Curious Case of ‘Refugee Bonny Jack’ & Citizenship Amendment Act

‘Bonny Jack’ was born at the brink of Indo-Pak War of 1971. Will he, a refugee, find a place in NRC today?

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June 1971. A US Air Force C 141 and four C 130s landed at Guwahati Air Force Base (Borjhar) which my father was commanding. We were in Guwahati during our school holidays from Delhi, visiting our father. Having grown up on a diet of mainly Russian planes at air force bases, watching the American planes from up close was fascinating.

On the night of 25 March 1971, the Pakistan Army had already begun a crackdown on Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan. Millions of refugees poured into India to escape the grim events. The war clouds were not yet looming. The Bangladesh War was still six months away, but the events leading up to it had already been set in motion.

The US was not siding with India. It was neither neutral, nor playing the honest broker. So, what were their air fleet doing in Guwahati?

How Operation ‘Bonny Jack’ Flew Out 23,000 Refugees

The Americans had come to help, and this aspect of history is still relatively unknown. These planes had been sent for a refugee evacuation effort. The refugee camps were deluged by a massive exodus across the border into Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam. These planes were used to airlift refugees from Agartala to Guwahati.

In May 1971, India requested the US to provide four C-130 transport aircraft and crews to help ferry the Bengali refugees.

The US approved the deployment of four C-130s for thirty days from 12 June till 14 July 1971. The operation was titled ‘Bonny Jack’.

The airlift was daunting – eight to ten hours a day with no night halt possible at Agartala because of security reasons, and shelling from across the border; the barbed wire fencing between India and East Pakistan ran 15 feet from the dumbbell of one of the runways. Navigation aids were rudimentary, and weather inclement.

The refugees were packed inside the aircraft like sardines. Each refugee carried just a small bundle of clothes. But this was a small price to pay for escaping the genocide happening inside their country.

Captain Wayne Wiltshire was a Texan pilot who insisted on wearing a Texan gallon hat with his flying overalls. He used to fly the C- 130 Hercules like a fighter, so much so that when he was executing a tight turn on finals for the runway in Guwahati, a woman refugee who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, delivered a baby during the turn.

The Americans promptly christened the baby Bonny Jack.

The C-130s carried out a total of 308 sorties in thirty days of operations. They flew out 23,000 refugees.

AASU’s Demand in the 70s: Deleting Foreign Nationals from Electoral Rolls

An estimated 10 million refugees crossed the border from East Pakistan into India. Their existence in India was to be temporary and their status was to remain as foreign nationals. Over 6.8 million of the 10 million refugees returned within two months of the end of the conflict. However, many refugees stayed back.

Did Bonny Jack go back?

Assam. February 1983. Bonny Jack, if he had stayed back, would have been almost twelve years old.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)-led agitation against illegal immigrants was in full swing. Towards the late 70s, the AASU had demanded that the names of foreign nationals be deleted from the electoral rolls. It subsequently launched an agitation to compel the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants. Elections had been announced despite stiff opposition.

The Assam Agitation intensified after the immigrants were given the right to vote in the elections.

AASU decided to boycott it, as did the local officials who were to have conducted the elections. Undaunted, the government decided to fly in officers of central services from outside Assam to conduct the elections.

We were Income Tax probationers at Nagpur National Academy of Direct Taxes when the summons came. We were put up in a college on the outskirts of Sibsagar.

The first election was on 17 February 1983. What would the day bring?

We needn't have worried. The turnout was minimal; in some booths, even zero.

Nellie Massacre & Assam Accord

The next day the Nellie massacre took place. The news was blood-curdling. The massacre left thousands dead. The country was shell-shocked. This was not an ethnic conflict; it was a pogrom. And, we weren't very far away. The pogrom was seen as a fallout of the decision to hold the elections.

The boycott on other days too was successful, and counting didn’t take too long.

The Assam Accord that was subsequently signed on 15 August 1985 brought the agitation to an end. It stipulated that all illegal immigrants who entered Assam till 31 December 1965 would be granted citizenship immediately.

Those who came between 1966 and 24 March 1971 would be disenfranchised. They were required to register themselves as foreigners. They were not to be deported but were to get voting rights only after an expiry of 10 years. The rest were to be expelled.

Bonny Jack, born on the flight to freedom, would be sent back.

Did ‘Bonny Jack’ Make it to the NRC?

In 1983, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act was passed by the Parliament creating a separate tribunal process for identifying illegal migrants in Assam. The Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 2005, after which the government agreed to update the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC).

2002-2007. I was the Chief Vigilance Officer of Brahmaputra Valley Fertilizer Corporation Limited located in Namrup, in upper Assam, about two hours from Dibrugarh. There were two other plants as well — Assam Petrochemicals Limited and Namrup Thermal Power Station. Due to the presence of these plants, workers from different parts of India had migrated to Namrup. The same situation existed in other towns in the region like Duliajan where Oil India Limited was located, or Margherita where Coal India Limited had coalfields.

The situation in that region was peaceful on the surface. The grievances of the Assamese people were embedded deep in their psyche and did not reveal themselves in an overt manner.

Bonny Jack would have been in his early 30s and could have been doing any job – menial probably.

Following the unsatisfactory progress on the update process of the NRC by the government, the Supreme Court started monitoring the process in 2013.

The final updated NRC for Assam was published on 31 August 2019. It contained 31 million names out of a population of 33 million, leaving out about 2 million applicants.

Was Bonny Jack one of the names that were excluded?

Will ‘Bonny Jack’ Manage to ‘Prove’ His Citizenship?

Cut to the present. The amended Citizenship Act has shifted the cut off date for granting citizenship from 24 March 1971 to 31 December 2014. Now, religious persecution is the basis of giving preferential treatment to illegal immigrants.

The protesters in Assam see this as a move by the Centre to go back on the Assam Accord. There are violent protests elsewhere in the country too.

In all probability, Bonny Jack is a Hindu. If so, there is hope for him. He was born during a steep turn of the airplane. His life has been full of twists and turns; no moment of peace; always looking over his shoulder. Even now, he knows that times are uncertain. He knows he will have to jump through hoops to finally get the coveted piece of paper. But will his neighbors allow him a night of peaceful sleep?

(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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