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Trishanu Bipul Borah
Date of Publish: 2016-05-31

The spectre of “Illegal Immigrants”- The White Elephant in the Room


The people of Assam are still busy celebrating the historic mandate that they have provided the BJP and its allies, for who would not in the face of 15 years of perceived arrogance, misrule and stagnation at the hands of the Indian National Congress? The whole issue of anti-incumbency aside, another core issue around the elections has been that of the “illegal Bangladeshi infiltration”- the white elephant in the room- which this article wants to elucidate upon.

Historical Context

The whole issue of "Bangladeshi infiltration" is much more complex than what it seems on paper or in popular narrations. To put things into a historical perspective, the "influx" goes back to over a century ago when the colonial rulers, in an effort to maximize land revenue and fix the growing fiscal deficit, attempted to settle East Bengali peasants in colonial “wastelands” and along “reserve forests”. These “wastelands” included land which had previously belonged to the tribal communities and villages of Assam, who had no previous institution of private property in land.


The Assamese of that era, if the term is used to describe a broader collection of people and tribes, were used to shifting cultivation where they would, at any point of time, keep a plot of land fallow and use another for their current needs. The British policy of taxation did not allow this; land was measured and registered, which meant that vast areas of community land which lay fallow at that point of time fell into imperial hands. It is thus that “wastelands” cropped up which the ancestors of today’s ethnic Bengali Muslim population settled in, along with the “Char” lands along the banks of the Brahmaputra.  

Assam at historic crossroads?

Today, popular imagination in Assam has become such that there is a perennial threat in popular perception and imagination, a threat of a ticking time bomb in the form of demographic change that can in the future obliterate all that the Assamese people and culture stand for. At the face of this threat, it seems, is the “illegal Bangladeshi” who, apparently, as the popular argument goes, has been “breeding exponentially”, “taking up jobs” right from petty wage/industial labour to those in the tea industry to “consuming welfare money of Indian taxpayers” and so on and so forth. Such is the dogged belief that parties go to polls with the agenda of delivering Assam of this menace of the “illegal immigrant”, of solving what the past 30 years and the Assam Accord could not.

Agreed, economic migration has been the trend throughout ages between empires and their borders, but, if it were so, if there had been a continuous illegal influx from across the border till date, the population growth rates of the border districts such as Dhubri should have risen faster post 1971. Truth is, Assam's growth rate, far from being explosive, is even lower than the National average ever since 1971, down from the 34.98 per cent of the 1950s. Dhubri, a Muslim majority district by far, has population growth rates of 45.65 per cent, 22.97 per cent and 24.40 per cent during 1971-1991, 1991-2001, 2001-2011 respectively. Constrast this with the growth rates of districts like Dhemaji, Karbi Anglong etc, which have no significant ethnic Bengali population whatsoever. The figures for the same are a staggering 107.5, 19.45, 20.30 per cent for Dhemaji and 74.72, 22.72 and 18.69 per cent  for Karbi Anglong. Does it not say much about the white lie about continued influx?

Yes, there has been a rise in the population of Bengali speaking minorities in the middle Assam districts of Nagaon, Morigaon etc, but these districts are nowhere close to the Bangladesh border and not industrially developed at all that it would attract a horde of illegal economic immigrants. Why would the illegal immigrant not choose to move to developed cities of North/ South India instead?  This rise in the number of ethnic Bengalis in middle Assam can be mainly attributed to factors such as poverty, lack of family planning/ignorance due to lack of proper education, sustenance agriculture- all of which have direct connections with high birth rates.

In the light of this, is it not be safe to say that the spectre of “illegal immigrants” has been over hyped, played up for partisan interests? Clearly, whatever influx continues till date( if it does), due to the complexity of the colonial practice of drawing borders across the farms and villages of closely knit communities, is nowhere close to what the numbers were in the period before the establishment of nation state of Bangladesh. Infact, the perceived rise in numbers of ethnic Bengali Muslims might be possibly because of the growth in numbers of the progeny of the ones who came before the date. The Assam Accord clearly set that only those crossing over post 1971 are to be termed are to be seen as illegal, but what is sad today is that, given the turn of things, any Bengali Muslim gentleman(woman) can be derided and racially profiled as “Bangladeshi”, in a derogatory manner. This happens even more as we move down the order of class, with the poor even more exposed to such brutality and horror of popular narratives, of the phenomenon of othering in their own place of birth. Thousands of people have lost their lives over the past 30 years in communal blood frenzies, right from the pogrom at Nellie in 1983 to Bodo-Muslims conflicts of contemporary times.  

Implications for India’s Act East Policy and neighbourhood diplomacy

This brings up the process of NRC updation and detecting “illegal immigrants”. Whatever the number the system comes up with, despite serious inefficiencies at the levels of the lower bureaucracy and the ills of corruption, the question arises that once detected, what you do with the “illegal immigrant”. And if God forbid the popular paranoia over “five crore infiltrators” is true, what does India do?  The last time India faced such a crisis was when she tried deporting thousands of innocent people of Chinese origin who were caught in a crisis after the 1962 war; whose land and property were appropriated by the Indian State and who China initially refused to accept. This is a well known fact today, something noted novelist Rita Chowdhury explored in her novel Makam which caused a ruckus in the Indian Parliament.

India cannot expect that Bangladesh would just agree to take back “infiltrators”, neither is there any way of strong arming them into submission, for would that not be an assault to their sovereignty and against the principles of the Panchsheel? What would result would be a nightmarish diplomatic crisis for India in its neighbourhood, which India can ill afford given how India already finds itself in a tough spot with respect to the developments in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, even Myanmar( post #56inch counter insurgency fad).  India cannot isolate its neighbours further, especially given the rise of China and its String of Pearls policy along the Indian Ocean Rim, its economic corridors across Pakistan and its ports along the coasts of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.  

When it comes to connectivity, both physical and digital, India and Bangladesh are so deeply engaged with each other that there are talks of starting cross border trains, ferrying people and goods across international borders, which is good news for both the North East and its markets. India recently installed a internet gateway that would boost speeds with 10GBPS data connectivity via Bangladesh, which will improve and facilitate stronger internet connectivity and strengthen the digital infrastructure in both the public and private spheres. Bangladesh further plans on opening a consulate in Guwahati for the purposes of visa issuance/ renewal etc.

Beyond bilateral connectivity and trade, there is also the Act East Policy and the vast potential it holds for the economy of the North Eastern States to consider. It would be amount to economic suicide if one were to seal the border and discourage trade facilitation, instead of pushing for seamless connectivity across borders. The BJP’s rally cries of “development” are very much dependent on this factor, for only greater investment in the state and the region can change the current stagnation. Act East Policy gives the North East just this chance, for which MNC can resist the idea of setting a base here, via which they can get access to the vast untapped markets of South East Asia. At a time when from regional economic partnerships Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) to Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)  and such are ruling the order of the day, stubbornly asking Bangladesh to take back "illegal immigrants" is next to impossible and no Indian government worth its salt would risk it for the sake of a single state of the Union of States of India.

Way Ahead

Thus, other than simple rhetoric and the partisan purpose it serves, it does not seem likely that the government can do much to settle the issues revolving around “illegal immigrants”. Instead what the new government can do is focus on ensuring good, efficient and ethical governance, removing the unholy nexus of agents-contractors-grass roots politics which milks most of government grants for itself, cracking down hard on the menace of drugs and skill the upcoming youth, ensure investments and industrial development of the state, enable the rise of a proper service sector, develop newer and sustainable cities and townships, solve the issues of urban planing in and around Guwahati, encourage a new breed of Assamese entrepreneurs to come up and provide not just jobs but solutions to the problems that trouble Aai Axom. A proper framework for all this does exist on paper with Central Government and its numerous schemes like Digital India, Skill India etc, the onus is on implementing them well.

Trishanu Bipul Borah

( Trishanu Bipul Borah is a BITS Pilani alumnus and a freelance writer. He can be reached at - trishanubborah@gmail.com. Views are personal )



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