Who are illegal immigrants?
Although “illegal migration” or/and “illegal immigrants” (particularly from Bangladesh) are very much a part of the public discourse on society, polity, and economy of Assam, the definitions of these two terms are far from being concrete. The shared history of the
British colonial rule, the partition at the time of independence, the role played by India in the creation of Bangladesh, and the provisions under the Citizenship Act – all contribute to this lack of concreteness. Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act of 1955 defines an “illegal migrant” as a foreigner who entered India
(I) Without a valid passport or other prescribed travel documents: or
(II) With a valid passport or other prescribed travel documents but remains in India beyond the permitted period of time.
However, there are a few caveats that need to be considered before this definition can be applied to identify illegal immigrants.
The All Assam Students Union (AASU) is yet again at the forefront of an anti-foreigner agitation in the state. Though it doesn’t have the intensity of the Assam Movement recorded between 1979 and 1985, the ongoing agitation against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, certainly has the propensity to turn into a mass movement against yet another central government.
The amendment is being sought by the BJP government to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis among others coming from two other countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan. If amended, the Act would come in direct conflict with the Assam Accord of 1985, signed by AASU with the Central government to find a solution to the anti-foreigner movement.
The stated aim of the exercise is to detect all non-citizens, defined by the provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985. According to the accord, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors had entered the state before the midnight of March 24, 1971, will be counted as an illegal migrant. The cut off date coincides with the start of the Bangladesh war, which triggered a wave of migration into Assam.
What, then, will happen to the large number of people suddenly designated foreigners? India does not have any formal repatriation treaty with Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh affirms that there has been no large-scale migration to Assam in the last 30 years. In bilateral engagements between the two countries, India has not officially broached the subject. Analysts claim India’s reluctance is strategic; it does not want to upset ties with the current dispensation in Bangladesh.
With deportation being off the table, at least for the time being, an old proposal of granting work permits to non-citizens is gaining currency yet again in Assam and neighbouring states of the North East.
At the time, there was considerable opposition to the idea in Assam. Among its most vocal detractors was former Assam police officer Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharya, who has written several books on the subject of illegal migration from Bangladesh to India. But now even Bhattacharya has a somewhat similar proposal, though with some key differences.
In addition to people left out of the National Register of Citizens, future migration to India from Bangladesh, he claimed, was also inevitable for a variety of reasons The All Assam Minority Students’ Union’s Ainuddin Ahmed said while it ideally wanted illegal migrants to be deported, it did not object to a work permit-based resolution to the problem as long as it was within the ambit of the Indian constitution. It was, he said, a better approach then putting people in detention camps.
No substitute for citizenship
Academic Sanjib Baruah, however, was less enthusiastic about granting work permits to people left out of the updated citizenry list and whom Bangladesh does not accept as citizens. Work-permit regimes functioned on the premise that the person has rights of full citizenship in another country. The political scientist said that while India could sign an agreement with Bangladesh to allow a certain number of people to come to India to work and give them work permits valid for a certain period of time, that could not be used as a tool to deal with people found to be non-citizens in the updating exercise, as suggested by Bhattacharya.
The illegal migrants do not pay tax and thus they do not contribute to government revenue. Agricultural income – except for income from cash crop like tea – is not taxed.
Furthermore, the immigrants also do not pay tax on their income from petty trades.
However, the government spends on providing basic infrastructure: roads, power supply, water supply, health, education to these immigrants. Also, the state government has established special departments: the Char Area Development Department and the Minority Development Corporation, primarily for the development of the immigrants from Bangladesh. Government funds are allocated to these departments. If we further add the large sum of money the government spends every year in providing reliefs to the flood victims among whom the immigrants living in the riverside deltas constitute a large fraction, and subsidies on food items through fair price shops, the total costs to the government of maintaining this immigrant population would run into several crores of rupees.
An opinion that has long been whispered among a section of academics in Assam is that the migration is not as massive as it is portrayed. Certainly, there has been significant inflow of people in the first decades of the 20th century, but the claim of a threatening, and continuing influx since Independence, and more particularly since the all-important cut-off year of 1971, does not seem-plausible. As in so many other developing societies of South Asia, in Assam too, myths and dogma take root, develop their own reality, and begin to dictate political debate unchallenged by the mainstream media, academia or larger intelligentsia. Such is also the case with what can only be called the myth of continuing Bangladeshi migration into Assam.
But even if one were to accept the fact that there are Bangladeshi migrants in massive numbers in Assam, the hands of the Indian government is tied because international law would not provide for unilateral deportation without acquiescence of the receiving country. If indeed, all those whom the Asamiya activists consider to be Bangladeshis were to be identified and deported, the Government of India would have to round up over three million people in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and make arrangements for their transport south.
A look at the migratory trends in the region as well as the strictures of the Assam Accord, openly agreed to by all parties hack in 1985, means that there is not a significant population in the state that would legitimately have to face deportation. Certainly, there is a large number of Muslims of East Bengal origin here, whose forefathers came in during the colonial years. But by any reading, today, they are the citizens of India.
Ironically, this very agitation by the Asamiya leaders may also lead to a sudden loss of their own political base. The same politicians who today call for the mass removal of Bengali Muslims have, in the past, depended on them to firm up their political base in multicultural Assam. Identifying themselves as Asamiya-speakers (as directed by the Muslim League after Partition), the Muslims have helped the ‘indigenous’ Asamiyas extend their hegemony over the population, both tribal and settled.
Now, however, the Muslims of East Bengal descent, tired of the long years of insecurity, may decide to report themselves in the upcoming census as Bengali-speakers rather than Asamiya-speakers – for the first time since the 1951 census. If even two-thirds of the state’s Muslims were to do so, the numerical dominance of Asamiyas in Assam would take a severe beating.
When the Assam Accord was signed on 14 August 1985 amidst much fanfare, the Asamiya activists had believed that they had finally found the magic formula to get rid of the ‘hordes’ of alleged Bangladeshi infiltrators. The Accord pronounced all post-1971 migrants as “illegal” and hence subject to detection and deportation.
Over the years, however, the Accord lost much of its sheen for the activists, primarily because the IMDT Act proved unable to detect and deport ‘illegal migrants’ at a pace and in numbers that would have satisfied them. It is in response to this alleged failure that the AASU has proposed making the 1951 register and the 1952 electoral rolls, as the basis to determine who is ‘indigenous’ and who is not.
This proposal flies in the face of the Assam Accord, which marked 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for identifying who is legal and who is not. Intriguingly, both the Government of Assam and the Government of India seem to have reached an understanding with the AASU on this matter, quietly complying with a demand that is both exclusionary and explosive.
Without doubt, there was an ‘unnatural’ increase in the population of East Bengal Muslims, as they streamed into Assam as a result of colonial policy in the period 1911-41. Back then, of course, this was seen as “internal migration” from one province of the Raj to another. But to attribute all subsequent postcolonial increases summarily to illegal migration from Bangladesh is taking an impressionistic view of a complicated problem.
To begin with, Islam has had a history of more than seven centuries in Assam, and today’s population is made up of a large number of local converts as well as descendants of Mughal and Pathan migrants of long ago. Demographers believe that poverty, illiteracy and social backwardness are directly linked to significant population increase, and hence it is natural for the population of the East Bengal settlers to have increased at a rate faster than some adjacent communities.
Since people move across the border from Bangladesh primarily for economic reasons, the solution to this problem must address these economic issues. As India’s economy grows at a fast pace, the pace of migration is also likely to accelerate. It is important to recognize that despite the impressive growth that India has been able to achieve in recent years, one-fourth of India’s population still lives under the poverty line.
Accelerated immigration from across the border will be a formidable obstacle to India’s effort to reduce poverty. Also it is in India’s best interest that Bangladesh does not fall far behind in the process of economic growth. Greater economic cooperation between two countries is of strategic importance. Particularly, in the border areas India, in cooperation with Bangladesh, should launch economic development programs that improve the quality of life on both sides of the border. These programs could be introduced as private- public partnership initiatives with involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and could aim at providing basic education and health care, and generating employment.
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