Migrants, Politics and the Need for Action in Northeast

A high court judgement on illegal migrants from Bangladesh has again raised the tortuous and tortured issue of influx into the northeast and especially to Assam, where the issue has always been explosive.

Underscoring the scale and depth of the problem, which has troubled Assam and other northeastern states for decades - and now has 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 developed from various media reports and the fact that a Bangladeshi actually stood for elections to the Assam state Assembly in the 1990s and the general view prevailing in Assam that the Muslim vote holds the key in 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, often blurring the line between indigenous Muslims who speak both Assamese and Bengali and have lived in Assam for generations (and are bona fide Indian citizens) with those who came after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Much confusion arises from these issues. Justice B.K. Sharma of the Guwahati High Court spoke of the need for strong political will to tackle the situation and also of how easy it was to gain virtual citizenship and outmanoeuvre the police as well as the legal processes.

The ruling, which came in a case when the court dismissed appeals by 49 people 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 in the name of 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 confrontation. It is important that not a single Indian 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 is understandable.

Assam is a complex ethnic mix; not only does it have a wide range of tribes but it also is home to different Muslim groups, just as it has "indigenous" Sikhs and Buddhists. The division among the Muslims is three-way: between the older Assamese speakers who have strong affinities with the Assamese Hindu majority, Bengali-origin Muslims, many of whom declare Assamese as their language and have lived in Assam for decades, and the Bangladeshi immigrants, who have been coming since 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from (West) Pakistan. While political and public antagonism is largely focused at the last group, confusion at times sets in because of rhetoric that calls for the expulsion of "all Bangladeshis", without making a difference between the pre-1971 group and those who came afterwards.

Indeed, Muslims 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 and low access to health and family planning measures. These high-growth districts were carved out of the older districts of Goalpara and Kamrup where there have been extensive settlements of Muslims in the pre-independence era. The 2001 census showed Assam's Hindu population had grown at 14.95 percent against 29.30 percent for the Muslim population. The figure was far higher between the 1960s and 1980s when large numbers migrated and settled.

The powerful All Assam Students' Union (AASU) that 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 against the Asom Gana Parishad, which emerged from its womb in 1985 and also 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 of the number of "Bangladeshis" in Assam, as well as in India. But there is little doubt that there are not less than two million illegals in Assam (a figure extrapolated from fertility rates, demographic growth of different religious groups) with a majority being Muslim. This is a substantial number, about seven percent of Assam's total population of 30 million. It also is larger than the populations of small states such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

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.

Development and the potential of conflict and violence are intertwined. If the state and central governments do not wake up to the abysmal HDI levels in Lower Assam (and that covers both tribals such as the Bodos and groups such as the Koch-Rajbongshis as well as Muslims), the populations there - whether Bangladeshi or not - may be attracted to align with groups that are inimical to the interests of Assam and thereby 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 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, 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 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 US and Europe!) and on the other, through its founding father Mujibur Rahman, proclaims the "fertile lands" of Assam are a Lebensraum for its people, who now are packed at 1,400 persons per square km, 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 and even a BJP-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:

provide constitutional guarantees to enable political control of the state and its future by ensuring reservations of not less than 65 percent for all local ethnic groups in perpetuity.

There is no need to quibble over what constitutes an "Assamese" - provide the protected status to all recognised ST, SC, OBC and general citizens who are voters but also who can be traced through the 1951 National Register of Citizens matched with the 1971 electoral lists. It is here that the ULFA definition of Asom bashis (residents of Assam) may be more appropriate than 'Asomiyas' - the effort to define the latter has tied governments and organisations up in knots for decades. The government has to

(i) back this up by issuing multi-purpose ID cards to all who qualify under the process and then provide Temporary Work Permits (TWPs) to those of Bangladeshi origin who are already here; (ii) the TWPs would not be a licence to settle but 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 NER is a labour-strapped area, constantly depending on labour from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. (iii) 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 ID cards, as proposed By Prakash Singh, the 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, too many lives have been expended.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is an author, filmmaker and expert on affairs of the northeast. He can be reached at sanjoyha@gmail.com)


More by :  Sanjoy Hazarika

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