That illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to Assam is a serious problem is an undisputable fact. Assam shares a 272-km-long border with Bangladesh out of which most of the stretch is still unfenced. The large scale infiltration from the other side of the border has is not only threatening to demographic profile of Assam but also its cultures. Though the exact number of illegal immigrants is not known, generally it is estimated that about 20 million Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India. Of this number, about 7-8 million are present in Assam alone. And the number keeps increasing daily. In the description below, I seek to throw in certain perspectives on how both the countries lacks the political will to solve the problem which consequently is turning into a menace. The arguments built upon here are based on my researches on the web, personal experiences (I stayed for a year in Dhaka, Bangladesh), and my discussions with the people, social activists and academicians in both the countries.
As mentioned above, I have had the opportunity to stay in Bangladesh for almost a year working on diverse social issues. Many of my friends joked that, ‘you are our answer to Bangladesh’. As a resident of Assam, I was of course at the receiving end of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Thus, one of my tasks that figured in my ‘to-do list’ was ‘finding out the reason behind the huge scale immigration’. To my utter surprise, I was greeted with utter ignorance about this matter. While many blatantly refused about such immigration, let alone such huge scale of it, many said that they did not know much about it. I found the same reactions in the attitude amongst the development sector and the government of Bangladesh. While some of my friends had knowledge about it, they refused to believe the scale of it. I browsed through newspaper archives to find relevant information but in vain. I did the same thing this time too. As soon as I received the news about the Bodo-immigrants clashes in Assam, I started browsing through Bangladeshi newspapers for information. I even wrote emails to my friends/activists who either directed me to links about the news (the ones which were already published in Indian newspapers) or claimed ignorance about it.
But the reactions are nothing but expected. Immigration is not a new phenomenon to Bangladesh. Everyday millions cross over to India, Middle-East and European nations. The presence of immigrants of Bangladesh in other countries is not only acknowledged with pride but even celebrated in many cases. One of the prime agendas of the social sector in Bangladesh today is to pursue the developed nations to acknowledge the immigrants from the country as climate refugees and ensure their safe stay and work at the destination countries. Strangely enough, India does not figure in the list of destination countries. According to Udayan Chattopadhyay, “Given both the tumultuous history of East Bengal post-1947 and the current relationship dynamics between India and Bangladesh at a national level, to accept that Bangladeshis would willingly choose to migrate to “Big Brother” India for a better life is perhaps difficult for many to accept ”
The reaction of Indian government towards the problem also has been far from satisfactory. It also passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT) in 1983, in a response to the popular agitation against the Bangladeshi immigrants. The act which was primarily drafted to describe the procedures to detect illegal immigrants (from Bangladesh) and expel them from Assam itself became the reason for the increased infiltration into Assam. Rampant cases of harassment of minorities were reported under it. Thus the Supreme Court struck down the act in 2005. Under the act, the burden of proving the citizenship or otherwise rested on the accuser and the police, not the accused; whereas under the Foreigners Act prevailing in the rest of the country the onus is on the accused. Moreover, there were complications like the accuser must reside within a 3 km radius of the accused, fill out a complaint form (a maximum of ten per accuser is allowed) and pay a fee of ten Rupees. If a suspected illegal migrant is thus successfully accused, he was required by the Act to simply produce a ration card to prove his Indian citizenship. And if a case made it past these requirements, a system of tribunals made up of retired judges would finally decide on deportation based on the facts. Thus people stayed away from going through the hazardous process of assisting in the identification of immigrants.
The Congress led Assam government says that it wants to solve the issue of illegal immigration on the basis of Assam Accord and make 1971 as the cutoff date for migrants. But this assertion of government remains only a statement of intent. Very little has been done on the ground to check the influx of Bangladeshis. In fact it has been accused that the politicians in their quest for power were responsible for providing patronage to the immigrants. The general opinion among the Assamese mass is that the congress party does not take any stern actions to deport the immigrants because the immigrants always vote for the party.
As a resultant of the illegal immigration, a dual process of identity formation has taken place in Assam; 1) collective assertion as Assamese and 2) protection of tribal identity v/s the Bangladeshi influx has emerged in the state of Assam. Let’s look at the recent clashes as an example. The Bodoland territorial Council is a protected area under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution. The clashes, though spurred by an immediate cause of killings of four Bodo men, have traditionally been ignited in the name of protecting tribal culture and identity. Thus, the tribal v/s non-tribal identity comes into place. Almost all of the former clashes between the two groups can be seen from this perspective, wherein the original forest dwellers/indigenous people (read Bodos) felt threatened about their identity and started revolting against the influx of ‘non-tribal foreigners’ to their land.
Another very significant feature is the massive public opinion against the immigrants amongst the ‘Assamese people’. For instance, we can see all the people of Assam taking sides with the Bodos against the Immigrants. Even in the past, the Assamese students union led the massive Asom Andolan with an objective of pushing back the immigrants. The movement led to the signing of Assam Accord and the meteoric rise of ‘Asom Gono Parishad’. The movement saw all clear expression of collective Assamese identity which at times can be witnessed even at the recent clashes. But one need not forget that identity is a ‘relative concept’; expressed on the basis of different forms-tribe, class, gender, sexuality etc. The Bodos mostly express their tribal identity and are most of the times in clashes with the ‘Assamese domination’. Even when, the Assam accord movement was on, the Bodos were fighting for a tribal land, which was against the holistic concept of Blanket Assamese nationalism. Thus, this nuances needs to be understood while seeking to understand the recent clashes in Assam.
To be Continued….in the next Article