With lakhs of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar after facing religious persecution, Assam fears an influx of migrants entering its borders. These fears have intensified after a group of Rohingya Muslims reportedly crossed into Assam through the porous India-Bangladesh border.
As per a report in Meghalaya Times, six Rohingyas were arrested for sneaking into Assam. A top official was quoted as saying in the report that the Karimganj police of Assam's Barak Valley had arrested six Rohingyas from Churaibari area who entered the state through Tripura.
Nearly three lakh Rohingyas have left Myanmar's sensitive Rakhine state, entering Bangladesh, India and Nepal. But this statistic hasn't struck a chord in Assam, with a significant portion of the India-Bangladesh border that runs through the northeastern state remaining unfenced even today. The fact that six more Rohingyas have managed to sneak into India is proof of the fragile border security in the region, say civil society orgnisations.
"It will certainly be a cause of concern among the indigenous population of Assam. Refugees will spill over into Assam, and that will worry the locals here," said Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary of the All Assam Students Union.
Though Assam doesn't share a border with Myanmar, it has a large border with Bangladesh, which has often been used by the refugees to enter India. "One can easily sneak into Assam if the border is not sealed," Gogoi said. "The riverine borders with Bangladesh are open. The Centre has been assuring us that it will use technology to resolve this issue. Home Minister Rajnath Singh even assured us of using laser or satellite technologies to seal the border. But nothing of the sort has been initiated yet," he added.
Of the 4,096-kilometre India-Bangladesh border, 263 kilometres are with Assam. Of these, the riverine borders in Karimganj district remain unfenced due to technical reasons.
The Rohingya debate intensified after leaders of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee demanded the rehabilitation of Rohingyas in India on humanitarian grounds. "India has a tradition of giving shelter to people fleeing neighbouring countries. We sheltered refugees from Bangladesh during the 1971 war. We've also given such shelter to Chakmas from Bangladesh and the Dalai Lama from Tibet. Why is such a sympathetic approach not being adopted in case of the Rohingyas?" asked Congress leader Abdul Khaleque.
This statement caused much fear among the state's indigenous population, and also attracted criticism from various civil society groups.
"Assam already bore the brunt of a huge number of immigrants and refugees from Bangladesh, because of which our state has also undergone massive demographic changes. The indigenous population is now a minority in Assam," Gogoi said, adding that if the Centre does want to rehabilitate Rohingyas in India, it should not be done in Assam.
Even the Congress later retracted its earlier statement, saying it doesn't adovate rehabilitating Rohingyas in Assam, and would prefer choosing other states for this purpose.
Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been a major political issue in Assam since the late 70s, when the historic Assam Agitation demanding identification cards for locals and deportation of illegal migrants broke out in the region.
The government of India signed the Assam Accord in 1985 with the agitators resulting in the movement fizzling out. But the border with Bangladesh has remained porous even after this, which has resulted in various disputes between the neighbours.
A public interest litigation led to the formation of a commission led by senior advocate Upamanyu Hazarika. The report of the commission to the Supreme Court of India asked, "In the face of glaring facts, continued aggression of illegal migrants and changing demography, what are the options available (for residents), especially with the government acts only for the benefit of such migrants?"
"These migrants are largely Muslims and the percentage of increase in the Muslim population is a benchmark for the increase in migrant population," it added.
But illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been showing no signs of reducing, with the 2011 census finding nine out of its 27 districts have Muslims in the majority. This is three more than the 2011 census, which had shown six Assam districts to be Muslim-majority.
In 2001, the districts with a larger Muslim population were Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Hailakandi and Nagaon. The districts of Bongaigaon, Morigaon and Darrang also joined them in 10 years' time.
The issue has acquired political significance as well, with many parties using it as a plank to canvass voters. Congress has always been maintaining that it's not illegal immigration but illiteracy which is the reason for increase of Muslim population in Assam. Ahead of the 2014 Assembly elections, the BJP won the state by convincing the electorate that it would work towards identification and deportation of illegal Bangladeshis.
And though the Centre has decided not to rehabilitate Rohingyas in India, there remain concerns about illegal immigration, mainly because of the porous India-Bangladesh border. It has reached a point where it has become difficult to differentiate between illegal migrants and indigenous locals, given the various ethno-cultural reasons. With Assam and Bangladesh sharing a close ethno-cultural similarity, it has become easy for immigrants to remain unidentified.
"Bangladeshis and Rohingyas dress and talk in the same way, like many in this part of the country do. So, it is not possible for anyone to identify them unless there is documentary proof of citizenship," said Naba Thakuriya, convenor of the Patriotic Forum of Assam.
"Demographic patterns of our state have changed, as migrants have outnumbered indegeneous locals. We are becoming minority in our own state," he further added. "If Rohingya infiltration begins it will be total annihilation of Assamese identity," said Lurinjyoti Gogoi.
Updated Date: Sep 13, 2017 18:12 PM