By Abhay Vaidya
A friend in Delhi routinely jokes that he has a foreign cook. The woman is a Bangladeshi who crossed the border for employment because of abject poverty back home.
As far back as 15 years ago, another Delhi resident spoke of his Bangladeshi housemaid living in one of Delhi’s slums. She had managed to get a ration card – a vital identity document that proclaimed her Indian citizenship.
Very recently, this journalist’s attention was drawn to the presence of ‘Bangladeshi’ waiters in a Pune restaurant. A Bengali friend pointed to various tell-tale signs, including the accent of the waiters, and insisted that they were from Bangladesh and not West Bengal. Amidst doubts for want of verification, the fact is that one unusually finds more Bengali-speaking waiters in Pune than before.
As with other cities on the fast track, Pune’s exponential growth has seen a boom in the restaurant and catering business which was traditionally dominated by the Shettys from Udipi. The presence of Bengali-speaking waiters is somewhat puzzling and the hypothesis about their Bangladeshi origins merits attention.
As in the case with Maharashtra and some other states, there is a high demand for unskilled labour of all kinds which the poor Marathi manoos is unwilling to engage in. This has traditionally drawn migrants from other states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the poorest parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. But has the labour shortfall also become a fertile ground for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh? In fact, media reports from Kerala also point to such a trend amidst shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled labour there.
The presence of large numbers of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India can no longer be contested, especially when their number is “reliably” estimated at 20 million by the former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor has been consistent with this estimate in his speeches at various events.
In an article in the Deccan Chronicle on 11 May 2012, he said, “Bangladesh has, in the not-so-distant past, served as a haven for Islamist fanatic groups and even terrorists, and has provided a sanctuary for Indian insurgents in the Northeast. It has also been a source of illegal migration into India — some 20 million Bangladeshis are reliably estimated to have slipped into the country over the last two decades and disappeared into the Indian woodwork.”
To put in perspective, there are more than 25 countries with a population of 20 million and below, including Sri Lanka, Syria, The Netherlands, Chile, Hungary and Belgium.
While Assam has borne the brunt of the chronic illegal influx from Bangladesh with a devastating demographic impact in certain districts, this phenomenon has sparked repeated bouts of ethnic clashes and massacres, the worst at Nellie in which nearly 2,000 people were killed in 1983.
This time, what is new with the ethnic clashes in Kokrajhar is the repercussions in Maharashtra and Karnataka where students from the north-east were targeted and traumatised. While some north-eastern students in Pune were physically attacked in isolation, in Bangalore, nearly 5,000 were terrorised by rumours into fleeing the city. The stabbing of a Tibetan mistaken for a north-eastern in Mysore, and the recent vandalism in Mumbai during a protest rally over violence against Muslims, were part of the same chain of events.
Although the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court have commented on the “threat to India’s internal security” posed by illegal Bangladeshi migrants, the problem has been largely relegated to the backburner because of the Muslim factor. Having grown bigger over the years, the issue stands heavily politicised and polarised, with the BJP and the Shiv Sena accusing the Congress of playing vote-bank politics.
As a people, we address a problem only after we are adequately overwhelmed by it. The recent turn of events in Maharashtra and Karnataka would suggest that perhaps that stage has come. May be, at least now, the problem of illegal Bangladeshi influx will be dealt with far more seriously than before.