That illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to Assam is a serious problem is an indisputable fact. Assam shares a 272-km border with Bangladesh and most of the stretch is still unfenced. The large scale infiltration from the other side of the border is not only threatening to the 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 countries lack the political will to solve the problem which consequently is turning into a menace. The arguments built upon here are based on my research, personal experiences, and my discussions with the people, social activists, and academicians in both countries.
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 surprise, I was greeted with utter ignorance about this matter. While many blatantly refused the notion itself, let alone such a 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-immigrant 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 in Bangladesh. A large number of then cross over to India, Middle-East and European nations every day. The presence of immigrants in Bangladesh in other countries is not only acknowledged with pride at home 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” (see http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2007/august/epaar.htm)
The reaction of the Indian government towards too 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 law, 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 Rs 10. 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 cut-off date for migrants. But this assertion 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 alleged that politicians in their quest for power were responsible for providing patronage to immigrants. The general opinion among the Assamese masses is that the Congress party does not take any stern action to deport the immigrants because they (immigrants) always vote for the party.
As a result of 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. Let’s look at the recent clashes as an example. The Bodoland Territorial Council is a protected area under the sixth schedule of the 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 the objective of pushing back the immigrants. The movement led to the signing of the Assam accord and the meteoric rise of Asom Gono Parishad (AGP). 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 time 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, these nuances needs to be understood while seeking to understand the recent clashes in Assam.
Rise of the militancy: who is to blame?
It has been proved time and again that when political and governance structures have failed to address the needs of society, people have rose into rebellion and have taken those structures in their own hands. Sometimes, it either leads to the total breakdown of the structures or adjusting it according to the needs of the society. The Bodo-immigrant clash today, I believe, is a manifestation of the failure of the BTAD and the Assam government to ensure peace in the region. But tensions between the Bodo tribe and other ethnic communities, especially migrants, living in Assam is not new. Since 1996 the State has witnessed at least six major spells of riots between Bodos and migrants, mainly Bengali Muslims who trace their roots in Bangladesh or erstwhile East Bengal, and Adivasis.
Besides the problem of immigration itself, the Bodo assertion of identity, due to the inherent insecurity arising out of the influx of immigrants has also led to the emergence of the problem.
A complex problem with complex solutions
Addressing the problem is not an easy task. The key challenge facing the state now is rehabilitating the people who have been forced out of their homes and are sheltered in various camps. And the task needs to be done without favoring any group and instigating further violence. There is a need to address the ‘fears’ existing in the communities. And it can only be done by comprehensively understanding the ground scenarios and the basis of these fears.
A question that needs to be asked is, “Is immigration a problem in itself or is it a just form of articulation of other underlying factors?” I believe that treating immigration itself as a problem would mean clearly ignoring the other complex realities present within the problem. People have historically moved from one place to another in search of food, habitation or source of livelihood. With the rise of capitalism, the process of immigration has been hastened. Thus, there is a need to clearly identify the historical context of its emergence and other factors like uneven distribution of resources amongst the communities and hitherto rise of identitarian struggles.
The Bodos have been historically living in the districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri, and Chirang which now comprises the Bodo territorial council area. They have been living close to the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in close proximity to fertile lands and rich forest reserves. But since the early 1960s, the tribal lands were being increasingly acquired by the rich landlords and the immigrants. If this was not enough, the heavy influx of illegal immigrants from the other side of the country added fuel to fire. The acquisitions found patronage in the favored approach adopted by the existing governments then. In fact, the political elites in their quest for vote banks opened the forest lands for the immigrants. Thus, there emerged a fear among the Bodos about losing their lands and being a ‘minority’ in their own land. There was an increased competition among the various communities to get hold of the available land. Thus, the Bodos rose into rebellion and started demanding for protection under the sixth schedule status. Finally on February 10, 2003, after much bloodsheds and violence, the BTC accord was signed wherein the Bodos were given the sixth schedule status.
But have the ‘fears’ existent in the Bodos gone away is again a big question. Even post-2003, the numbers of Bangladeshi immigrants have kept increasing. Thus, we continue to see repetition of such clashes in the region. The structure created post-2003 has failed to address the needs of the Bodos. There has been a polarization of class within the Bodo society where most of the resources are controlled by the newly emerged middle/elite class. The political elite today are unhappy with the sixth schedule arrangement and are looking for more ‘power’ under the existing structure. In fact, they have also started ‘propaganda’ for a larger Bodo state within the Indian union, to which the other communities are opposed to. Thus, if the clashes actually represent the wish of the majority of the Bodos also needs introspection.
Moreover, there again is a need of defining who truly is an ‘immigrant’. As mentioned earlier, immigration to Assam is not a new phenomenon. Various communities like the Goriya, Moriya, Deshi or Goalporiya, Kamrupiya Muslims are as indigenous as Bodos or any Assamese sub-group. Even the Bengalis of the Surma valley or Barak valley are ancient settlers of this region. While some of them are as old as the Bodos themselves, many of them were also brought in by the British during the pre-independence times from states like Odisha, Bengal, and Bihar (now Jharkhand) to cultivate in the fertile lands. Moreover, the ‘grow more campaign’ launched in the post-world war II period to address the effects of the Bengal Famine, led to opening up of grazing lands for settlement and cultivation. According to the Bodos, the anger within them is not directed against the above-mentioned communities but against the illegal Muslims who have settled post-1971. They acknowledge the fact that they have had a long shared history with the aforesaid communities. There is a widespread fear among them against the huge jump in the population of illegal immigrants. But it has been found during the course of the clashes, many of the non-immigrant Muslims communities have also been victims. Thus, if the Bodos continue to take the violent mode of struggle, then there is a potential risk of all the other communities also rising up against them.
The biggest challenge for policymakers is distinguishing illusory immigration problems from the real problems and addressing them. One thing is quite clear: The favored approach of recent years-a policy of benign neglect-is no longer desirable. The Bodo demands, or rather the demand of the larger Assamese community of identifying the immigrants post 1971 needs to be done soon. Efforts to either legitimize the immigrants could be made. But the legitimizing process should not be a path to citizenship and should not enjoy the benefits a citizen does like buying land in the Bodoland area. Also, the immigrants found to be illegal even after the arrangement for legal migration is done should be deported rightfully back to its home country.
The increasing media portrayal of the recent clashes as an attack on the Muslims, without understanding the history and the present economic model of exploitation, has the potential of turning the clash into a communal one. In fact, reports of attacks on Assamese people in the cities of Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and elsewhere have already confirmed the fear. Thus, there is a need to adopt a holistic approach to solving the problem or else we would be staring at something much larger. All the interest groups should be kept away from the rehabilitation process as they might instigate further hatred and disturb the peace. Also, the presence of immigrants should not be utilized for political mileage and blatantly portray a ‘secular image’ by the state of Assam.
(This article was published at GovernanceNow and can be accessed here)