers to its desire to impose an alternative solution. The paper said, "For a fistful of votes, they are willing to sell India’s national interest and even risk social violence." The paper recalled how Rajiv Gandhi had subverted the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case and how the ruling coalition in Delhi might do the same thing again with an eye on the coming elections to the state assembly. Both the Pioneer and the Indian Express followed up by publishing extracts from the scathing remarks of the Supreme Court judges on vote-bank politics and the seeds of disaster they contained.


We should not forget that the Supreme Court departed from its "traditional reserve" not suo motu but in response to Sarbananda Sonowal’s writ petition. The complaint should have been that the court needed the present petition at all to strike down a blatantly anti-national piece of legislation. Equally blameworthy are the media that chose to look the other way for an unbelievable twenty years as India’s oldest and premier political party bartered the country’s security for votes. What the Congress did was not just a betrayal of the majority of the population, it was also an unprincipled exploitation of the minority community; a sordid political exercise that brought endless grief to both the communities, if one cares to remember the Nelli massacre. The Act would have disappeared from the statute book if the media had not mixed secularism with security. All that the media have done now is to register an after-the-fact response.


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