One of the red herrings being tossed around in the context of the ongoing riots in Assam is that the Muslims who attacked the Bodo tribals and drove them out of their homes are in fact Indians, and that it breaks their bleeding riotous hearts to be branded Bangladeshi settlers.
As perverse as that may sound, that claim isn’t an elaborate justification for the riots as typical 'boys will be boys' conduct. But it does represent another effort to draw the curtain on the foundational problem that underlies both the latest riots and the simmering tensions in Assam and elsewhere in the North East: the problem of unchecked infiltration of Bangladeshis into India.
Precise estimates of the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India are hard to come by but conservative official estimates put it at over 20 million. But every attempt to raise it as a matter of concern, and to point to the security and other social perils that they come laden with have been met with cussed unwillingness to face the facts.
Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha, who served in the region and served as Assam Governor following his retirement, knows what it means to raise the red flag of warning. In 1998, as Governor, he sent a report to President KR Narayanan, in which he warned of a grave danger to India’s security from the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
In that report, Sinha had pointed out that even as far back as 1947, Pakistan wanted Assam incorporated in East Pakistan (as the eastern province that subsequently became Bangladesh was known). Only the opposition of regional leaders thwarted that transfer, but the matter rankled with Pakistani leaders who equated it as a dispute nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known to have claimed that Pakistan had "very good claims" over Assam and some districts adjacent to East Pakistan.
Sinha’s report noted that even the father of the Bangladeshi revolution, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom India helped to liberate Bangladesh in1971, had expressed a covetous desire for Assam, given its forest and mineral resources. "No matter how friendly our relations with Bangladesh," Sinha had warned, "we can ill-afford to ignore the dangers inherent in a demographic invasion from that country."
For his efforts, Sinha was pilloried by the Congress and the CPM and accused of stoking communal tension. Some 22 Congress MPs wrote to the President asking for Sinha’s recall.
Sinha’s concern all along, as a military strategist, was that the whole of India’s north-easteren region was connected to the rest of India by a "chicken neck corder" which, if cut off, would effectively isolate the region. He feared that the influx of illegal migrants was turning lower Assam districts – particularly Dhubri and Goalpara - into a Muslim-majority region, and that it would be only a matter of time before they demanded merger with Bangladesh as part of a ‘Greater Bangladesh project’. "The loss of lower Assam will sever the entire land mass of the northeast from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the natin," Sinha had observed.
In the decade and more since then, the plot has played out exactly as Sinha has predicted, and has been borne out by Census statistics over time, but most political parties have been blind to the security and social threats arising therefrom.
The irony is that the Indian Muslims in Assam, for all their religious affinity with the illegal Bangladeshi Musim immigrants, lose just as much from the influx as the other native people of Assam. The illegal immigrants compete for the same manual work – as rickshaw pullers and in the construction and other industries. And being somewhat more desperate for jobs, they are considered more industrious. And if they manage to procure illegal citizenship documents in the black market, as often happens, they illegal immigrants even have access to work under the NREGA program and services under the National Rural Health Mission.
Yet, political parties are reluctant to so much as have an honest conversation on this issue.
On the other hand, the argument has been made that there may even be an acceptable level of illegal immigration from Bangladesh on the ground that they add to the cheap labour pool in India. This argument is specious on at least two counts. For one, India isn’t exactly lacking in unskilled labour force, given the vast numbers that still live in abject poverty in both rural and urban areas. If it weren’t for rural employment guarantee schemes that have driven wage price inflation, there would still be an abundance of cheap labour. And now, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have even begun to access these schemes and health services, driving up the cost of service delivery.
For another, even if it’s an overstatement that every illegal immigrant is a potential security threat, the presence of millions of such immigrants—who effectively remain off the radar of the official agencies—is a recipe for disaster.
Even if it is the case that the riots in Kokrajhar, which have since spread to other districts were not directly perpetrated by illegal immigrants, their unchecked entry in the millions over time has played an undeniable role in sharpening religious and ethnic polarisation in Assam and other States in the northeastern region. To live in continued denial over this will only stoke the tensions even further.
Right now, the immediate need is for calm to be restored, but the longer a mature discussion on the underlying problem is delayed, the bigger and more serious will it get.
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