Relocate settlers across India

Sealing of the border and raising a Rapid Reaction Force is the need of the hour

Show of concern, finger-pointing and headlong panic have been in sharp national focus in the aftermath of this summer’s tragic outbursts of violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district and its adjoining areas that has cost nearly 100 lives and caused the flight of hundreds of thousands of toiling peasants and their fearful families to relief camps.

Congress and the Opposition stalwarts have been making televised pilgrimages to the camps, calling for showering of solace amid rounds of blame-game, while thousands of North-Easterners rushed home from mainland India in trainloads, succumbing to SMS and MMS threats by cyber-manipulators. Instead of being engrossed in dramatics and hysteria, this should in fact be a time for the Assamese, the North-East’s other indigenous populations, their leaders and their youth to reflect on at least three lessons from the violence.

The first is the urgent need to begin single-minded efforts to persuade the central government to settle illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, from an agreed cut-off date, in areas outside Assam and outside other North-Eastern states. In a word, the illegal immigrants should be dispersed across all regions of mainland India. The country as a whole, even excluding the North-East, should easily be able to take in several million outsiders. But for the precariously small Assamese and other indigenous populations of the North-East it becomes catastrophic for their future to continue to provide shelter to unlimited numbers of immigrants. Had the Assamese or Bodo populations been as large as, say, the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, Marathis in Maharashtra or any other of major indigenous groups in other States, worries about inflows of immigrants into Assam would not have been as acute as now.

The second lesson from the recent violence is the urgency of redoubling efforts to seal the border. It may never be fool-proof but a well-guarded, walled or fenced border would restrict the flow of migrant settlers. It is not only the border with Assam that has to be sealed but also that between West Bengal and Bangladesh as immigrants entering West Bengal can easily take a train to Assam. Sealing of the border has to be a prerequisite to any relocation plan. Otherwise it would encourage a flood of new illegal immigrants, defeating the purpose of dispersals. This danger has to be kept in mind.

The third lesson is the need for a rigorously trained rapid reaction force. It can be equipped with super-fast means of transport such as helicopters to nip violence in the bud. The North-Eastern states, with Assam in the lead, can press Delhi for such a force if they cannot set up crack units within their police forces. Updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – seen as crucial for implementing the 1985 Assam Accord by giving citizenship only to immigrants who have lived in the country on or from before March 25, 1971- has so far occupied centre-stage for identifying illegal immigrants.

If it is really viable, it can go hand in hand with the settler dispersal plan. But NRC updating, so far the linchpin of the accord, has to be closely examined to see if it has not in effect become an unintended block to getting rid of illegal immigrants. Repeated delays on completing work on it have had the effect of keeping the trespassers where they are indefinitely.

Photo: Paolo Cuttitta

Since the accord was signed by Delhi and leaders of the mass movement in Assam against illegal immigrants, the updating of the NRC has been making little headway for over a quarter century. Successive governments, whatever their political hue, have failed to act meaningfully to take the updating process forward. Sensitivities involved in pinpointing illegal immigrants, opposition from vocal minority groups, stratagems by settlers to stay put, besides the sheer volume of work needed, have come in the way.

With time passing, it would cost the Assamese and other indigenous people dearly if their future is chained solely to updating the NRC. Other lawful means that bypass laborious and time-consuming procedures must be found to quickly identify illegal immigrants.

Intelligence sources cited in a Tehelka magazine report estimate that four crore Bangladeshi infiltrators have made India their home, with the bulk of them residing in Assam. How the estimate was made is not explained. It would be useful to know what identification methods were used. If these can be made transparent, perhaps at least one quick alternative way can be found to identify trespassers.
The logical step after identification is moving out the illegal immigrants. This will call for a stupendously difficult exercise, whether it is expulsions from the country or relocation within India as suggested here. As for deportations, on a scale actually beneficial to Assam, a question to ask is: are they feasible or just a fantasy chased by those who passionately believe the state cannot allow itself to become a second Bangladesh?

No democratic government in India, for purely humanitarian reasons, if not for opposition from Dhaka, uproars across the nation from minorities, and international outcries, is likely to be capable of pushing immigrants on a mass scale back to their homeland. Still, deportations must not be abandoned.  It should always be feasible to carry out limited deportations, and especially of the very latest arrivals wily enough to penetrate the border even after it is sealed completely. The threat of deportations has to be used against illegal immigrants bent on foiling dispersals.

The settlers, whatever their dates of entry, have never been known to be faint-hearted enough to be labelled as outsiders. But freeing the state and the North-East of illegal immigrant and putting a halt to fresh influxes are regarded by the region’s indigenous communities as pivotal to their future.

Relocation within India, even if fraught with formidable challenges, cannot raise the kind of objections that can freeze large-scale deportations. Those relocated can be given rights to residence outside the north-east, with legal titles over land and property. Dispersals can be made even more attractive by working in so many benefits such as cash doles, irrigation and other facilities that the settlers will find it hard not to come forward to make use of the opportunity of being transported to a secure future.

The States without worries about their local populations losing their identity can view their share of immigrants in a positive light: even those hostile to them cannot deny they are highly industrious, ever ready to acquire new skills. They can be assets instead of liabilities to the host States, contributing significantly to the economic growth of areas where they are safely settled. The north-east, because of the smallness of its indigenous populations in danger of being swamped to oblivion, is in no position to absorb them.

It is common to demonise immigrants as infiltrators with ulterior designs on Assam but use of such language serves no useful purpose as the reality is somewhat different and vitiates the atmosphere, making resort to violence more likely.

It would be more accurate to describe most immigrants- barring minorities such as Hindus fleeing persecution and who undeniably need special protection- as a desperate lot forced by economic peril to leave their homes for a better life in a land not far away, and which happens to be Assam and other North-Eastern states.

If the border is not thoroughly sealed, poverty, combined with an exploding population in Bangladesh- and, at a not too distant future, rising sea levels from global warming that could submerge parts of that country- will continue to send waves upon waves of migrants to the North-East. The settlers have nothing to lose in trekking out of their country. They will, therefore, put up every possible struggle to stay on in their new-found haven in Assam’s reserved forests, unguarded fields or whatever is left of riverine areas that have not been taken over by earlier immigrants. Their resolve to dig in comes amid escalating land prices, which possibly galvanises them to hold on to whatever land they occupy, whatever be the price in terms of hardship or violence.

With immigrant staying put, and even expanding settlements with the help of freshly arrived kinfolk and branching out into various trades and occupations, the indigenous people’s resentment remains on the boil, their fear of losing their hearths, homes, and identities propelling them to become as desperate a lot as those tossed away by poverty. Desperation, a potent fuel for mayhem has to be dealt with before time runs out and fear turns into violent upsurges. An issue that becomes pertinent and needs answers from Delhi and India as a whole is: why should Assam alone in particular and the North-East be left with the sole responsibility of providing land and means livelihood to immigrants?

What about the rest of India?  Why shouldn’t other major states not share a responsibility that is national in character?

A civilised nation cannot turn its back on any set of people, even if they are illegal entrants. Be generous to them by all means. But why, for all practical purposes allow them to overcrowd one particular region, Assam in particular, thereby literally choking the future of its people? It has been disingenuous and unjust on the part of the central government to show concern when violence occurs but continue business as usual by putting the entire burden on the north-east of finding shelter for livelihood seekers from another country. Assam’s land and resources are as limited as most other states.  Its demographic balance is feared to be tilting menacingly against the locals because of the trespassers.

Recurrent fears about being outnumbered can morph lethally- lethally due to the possibility of violence- into universal feelings among locals that if illegal settlements continue, it will only be a matter of time before the indigenous populace suffers the fate of the Pandits in Kashmir- a once-thriving community exiled in the 1990s from their ancient habitat by Taliban-like fundamentalist groups. Such organisations could be present in the North-East as well. Recent news reports say central intelligence agencies are putting under scrutiny at least 14 groups whose activities are suspected to be ‘inimical’ to peace and social harmony. “All these organizations have come into existence in the last 20 years. While many of them are believed to have external links, some are engaged in militant activities,” an official was quoted as saying in a Times of India report.

The organisations listed in the report carry names such as Muslim Security Council of Assam, United Liberation Militia of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, Muslim Volunteer Force, Muslim Liberation Army, Muslim Security Force, Islamic Sevak Sanng and Islamic United Reformation Protest of India. The report said others include Revolutionary Muslim Commandos, Muslim Tiger Force, Muslim Liberation Front, Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam and Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam. With a plethora of such groups in the region, the North-East’s local communities have much to fear. But so do settlers, at risk of becoming embroiled in sudden upsurges of violence.

In short, fear appears to have become pervasive in the North-East- fear among the indigenous communities of becoming strangers in their own land, and fear among immigrants of being targets of violence. If fear is to be removed, the authorities have to come out with a specific plan, not mere verbal assurances, that meet the needs of both the indigenous and settler communities. Without a specific plan, the region will remain dark with fear, a darkness that breeds heart-rending but avoidable violence.

As deportation on a mass scale is unlikely to be feasible, a systematic plan to give shelter, land and means of livelihood to migrant settlers across India, excluding the North-East, will go a long way to remove fear, both among the region’s indigenous populace and the trespassers. Such a plan should come with the build-up of a rapid reaction force to deal with any abrupt explosions of rioting. Everyone knows time is of the essence in dealing effectively with violence or crime. Had there been a rapid reaction force, it would have been easier to snuff out the latest clashes in the Kokrajhar region.

While quick police or army action is critical to saving lives and reducing the extent of violence, it cannot be a durable solution for group-wide flare-ups. Deep-seated suspicions and hatreds have to be handled with painstaking efforts and specific plans of action.
In the case of Assamese and Bodo-inhabited areas, growing fears about being outnumbered have to be dealt with upfront- by moving out illegal settlers and stopping fresh influxes from across the border.

The North-East alone cannot solve the issue. The nation as a whole has to take it up as a challenge to be conquered. But it is for the leaders of the north-east and its people to push the central government and the rest of the country to come to their aid. It may be naive to expect the other states, even without a single worry about their populations losing their homes or identity, to cooperate. Delhi could very well dodge the issue, offering no specific measures to move out immigrants because of the scale and cost involved, not to speak of calculations considered decisive for vote-dependent governments.  An unhelpful course would be perilous for the north-east’s local populace as well as the settlers, and the nation itself.

Time to act is now.  Those at the helm can consider drawing up a programme on a scale similar to the Marshall Plan- which succeeded in regenerating the economies of European countries after the Second World War- to resettle illegal immigrants across the mainland.  Governments in the North-East can unite to bring sense to Delhi to protect the region’s indigenous populations and solve the immigration issue in as humane a way as possible. Even new settlers can cooperate as imaginative dispersals within India would provide them with a future they can be happy to look forward to while removing fear and resentment among the indigenous populace.