Assam is reaping the wages of communal politics. This time largely of the Congress variety — where vote banks have been courted through the clandestine encouragement of illegal Bangladeshi migrants over the last few decades.
The Bodo-Bangladeshi migrant clashes in Kokrajhar district — now heading for a toll close to 50 — are only the latest payback in this kind of politics. The BJP could now be equally eager to jump in on the side of the ethnic Assamese, Bodos and other inhabitants, who now fear — as they always have — that they will become minorities in their own states and district territories.
This is a realistic fear, and given current illegal immigration trends, Assam could well become a 35-40 percent Muslim state over the next 30 years. The 2001 census put the ratio of Hindu to Muslim population at 65:31:4 (with 4 percent constituting the rest). Between 1901 and 2001, the Muslim proportions have more than doubled, from 15 percent to 31 percent – that’s a decadal growth of over 7 percent that could not have happened through any natural process, barring immigration.
But the real ratios could be more adverse than the 65:31 indicated in the 2001 census (the 2011 census will show what’s going on), since it is common knowledge that there may be deliberate undercounting of illegal immigrants due to political machinations.
However, the point is not to blame politicians from seeking to make electoral gains from immigration. This happens all the time in all parties.
The demographics of the north-east will invariably be impacted by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, most of them Muslims, for two impossible-to-change realities: the sheer weight of population pressures in Bangladesh, which pushes them into Assam and the rest of the north-east; and the pull effect of jobs and economic growth in India.
In fact, illegal Bangladeshi migration is a reality not only in the north-east, but in every urban centre, including Delhi, Mumbai, and the eastern states of West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
The starting point to finding any solution must recognise this reality: that the Bangladeshi influx cannot be stopped. Short of building a Berlin Wall and shooting anyone trying to enter India (the Berlin Wall, of course, was meant to do the opposite, stop people from leaving East Germany), there is no solution to the problem.
With the best monitoring, heavy electronic and physical policing, and much better governance, the US could not stop Hispanics from Mexico from becoming the largest single minority in North America. Fortress Europe has not been able to check the rise of illegal immigration from north Africa.
So what is the chance that India will be able to do any better? Add corruption to the equation, and even building strong fences will not stem the flow.
The three premises one has to take for granted are:
One, illegal migration can at best be slowed down.
Two, while mischief-makers like the ISI will take advantage to promote terror through Muslim immigration, the real reason for the demographic aggression from Bangladesh is economic.
Three, a corollary follows. The inflows will reduce and stop only when economic opportunities improve and population pressures ease in Bangladesh.
It is from these basic assumptions that we need to evolve a strategy to deal with illegal immigration.
The broad contours of what we need to do involves making a few strategic choices.
First, we must open up formal immigration channels for Bangladeshi nationals wanting to migrate for work to India. We could create yearly quotas – like the US does for H1B – though our quotas will be more basic, for we will get both the bottom end of unskilled immigrants and the top end, who can work in our infotech companies. We can be liberal with work permits, but these must be registered, and not given the right to vote in local elections — except through a long-term process of naturalisation as indicated in the Indian Citizenship Act.
Second, as part of the deal to allow freer immigration, we must negotiate greater investment freedom for our businessmen in Bangladesh. This would create good quality jobs in Bangladesh — while benefiting our companies in terms of cheaper, skilled workforces.
Third, the immigrants coming to India should be well-dispersed over the country. This is happening anyway, so it can’t be an issue.
Fourth, we must persuade Bangladesh to offer better protection to its Hindu minority, which has fallen from over 31 percent during partition to less than 10 percent now.
Politically, Bangladesh has to move towards greater secularisation and reduced Islamisation — and become more diverse like India. As it was before partition.
India’s historical role is the building of a secular polity in the sub-continent, and the right place to begin is with Bangladesh, where the regime under Sheikh Hasina is more than willing to head in this direction.
The Assam violence should remind us of this larger Indian responsibility. We already have opened doors to Nepali migrants; it’s time to do the same with Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka.