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Foreigners in Assam

The Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday striking down the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, could not have come at a worse time to the United Progressive Alliance Government which is already beset with other, even graver, embarrassments and difficulties. The 2006 Order struck down by the Supreme Court, in essence an amendment to the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order of 1964 promulgated under the provisions of the Foreigners Act, was meant exclusively for Assam. It shifted the burden of proving that a person was a foreign national to the complainant unlike the 1964 Order that requires a person brought before a tribunal to prove his Indian citizenship. The Assam-specific order was promulgated in February this year, not coincidentally on the eve of the elections to the State Assembly, in the wake of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act with a similar provision being struck down by the Supreme Court. On the same line of reasoning as in the case of the IMDT Act, the 2006 Order has been found to be unreasonable, arbitrary and in contravention of Article 14 of the Constitution (equality before law) since it applied only to Assam and not to other States bordering Bangladesh. It was also held to be violative of the Centre's duty to protect the States under Article 355.

However, categorical as the ruling is, it is unlikely to put an end to, let alone resolve, the fundamental issues involved in the problem of illegal migrants in — and illegal migration into — Assam that continue to evoke very real, strong, and quite contradictory passions and apprehensions in the State. A feature of such contradiction is that, as always in such matters, these reactions are necessarily group-specific. Any celebration of the latest Supreme Court order, as was the case with the ruling last year striking down the IMDT Act, will have its obverse side — the apprehensions among sections of the people of the State who, rightly or wrongly, believe that the ruling bodes no good for their security and well being. Indeed, glib formulations about the verdict being a setback to `vote-bank politics' make little sense in the context of a political culture where `vote-bank politics', determined by one or the other of, or even all, the variables of caste, religion, language and ethnicity — to note the major divides — is the norm throughout the country, not merely in Assam. A uniform law relating to foreign nationals applicable to all the States of the Union is undoubtedly both desirable and necessary. This normative requirement has, however, to be balanced against the unique historical and current realities in Assam, for which the country as a whole, and not merely the people of Assam are responsible.

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