PRAFULLA KUMAR MAHANTA was at the forefront of the students’ movement in Assam in the 1970s and 80s. He, along with Bhrigu Phukan and Biraj Sharma, signed the Assam Accord with the Rajiv Gandhi government, in which it was agreed that all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who came after March 24, 1971, would be sent back. Mahanta is excited about the draft NRC. Excerpts from an interview:
What do you feel about the list?
First, this is not the final list. It is the complete draft with errors. So, there will be more checks, and the number may even change.
There are accusations that you are against Bengalis.
That’s utterly wrong. Bengalis from India and Bangladesh talk the same language and dialect. But, we know how to differentiate between them. Because we have had protests against illegal immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh, it does not mean that we are against Bengalis. We love Bengalis, and there are many legitimate Bengalis living in Assam.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee says the NRC is a ploy to push the Bengali-speaking community to Bangladesh.
Check her statements when she was in the NDA government, and when she was the opposition leader in West Bengal. She supported our cause and even took up the issue of Bangladeshi influx in West Bengal. What she is doing now is negative politics, which we, the people of Assam, dislike.
The draft is full of errors.
Yes, it is full of errors. Even indigenous Assamese were left out. I know that a former chief minister and her family members were left out. However, that does not take away the credit from the NRC employees engaged in this huge task. They have done a great job.
While signing the deal with Rajiv Gandhi, did you think that such a huge number of people would be out of the second NRC list?
When we fought for it, just seven districts of Assam had the problem. Today, it has spread almost all over the state. So one can believe that the influx was a continuous process.
But, it took more than three decades to prepare a draft.
It was stuck in the administrative logjam. Actually, the Congress was in power most of the time, and they were not eager to push it. Even after the Supreme Court order, they delayed it.
So, would you give the Modi government the credit for the turnaround?
No, it has nothing to do with Prime Minister Modi or the BJP. It is monitored by the Supreme Court and the Central government. The prime minister would have to abide by the Supreme Court [instructions]. Grass-root workers of the government worked hard and we got this list, though with errors.
A section of the people who did not feature in the list is saying that they might be allowed to live in India without rights.
That would be part of the discussion which would begin after the final list. I told you it will be a long-drawn process.
Will you demand that they be sent to Bangladesh?
Why not? Immigrants are immigrants. They should not stay in our country.
But the Bangladesh government said they will not accept as many people from Assam.
Have they officially told this to the government of India? I think they have not. So when the issue is taken up officially by the ministry of external affairs and the bilateral talks start, I think Bangladesh would understand the situation.