Dialogue April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4
Mercy Plea for Aliens
Among the topical issues of Assam at the moment are the revelations of rampant financial irregularities and acts of embezzlement in the working of the State government; the flow of public funds to militant and terrorist outfits of the State with the collusion of public servants; the encroachment of sattra lands by Bangladeshi nationals; and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s submission that the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh be given citizenship rights in the State on humanitarian grounds. All these issues will continue to plague us for a long, but the one mentioned last is the one that will undoubtedly be the most serious undoing of Assam and could even lead to the dismemberment of the entire Northeast from India by the end of the decade in a sort of bizarre tit-for-tat for India having liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.
As we all know, illegal migration from East Bengal to Assam had gone on since about the 1930s. It was strongly encouraged by Mohammad Sadullah when he was Premier of Assam on the plea of helping the Grow More Food campaign of the State. After Partition, when those districts of East Bengal went to East Pakistan, the illegal migration from East Pakistan was encouraged by Congress politicians because the East Pakistanis were given voting rights and constituted the illegal vote-bank of the party. This activity became very pronounced in the early 1960s and has gone on unabated since then. In 1979, when a by-election had to be held for the Mangaldai parliamentary constituency due to the death of sitting MP Hiralal Patowari, the Congress was caught red-handed. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) discovered that the electoral roll of Assam was packed with East Pakistani/Bangladeshi names. And that was how the agenda for the six-year-long Assam Movement for the detection, disfranchisement and deportation of foreign nationals living illegally in Assam got set up.
The movement started by the AASU in 1979 for the detection, disfranchisement and deportation of migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh who had illegally infiltrated into Assam (without any travel documents) was a very justified one. That the results were not what one expected is another matter. When 1951 was demanded as the cut-off date for deportation of illegal migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, the Union Government headed by Indira Gandhi offered to make 1966 the cut-off date and mooted the idea of a special consideration for the Hindu migrants since they had migrated more as refugees than for economic reasons. The AASU turned down both proposals.
There was strong justification for rejecting the cut-off date offered, considering that the cut-off date for migrants from Pakistan for the rest of the country was the 19th July 1948. AASU’s demand of 1951 as the cut-off year was about three years later than what Article 6 of the Constitution stipulated for the rest of India, but it was a pragmatic choice because Assam had the National Register of Citizens of 1951 that would make 1951 as a retrospective cut-off year a more viable proposition than July 19, 1948. Later events seem to have established that the rejection of 1966 as a cut-off date was unfortunate because in the ultimate settlement that resulted in the Assam Accord of August 15, 1985, the cut-off date was March 25, 1971—five years beyond the date of 1966 earlier proposed by Indira Gandhi. The AASU also felt justified about rejecting the proposal to treat Hindu and Muslim migrants differently, since it hardly made any sense to talk about illegal Hindu migrants as being refugees so many years after Partition. After all, they could not all have been Rip Van Winkles who woke up after a long sleep of many years.
During the years following the discovery of the extent to which illegal migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh had permeated the electoral roll of Assam, an embarrassed Congress party had to sustain much pretence. The most noteworthy pretence was everyone accused of being an illegal migrant from East Pakistan or Bangladesh was actually an Indian citizen. Late Hiteswar Saikia who had had occasion to write articles about the hazards posed by the large-scale illegal migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh and to claim on the floor of the Assam Assembly that about three million Bangladeshis had infiltrated into Assam, was obliged to correct himself within the week and to acknowledge that he had been mistaken in his assessment. Meanwhile, other pretences reiterated resolutely by the Congress (such as harassment of genuine Indian citizens by the police on false allegations of their being foreign nationals) had resulted in the enactment of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act in October 1983 which made India the only country with two immigration laws. This black law remained in force for 22 years facilitating continued large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh, until it was finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005.
Even after the annulment of the IM(DT) Act in 2005, the illegal migration from Bangladesh continued unabated as is evident from the sharp increases in the number of voters in the electoral roll that could not be explained by the census figures of the decadal increase in population. In 2005, there was a tripartite meeting of the Union Government, the Assam Government and the AASU that set a deadline of 2006 for the upgrading of the National Register of Citizens, 1951. According to the terms of the agreement reached at the tripartite meeting, the revision of the NRC was to be done by taking the NRC, 1951 as the base document. The minority organizations of the State kept insisting that the revision be done on the basis of the 1966 electoral roll. In any case, by 2006 the work of revision had not even begun. In 2010, less than a year before the Assembly elections of 2011, the State government mooted the proposal of having three pilot projects for revision of the NRC. One of them was to be conducted at Barpeta. But even before the activities of the pilot project could begin, riots triggered off by minority groups led to four deaths. Not to speak of taking up the much-delayed work of revising the NRC, even the pilot projects have been scrapped.
And now what we have is probably a political exercise in making the farcical job of sustaining long-standing pretences redundant. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi now says that the Bangladeshis residing in Assam (even illegally) should be given citizenship status on humanitarian considerations and allowed to remain. Perhaps Tarun Gogoi forgets at times that he is not the king of the State. He is the elected head of government. Why does he not put up the matter before the Assembly? Why does he not consult the Government of India on whether there are provisions in the Constitution that empower a head of government to confer Indian citizenship to millions of illegal migrants in an impulsive and arbitrary gesture bypassing all constitutional norms?
And is such a flow of mercy, compassion and humanitarian feeling to be confined just to the chief minister of only one Indian State? What about other chief ministers with fairly large migrant populations from Bangladesh in their States? What about West Bengal, for example? Has Chief Minister Taken into consideration the fact that the illegal influx is from an Islamic theocratic state that has systematically unleashed harsh treatment of its minorities to make them leave the country? Is he familiar with the political and sociological changes brought about by such illegal migration in countries like Cyprus?
The statement of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has given rise to State-wide protests that may not count in a democracy that is not democratically run. At the same time, in char areas of the Brahmaputra in Sonitpur district, frenetic activity of scores of bamboo huts being built has been noticed. When a stranger approaches, the builders disappear leaving only the children playing about. When the children are asked where they have come from, the reply is that they have come from Nagaon or Morigaon. Where are their parents? They have gone home to get some documents.
A cartoon in a local Assamese daily sums up the situation following the statement of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi very vividly. It shows a genie of gargantuan proportions confronting a group of people that seems Lilliputian by comparison and asking them if they can stop him.
Health care in shambles
Health care takes away a good chunk of the family income at any given time. Those who live in cities with ample choice of doctors, specialists and specialised treatment in state-of-the-art hospitals cannot even begin to imagine the plight of those who cannot find a doctor for simple but life threatening ailments like diarrhoea. Large swathes of this country still live under such circumstances. Birth giving becomes a matter of life and death since hospitals are not within easy reach. Many women go to the nearest community health centres (CHC) for delivery. But on reaching there they find no doctor. And sometimes even if there are doctors they advice the woman in labour to go to the civil hospital some distance away since the CHC is not equipped to handle birth emergencies! This is a daily predicament of the underprivileged. But I guess it means nothing to those who are far removed from such realities and yet make policies for our health care systems.
In North East India some states have very high maternal mortality ratio. And this has been around for a long time without any improvement whatsoever. The truth of the matter is that villages are scattered and it is difficult for any health care system to reach the last mile. But that could be a convenient excuse to evade responsibility. One of the prime objectives of the United Nations driven Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) is to ensure that health care receives utmost priority, together of course with education and other social sectors. These MDGs are supposed to be achieved by 2015 and India is a prominent signatory to this UN Charter. But from the look of things, meeting the MDGs is not going to be easy. The NGO sector has tried to push the government to commit to meeting these gaols through slogans such as ‘Wada Na Toro Abhiyan’ (Do not break the promise) et al but the fact remains that rural India suffers neglect in health care.
But even as the rural populace struggle to keep body and soul together, private health care providers are thronging the urban centres and those who can afford expensive treatment are patronising these swanky, new nursing homes. These nursing homes and private hospitals thrive on certain specialists who fly in, conduct complicated surgeries and fly out, thereafter, leaving the patient in the care of resident doctors. Post-operative complications are often not handled in the best possible manner since every other resident doctor feels that the patient is not his/her responsibility.
There is a lot to be said about the manner in which patients are treated in Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore which is the favourite destination of people from the North East. There, doctors always confer and decide together as to what is the best treatment option for any patient. There is a sort of collective responsibility as opposed to what happens in a nursing home where every patient is the exclusive responsibility of a particular doctor. I suppose that is because of the payment involved, since doctors are paid per medical or surgical intervention. At CMC Vellore doctors do not serve to accumulate wealth. They see their vocation as a social service. This is perhaps the only hospital today where the Christian spirit of service to humanity is still practised and very visible. No wonder every patient from the North East, especially those suffering from cancer opt for CMC Vellore where they claim that both medical treatment and nursing care are exceptionally good.
Way back in 1987 the foundation stone was paid for a mega health project modelled on the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at Shillong. Named the North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS), this 25 year old institute is still struggling to provide basic health care facilities to the people of the region. From the very beginning the project has been bogged down by bureaucratic indecisions in Delhi. Ad-hocism and general lack of direction has turned the Institute into some kind of non-performing monolith. Some departments like Cardiology, Orthopaedics and Urology have performed well but only because of the individual doctors in those departments. As an Institute, NEIGRIHMS has not been able to replicate AIIMS.
What is of urgency for the region is an effective cancer treatment institute. While the B Barooah Cancer Institute at Guwahati handles a fair amount of cases there are allegations that the Institute suffers from mal-administration and corruption which is the bane of all Government run hospitals. Every year hundreds of cancer patients travel to CMC Vellore and Apollo Mumbai while those with heart ailments choose the best heart care centres in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai. Those who can afford treatment outside the region are mostly government employees. This means that state governments of the seven states are paying a tidy sum for the health care of their employees. But no one seems to care about this outflow of funds outside the region. After all its is ‘sarkari paisa.’ This continues to be the attitude of the government as well.
In all fairness, all the seven chief ministers of the North East should have taken keen interest in NEIGRIHMS and engaged with the Union Health Ministry to ensure that this modern health care institute takes off and caters to the health needs of all the states. Unfortunately this is not the case. Just because NEIGRIHMS is located in Shillong, it has become Meghalaya’s baby. But one state chief minister cannot push an insouciant centre. And we are told that the ‘babudom’ in the Union Health Ministry is as obtuse and uncaring as they come. A regional health institute in an obscure part of the country cannot mean much to them. They are just not capable of envisioning the health needs of the region by the mere fact of not knowing the geography of their country. And it is my avowed opinion that the bureaucracy is what rules this country. Ministers only come and go! They can do precious little about anything at all!
In the absence of a functioning health care system, private nursing homes are making a killing. Non-resident doctors fly in and out of the region conducting all sorts of surgeries, some necessary others like Liposuction which though frivolous have the potential to turn complicated. Liposuction conducted in operation theatres that do not have advanced post operative care units is a danger. Recently a former veteran journalist of Shillong died of a Liposuction surgery that went awry. The surgery was conducted by a surgeon specialised in reconstructive surgery from Chennai. The flying surgeon came, conducted the operation and flew out leaving the patient in the care of the private hospital which evidently did not have the capacity to handle the crises. This has created quite a stir and people are calling for more stringent rules to regulate private hospitals and nursing homes. But these so-called private health care centres continue to thrive because state run hospitals are incapable of addressing the growing medical needs of the population.
What’s appalling is that these mercenary doctors are advertising their skills in newspapers everyday. This, to my mind is highly unethical and should be stopped. Meanwhile, institutes like NEIGRIHMS should come under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office or under the National Advisory Council (NAC) if they are to make any progress.
Manipur Congress' Dilemma
The Congress in Manipur won a thumping victory in the January elections, returning 42 legislators in the Assembly of 60. The party did also manage a majority in the last Assembly term too, but not an absolute one immediately. It did ultimately reach this magic number, but through by-elections it fought as the ruling party. The party however is now discovering it was far easier to manage a narrow majority than a huge one as it now enjoys or should the word be suffers. Ask third time chief minister, Okram Ibobi, and he will probably vouch the experience is as much a pain as it is a pleasure. It was only after 49 days after the election, he was unable to have a cabinet of full strength.
This is to a good extent thanks to the anti-defection law which prohibits legislators from leaving their party affiliation unless they defect in groups not less than one third of the total strength of party in the Assembly, or the Parliament as the case may be. In small Assemblies like Manipur, it is relatively easy for dissident legislators to muster this number to defect without attracting penal action under the anti defection law. But small number of legislators also means it is relatively easy to keep everybody happy with the distribution of suitable portfolios and offices as incentive. The Congress’ dilemma now is, it has won by an impressive margin but the party is now discovering it would be tough to keep the flock together for there would be not enough resources at its command to keep all its legislators happy.
Sure enough, for nearly two months after the elections, the Okram Ibobi government was only four strong. Besides the chief minister, three other very senior and important politicians, namely Gaikhangam, Phungzathang Tonsing and Thoudam Deben had been inducted. The anti-defection law stipulates the ceiling on cabinet size in small Assemblies to be as low as 12 including the chief minister. This actually translates into 11 ministerial berths excluding the chief minister to distribute and contain dissident activities. The challenge was to give away 11 posts to please 41, excluding the chief minister.
With four seats already taken, the chief minister had only eight left in hand. But his trouble did not end with this. Even the matter of distributing the remaining seats left, he was not at his own discretion for there are now two poles in the state Congress party and, therefore, in the Congress legislator party as well. One of these is around the chief minister and the other aroudn the PCC president and chief minister aspirant Gaikhangam. Both had a separate list of candidates for these remaining seats, and expectedly the Congress central leadership was hardpressed to do the arbitration. At risk all the while was a split in the Congress. The expansion of the ministry last week of April hence would have been a major relief for the Congress as it could least afford to lose another state in the face of the party’s rapidly diminishing control in the states.
What is also a matter of much speculation is whether the rapprochement reached in the present entangle would be able to ensure stability for long?
Chief minister Okram Ibobi has proven his mettle in tackling these crises in the past. It cannot be just luck, which undoubtedly he has in plenty, but also a rare acumen for the kind of politics of survival Manipur has known the last few decades of electoral Assembly politics it has seen. Although the odds are heavily against stability, everybody is watching how the chief minister pulls it off again. Or will he manage to pull it off yet again?
Meanwhile, while the Election Commission of India, ECI, needs to be praised for holding the election successfully and arguably with the least complaints in decades, it still needs to do more.
It is true it did not leave any stone unturned to ensure the forthcoming elections were free and fair, at least to the extent possible. In Uttar Pradesh, the commission had even ordered for the former chief minister, Mayawati’s statues to be covered so as not to create false larger than life image of the leader in the eye of the electorate. The extent to which it had gone even prompted many observer to joke that the ECI may start ordering all lotuses in the states going to the polls plucked and ban anybody showing the palms of their hands. Or better still to make it mandatory for everybody to wear gloves during election campaigns so that their palms do not show. But jokes apart, the commission indeed went to all lengths within its command. In Imphal, it even ordered campaign hoardings to be brought down.
The ECI has also brought in unprecedented number of central paramilitary forces to ensure no coercive means are used by any party to force voting trends to suit their vested ends. The ECI further introduced state of art voter screening technologies to ensure there are no proxy voting. Each voter was also photographed inside the polling booths immediately after the marker was put on his or her finger. Yet it is known there were people who tried to manipulate the voting procedure and indeed, the election office had to order repolling in 76 constituencies. The question is, because of the technologies installed this time, all of those who tried to cheat, according to reports, even by proxy voting, would be on camera. So what is holding the election commission to seek penal action for these voters.
It is surprising that it still does not seem to occur to the authorities in this country that it is not enough to recover stolen goods from thieves to prevent future crimes of thievery. What is equally and perhaps even more important is to take legal action so others with criminal intents are deterred. The election office in Manipur had even come out with the statistics of proxy voting and other similar offences committed during this round of elections with confidence saying these were as per records from its fool proof screening mechanism. In other words, most if not all of the offenders can be individually tracked down, so what is it waiting for? Let at least some nominal action be taken so that the message is sent out loud and clear that crime, especially detected crime, will not go unpunished.
What Manipur needs most at this moment is reintroduction of moral authority in the established order, an agenda which had been long surrendered by selfish politics, unscrupulous crony businesses and corrupt bureaucracy. The election office had shown some hope that things are beginning to change. Let this hope not be belied. There cannot be a better opportunity to begin the process of cleansing the system than now.