The illegal identity

The flawed and incredibly unwieldy procedure for identification of illegal immigrants heavily favours the ‘illegal’

The fundamental doctrine, “the more you use, the less you lose”, on the use of force in mass was formulated prior to World War II by the German Panzer general, Heinz Wilhelm Guderian, a military genius universally revered in military circles.

Though it was developed in the context of high-intensity armoured warfare in Europe, with variations in time, space and local situations, the same principle can be applicable to internal security situations as well when law, order and public safety are required to be restored at the earliest, with minimum loss of life and property.
The parallels are not as far-fetched as they may appear — the doctrine of mass is common to both but requires to be interpreted appropriately. Internal security or law and order are also operational situations which require rapid induction and deployment of security forces and administrative resources into the affected areas in adequate strength, backed by determined political support.
Another cardinal principle of internal security and law and order operations which often goes by the board in emergency situations is that of minimum force. While the use of force has to be minimum, it should nevertheless be commensurate with the extent and intensity of the disturbances for which intervention has become necessary. It must be minimum but adequate to overwhelm disorder if possible in the very initial stages and literally stamp it out of existence, something always difficult to immediately assess at very short notice and based on fragmentary information. It is thus better to overreact in strength at the earliest and reduce force levels subsequently rather than the reverse.
Intervention in adequate strength is precisely what does not seem to have happened when dealing with the recent outbreak of violence in Kokrajhar, Assam, between tribal Bodos and immigrants with a predominantly Bangladeshi background. It was a clash of ethnicities with communal overtones, combining the worst aspects of all contingencies.
The primary responsibility of preventing and controlling internal disturbances is always that of the state government concerned, which has to be the first to respond due to its proximity to the situation. Failures reflect either incompetence or disengagement on the part of the local administration and the political leadership at state level. If Kokrajhar is taken as a typical case in point, then the entire responsibility has to be borne by the government of Assam. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s petulance in berating the Centre for inadequate intelligence is totally unacceptable, because local intelligence is the responsibility of state governments whose agencies are expected to remain in touch with local situations and be aware of their possible fallout within the state.
However, Mr Gogoi’s comments in the matter of delayed dispatch and inadequate strength of Central reinforcements are more understandable, though the Centre, too, may have its own case here. With large areas of the country on a slow boil due to insurgency, terrorism, volatile borders and deteriorating law and order situations, uncommitted reserves of Central police and paramilitary forces have wound down to inadequate levels to rush reinforcements for every fresh outbreak. In the case of Kokrajhar, Central forces were required to be swept up from all corners of the country, many from ongoing deployments, and re-assigned to Kokrajhar and other affected districts of Assam. Transportation is laborious because the rail route is far from being the fastest means of movement. The time has long arrived to use air as the primary mode of transport for at least the initial contingents to the zone of deployment with the balance following on by other modes of transportation. Direct “heliborne operations” into specific points of intervention have to be seriously considered as a routine requirement.
However, the inevitable political mudslinging and verbal catfights between the government and the Opposition tend to sidetrack and obscure (often by design) the much larger and contentious issue highlighted by the Kokrajhar clashes — that of the long-running illegal influx from Bangladesh, particularly into the eastern states of India, where Assam has always been amongst the most afflicted. It is a highly painful and volatile political sore that refuses to heal because of vested interests amongst the Indian political class who are the attending physicians. Political interests have always been held paramount to win and retain the support of sections of the population at the ballot box even at the cost of national security. The state leadership of Assam under the present dispensation cannot claim to be any different.
As in all other aspects, identification of illegal migrants from Bangladesh along the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam as well as in Tripura and West Bengal has been reduced to a gigantic farce. Mizoram, with its distinctive tribal society, has succeeded to some extent in keeping illegal migrants from Bangladesh at bay, but here, too, the water has started seeping in through the dykes. To begin with is the flawed and incredibly unwieldy procedure of identification, which heavily favours the “illegal” ab initio, and under which the bonafides of individuals under scrutiny are accepted as genuine, leaving the burden of proving otherwise on the state. This is an impossible task, given the non-existent personal documentation and official record-keeping. It is impossible to ascertain identities along the porous borders of Assam. Angry outbursts from local communities, as witnessed in Kokrajhar, are the result of frustrated exasperation and are indicators of a worsening situation.
The sequence of events in most such outbreaks repeats the commonalities. To begin with, administrative authorities routinely claim that they had little or no warning of any imminent violence, which often develops from incidents as absurdly trivial as a collision between two cyclists or bargaining over the price of groceries. Police resources at the local level are invariably inadequate for such sudden outbreaks, which indicates a socio-cultural and socio-economic environment latent with hair-trigger tensions even in everyday activities.
The police and administration are beleaguered everywhere and need to be provided the resources and leadership capable of reacting at short notice. This is the main lesson of Kokrajhar and we need to take a serious note of it.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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