New Delhi: Meghalaya MLA Rakkam A Sangma feels that the identification of illegal immigrants is best left to states through deployment of a robust legal framework. A member of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP), he suggests Northeastern states to work on a joint strategy to counter the possibility of an influx of people rendered stateless in Assam and West Bengal following the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) in this exclusive interaction with EastMojo.
EastMojo: As a people’s representative, what are some of the primary concerns regarding CAB among your own constituents?
Rakkam A Sangma: In Meghalaya, my constituency of Rongara-Siju or South Garo Hills shares the longest border with Bangladesh. So, illegal migration is a source of continued anxiety to us since it has been happening for several years. Currently, with the exception of certain pockets, 97% of Meghalaya is outside the purview of CAB’s provisions. However, in my view, just the passage of the Bill won’t resolve the issue for either Meghalaya or other Northeastern states. But, yes, I am happy that post-CAB, people entitled for citizenship won’t be applicable to us. But then this exemption alone is not sufficient.
EM: What would be the best solution going forward as even NPP (India) had welcomed the Central government’s commitment to identify illegal immigrants?
RS: Illegal immigration is a matter of grave concern for all the Northeastern states as well as India. The arrival of illegal migrants has been happening for so many years. The Bill might be an exercise to stop such migration once and for all. But, as I said earlier, CAB and National Register of Citizens (NRC) aren’t solutions to the basic problem. There is a need for states like us to strengthen laws that we already have. Of course, the government of Meghalaya had adopted Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security (MRSS) Act, 2016. In addition to that, if the situation demands, we must strive for an even more relevant, stringent and effective mechanism.
EM: What would that robust mechanism entail? Are you trying to suggest that states should be conducting such an exercise at their own level?
RS: Yes, that is what I feel. As far as countering illegal immigration is concerned, our state has enough laws in place. But the problem is with their proper implementation. We have the Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act, 1971, MRSS and so on. But despite all of that, many illegal migrants have still managed to come into the state. Even a few months ahead of CAB, many illegal immigrants have managed to get citizenship in the state. They have acquired all the valid identification papers through unofficial channels. I do not know where we have failed but this issue needs to be resolved for all times as it’s a matter of grave concern for everyone concerned. If we remain silent, we will be in deep danger someday. Therefore, post-CAB we will have to use our wisdom to resolve the issue though the bill is not acceptable to us in principle and we had even passed a resolution against it. My opinion is that we need to frame the right laws to address the problem.
EM: So, how serious is the issue of illegal immigration in your state?
RS: My constituency is in the Nongalbibra coal belt where people from all over the state and outside come to work as labourers in collieries. I often come across illegal migrants with valid identification papers. This has happened because in the past the state machinery remained a silent spectator and ignored the issue. We had allowed ourselves to be used as a corridor for illegal immigration, which was most unfortunate. And now look where it has got us? We are presently working hard as a state to address this as it is a matter of serious concern for not only my Garo community but also the region and rest of the country.
EM: Although states like Meghalaya are exempted from CAB, you have expressed concern over the possibility of an influx of illegal immigrants following its passage by the parliament. How real is the threat?
RS: Yes, that is one chain reaction that we would need to watch out for. In the Northeastern states, tribal areas of Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura, and areas falling under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) are exempt from CAB. But the provisions under the bill seek to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities. The communities that will be affected post-CAB in West Bengal and Assam won’t be allowed to stay in those states any longer. Now, where will these people go? Since CAB isn’t officially applicable in places like Meghalaya and other parts of the Northeast, unofficially they will start moving into non-CAB area. And that is what really worries me. All the Northeastern states will need to counter this in a concerted manner.
EM: In your interactions with Bangladeshi officials as a lawmaker, how open are they about accepting the illegal migrants from their side back into the country?
RS: This may not happen because people from our communities like Garo, Khasi and Jaintia are living in Bangladesh and post-CAB they may not come over to settle here. For instance, there are up to 10 lakh Garos in Bangladesh. The same also holds true for Khasi and Jaintias as well. Frankly speaking, as of today, the border with Bangladesh is yet to be sealed. I have raised this issue even in the state assembly. In my own constituency, there are over 100 families of Indian citizens that have been bifurcated with the construction of the border fencing. They are Indian citizens who are forced to live on the other side of the fence – between the zero line and fencing – near Bangladeshi territory! But they are genuine Indian citizens all the same. My issue with border fencing is that it was supposed to be constructed at 100-150 metres from the zero line but in my constituency, it has been constructed at 300-500 metres on some stretches! And that’s a major concern.
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