A high court judgment on illegal migrants from Bangladesh has once again raised the thorny issue of influx into the Northeast, especially into Assam, where it has always been a sensitive matter. Underscoring the scale and the depth of the problem, which has been troubling Assam and other north-eastern states for decades — and has now created challenges in places as distant as Mumbai, Jaipur and New Delhi — the Guwahati High Court has declared that illegal Bangladeshis “have a major role in electing the representatives. They have become the kingmakers”. The basis of this statement is not clear, but it may have been arrived at from various media reports and from the fact that a Bangladeshi actually stood for elections to the Assam state assembly in the Nineties, or even from the general view prevailing in Assam that the Muslim vote holds the key to nearly one-third of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies. This is, in turn, interpolated to mean that Bangladeshis are in a majority or are critical to the vote in these constituencies — they often blur the line between indigenous Muslims, who speak both Assamese and Bengali and have lived in Assam for generations (and are bona fide Indian citizens), and those who came to the state after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Much confusion arises from these issues. B.K. Sharma, a judge of the Guwahati High Court, spoke of the need for strong political will to tackle the situation and also of how easy it is to gain virtual citizenship and outmanoeuvre the police as well as the legal processes. The ruling — which came up in a case when the court dismissed appeals by 49 persons, who had challenged a tribunal finding that they were Bangladeshis and should be deported — has triggered an outburst against Bangladeshis, perceived or real. A surge of activism has been reported against alleged foreign nationals and there are allegations that minorities have been harassed after being labelled as Bangladeshis.
Vigilantism is no answer to such a crisis: it can exacerbate local tensions and play into the hands of political groups, especially of the Right, which seek to exploit such confrontations. It is important that not a single Indian citizen is discriminated against on the basis of religion, ethnicity or background. Detection and deportation have to be done by the agencies of the State in consonance with law, although public frustration on the issue and the failure of the State over nearly 30 years are understandable.
Assam is a complex ethnic mix, not only does it have a wide range of tribes but it is also home to different Muslim groups, just as it has “indigenous” Sikhs and Buddhists. The division among the Muslims is three-way: the older Assamese speakers who have strong affinities with the Assamese Hindu majority; the Bengali-origin Muslims, many of whom speak Assamese as their own language and have lived in Assam for decades; and the Bangladeshi immigrants, who have been coming to Assam since 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in the War of Liberation. While political and public antagonism is largely focused at the last group, confusion sets in at times because of the rhetoric that calls for the expulsion of “all Bangladeshis”, without making any difference between the pre-1971 group and those who came afterward.
Indeed, Muslim populations in six districts of Assam — Dhubri, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta and Nalbari — have surged. Migration is a major factor here; so are high fertility rates, combined with poverty, poor education levels, low health access and family planning measures. These high-growth districts were carved out of the older districts of Goalpara and Kamrup, where there have been extensive settlement of Muslims in the pre-Independence era. According to the 2001 census, Assam’s Hindu population has grown at 14.95 per cent against 29.30 per cent for the Muslims. The figure was far higher between the Sixties and the Eighties, when large numbers migrated to and settled in Assam.
The powerful All Assam Students’ Union, which first brought the issue to national and international attention in 1979, says the state and Central governments have failed to protect Assam from “external aggression and internal disturbance”. Aasu’s ire is also directed at the Asom Gana Parishad, which emerged from its womb in 1985, and also at the Left: all are guilty, it says, of supporting the influx because they are dependent on these votes, and also because they support cheap labour.
Conflicting figures float around as to the number of “Bangladeshis” in Assam, as well as in India. But there is little doubt that there are no less than 20 lakh illegal migrants in Assam (a figure extrapolated from fertility rates and demographic growth of different religious groups), with a majority being Muslim. This is a substantial number, about seven per cent of Assam’s total population of 30 million. It is also larger than the populations of small states such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in the Northeast, which comes to a total of 40 million. The overall figures for illegal migrants in India is said to be not less than 20 million. Some assert that this is a conservative figure.
Yet, development and the potential of conflict and violence are intertwined. If the state and Central governments do not wake up to the abysmal human development index levels in Lower Assam (and that covers both tribals like the Bodos, groups like Koch-Rajbongshis, as well as Muslims), the populations there — Bangladeshi or not —may be tempted to align with groups that are inimical to the interests of Assam and also of India. It is in our short- and long-term security interests to bridge service delivery gaps. This is the soft underbelly of the Northeast and of India, a 4,000-km belt that stretches from the narrow foot of Mizoram that plunges into the tri-junction of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, up to the Sunderbans and the Bay of Bengal. The issue today is not that there are a large number of illegal migrants in India. The question, more importantly, is what can be done about them.
For 30 years, various movements in Assam have demanded vigorous action against immigrants. Although a national concern, the issue gets little more attention than a district problem. Bangladesh conveniently declares, on the one hand, that none of its nationals migrate to poor countries like India (of course, they only work as street-cleaners and waiters in the United States of America and Europe!) and, on the other, through its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, proclaims that the “fertile lands” of Assam are a Lebensraum for its people, who now are packed at 1,400 persons per square kilometre, the highest population density in the world. Despite the Assam Accord of 1985 after the student-led movement against Bangladeshis, the number of those ousted is barely a few thousand. There are several reasons for this, the predominant one being that Bangladesh denies that any of its nationals slip into India illegally. Thus, the shrillness of the campaigns against Bangladeshis fails to turn up specific answers. Even a Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition failed to do anything about deportation. It is better, in my view, to develop a three point action plan that has the support of all political parties and groups instead of continuing to agitate without end or put off a decision for as long as possible, as the government is doing now.
Provide constitutional guarantees to enable political control of the state and its future by ensuring reservations of not less than 65 per cent for all local ethnic groups in perpetuity. There is no need to quibble over what constitutes an “Assamese” — provide the protected status to all recognized scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, other backward classes and to general citizens who are voters, but who can also be traced through the 1951 National Register of Citizens matched with the 1971 electoral lists. It is here that the definition of Asom-bashis (residents of Assam) by the United Liberation Front of Assom becomes maybe more appropriate than Asomiyas — efforts to define the latter has tied governments and organizations up in knots for decades.
Back this up by issuing multi-purpose identity cards to all who qualify under the process and then provide temporary work permits to those of Bangladeshi-origin who are already here. The TWPs would not be a license to settle down, but only provide access to work and incomes for a fixed time, as in a visa regime — one year to start with, to be extended to a second but non-extendable further — since the northeast region is a labour-strapped area, constantly depending on labour from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. The TWPs could be issued to groups of not more than 25. The individuals in the groups could be identified through software that gives each person a unique identity through finger-printing and eye detection.
An alternative to the TWP, and a simpler one, is to develop a separate category of identity cards, as proposed by Prakash Singh, an eminent police official, with a different colour coding for Bangladeshi/foreign nationals.
It is better to temper rhetoric with research and realism and develop “implementable” policy approaches instead of continuing to live either in denial or repeating the story of the past 30 years. Far too much time has passed, and too many lives have been expended.
By Sanjoy Hazarika, Telegraph, September 16, 2008