De-aliening India

The impossibility and social costs of attempting to hound out millions of unidentifiable Bangladeshis from India should be factored into the policies of the new government in New Delhi. 

“I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after 16 May, will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages (sic)”, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janta Party declared on 27th April in West Bengal’s Serampore town. One is free to interpret the statement either as a rhetoric directed at catching the imagination of the voters or even as a policy statement.

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Irrespective of one’s preference, four assumptions seem to underline this assertion. First, migration from Bangladesh is a well-concerted strategy to alter the demographic profile of several Indian states; second, these migrants are identifiable; third, bulk of them can be deported back to Bangladesh under a legal process; and fourth, a zero influx regime along the Indo-Bangladesh border can be achieved. All these are highly contestable.

Much of BJP’s anti-Bangladeshi migrant posture is rooted in its belief that there is indeed a concerted design on part of Bangladesh to alter the demographic profile of the north-eastern states and West Bengal. Such assertions are partly rooted in statements by few Bangladeshi intellectuals who invoked the idea of lebensraum for their nationals. Indeed, a number of districts in Assam have become Muslim majority in past years, due to the unceasing influx across the border. However, there is little evidence to prove that apart from the natural inclination of migrants to stay together in areas that are perceived to be Muslim majority and hence migrant friendly, there was indeed a design to Islamise the north-eastern states at play. A number of authoritative studies have proved that much of the migration from Bangladesh is economic in nature, assisted by push and pull factors. Lack of employment opportunities and demand for a range of jobs in the Indian states adjoining Bangladesh have created significant opportunities for ordinary Bangladeshis to venture into India and settle down.

Estimates on the number of Bangladeshis in separate states of the country have varied drastically- from the 1997 estimate of 10 million for the entire country by then home minister Indrajit Gupta to a 2012 study which says only 1.3 million migrants could have entered Assam between 1971 to 2001. However, none of these estimations have impacted on the subsequent identification of these migrants and their deportation, a process remained mired by a deliberately cultivated political and bureaucratic inertia. While for long the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) (IMDT) Act prevented the identification process, Dhaka’s refusal to receive people pushed back by India made the task of deportation even harder. According to a white paper published by the Assam government in 2012, only 2442 persons declared as illegal migrants by the courts have been either been deported or pushed back. Authorities who used the darkness of night to push people back into Bangladesh found that these people have resurfaced in Assam after a few days.

For long the Tarun Gogoi government in Assam maintained that migration from Bangladesh has ceased to exist. On occasions, Mr Gogoi maintained that there isn’t a single migrant in his state. While the Congress government, which was early to realise the political utility of the migrants, is guilty of playing down the issue of migration, organisations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and even the BJP are guilty of trying to rake up an issue that is more or less settled in states like Assam. Even the militant United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which was formed on an anti-foreigner platform in 1979, had abandoned its anti-Bangladeshi stand by the early 1990s.

The periodic publicity seeking AASU-led Bidekhi kheda Andolon (Throw the foreigners out movement) apart, which engulfs both the alleged Bangladeshis as well as the mainland Hindi-speaking Indians, the economic indispensability of the migrants is well appreciated by the Assamese middle class. There is considerable truth in a joke cracked by Tarun Gogoi on AGP leader and former chief minister Prafulla Mahanta. Gogoi once said that the labourers employed by Mahanta for building his house are probably Bangladeshis. What is true of Assam, is true for the rest of the country. There isn’t possibly a single state or township in India, where there are no Bangladeshi migrants.

On 20 March 2013, minister of state for home affairs Mullappally Ramachandran told the Rajya Sabha that since much of the migration “activity takes place clandestinely, no specific details are available about the magnitude of this illegal infiltration.” It is easy to ridicule the perceived incapacity of the home ministry and irrelevance of the fencing-centric initiatives to stop migration. The fact, however, remains that the flow of people driven by poverty and hunger isn’t exactly stoppable, by whatever means. In the United States, in spite of enormous resources and technology investment, illegal migration has increased by over 27 percent between 2000 and 2009. According to a 2012 study, 58 percent of the illegal migrants in the US are from Mexico. Both countries share a 2000 kilometre-long border, far less than the Indo-Bangladesh border, both in length and topographical complexities.

Surprisingly, prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s March 2014 statement in Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Daw, on the impact of climate change on Bangladesh has not received much attention in India and consequently has not found its way into Mr Modi’s lexicon. Hasina said “a rise in one degree Celsius due to global warming would submerge a fifth of Bangladesh, forcing 30 million people to become ‘climate migrants’”. Since Myanmar isn’t an option, much of this migration would eventually happen into the only other country Bangladesh shares its borders with. This is an impending reality, which cannot be countered by a “throw all migrants out”- policy.

If not appreciation of the fact that migration is an economic reality, the sheer impossibility and social costs of attempting to hound out millions of unidentifiable Bangladeshis from the Indian states and townships should be factored into the policies of the new government in New Delhi. Several worthwhile recommendations including issuing of work permits to the migrants and developing a cooperative mechanism with Dhaka have been making rounds for the last several years. These need some serious attention. Lets hope that Mr Modi’s 27th April statement was a high flying rhetoric.

Photo: Neil Hester