Bangladeshi immigrants have for long been involved in several activities across major cities in India. However, nowhere has their presence raised more political debate than in the North Eastern States, in particular, Assam. Recently, the state began an ambitious program- The National Register of Citizens (NRC) - to record natives and immigrants in the state. The Register has come under heated debate across the country. This articles aims to analyze the larger debate around illegal immigration in light of the NRC.
India’s relatively better credentials on social security, economic stability and democratic values than most of its neighbors makes it an attractive place for those seeking jobs and escaping religious persecution.
While the rhetoric in certain circles of Indian politics attempts to paint a dystopic view of the situation through exaggerated figures, experts point out that there is no reliable figure on the exact number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India. An analysis of population growth and demographic statistics for Bangladesh and India in the last four censuses of 2011, 2001, 1991, and 1981, however, suggests with reasonable certainty that their number exceeds 15million.
The inflow of economic migrants can be attributed to the increasing pressure on land and mounting unemployment in Bangladesh. The large numbers have been made possible mainly due to the porous India-Bangladesh border. While the Indian government attempted to fence the border, the terrain full of rivers and swamps has made it difficult to fence. In addition, the cultural similarities also make it difficult to physically distinguish between the natives and immigrants.
The absence of any ultimate fool-proof identity of citizenship, compounds this problem further. Ironically, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant is more likely to be equipped with an Indian identity document than an Indian Bengali who may take his or her Indian citizenship for granted.
Issues with Immigration
During Modi’s 2014 campaign, Modi told illegal immigrants in states bordering Bangladesh to have their “bags packed” ready to be sent home should he win. The election was marred by sectarian violence in Assam that killed more than 40 people.
PM Narendra Modi at an election rally in Assam (Reuters).
This incident in itself is symbolic of some deeper issue underlying the anxiety surrounding immigration: communal overtones in the crisis of identity the indigenous people as an imagined community face. The Assamese natives believe that their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined by such illegal migration. Upamanyu Hazarika, who founded the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an anti-immigration group, said,
"We are becoming refugees in our own homelands."
Such beliefs, when harbored by the majority indigenous Hindus of the state inflame communal tensions as well. Most of the Refugees from Bangladesh happen to be Hindu because of the Muslim dominated nature of the neighbor. On the other hand, economic migrants pouring in for better living conditions are Muslims. Since majority of migrants are Muslims, every Muslim in the state is looked upon under the gaze of suspicion. The indigenous Muslims of the state are thus facing difficulties as well.
But this political rhetoric also has an economic undertone. Because the Bangladeshi migrants enter the country with very little economic guarantees, they accept minimal wages for their labor, driving down wages for everyone in the state. In addition, there are fears of encroachment on government land and forests. In a state where massive importance is given to natural resources, the harm done to state’s ecology also becomes a significant reason for tensions. In addition, there is always the pressure on state coffers owing to increased liability for healthcare, education and other facilities.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the register containing names of Indian citizens. The only previous instance when a National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared in India was during the 1951 Census. The Assam NRC updation is part of a larger process that began with the demands of All Assam Students’ Union and the Assam Gana Parishad, in the 1980s. The process culminated in 2005, with the Manmohan Singh Government giving approvals for the computerisation of voter lists of 1971 and the 1951 NRC. Inclusion in the updated NRC is governed by 2 benchmarks:
1) Existence of a person’s name in the pre-1971 period;
2) Proof of linkage with that person.
The first draft of NRC was published in December 2017. A second draft was published last week (March 2018) and the verification process will begin from April 2nd 2018 for married women. The final version of the NRC has to be released by December 2018, clearing the air for the state’s determination of natives and immigrants. Of the 3.29 crore residents of Assam who applied for the inclusion of their names in the NRC by submitting legacy documents, 1.9 crore names have been included as citizens in the initial list.
People at a NRC Registration Center in Assam.
National Register of Communalism?
Widespread demand from the indigenous population of the state to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh led to six years of agitation and turmoil in the state in 1979, claiming as many as 855 lives, and giving rise to anti-immigrant riots like the Nellie massacre.
A 25-year-old Hussein Ahmed Madani, who lives in the remote Baladmari Char village in lower Assam, told Al Jazeera,
"I have seen many people in my village returning after long fights in the High Court and Supreme Court, vindicated after long battles to prove their citizenship. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the village, in our community here. Who knows who will be thrown out as a Bangladeshi."
In face of such animosity among the population, it becomes even more difficult for the indigenous Muslims when the government officers in charge do not recognise any bias. The government’s report have however attempted to highlight that their determination is solely based on documentation and that they have attempted to root out any religious biases.
Communal violence in Assam in 2016 (Hindustan Times).
The procedural impediments for the NRC increase in light of Bangladesh’s denial of any illegal cross border movements. This also complicates the future of those who do not get on the NRC. According to Reuters, Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said that Dhaka had no knowledge of any plans to deport people,
“We didn’t receive any information from the Indian government, neither formally nor informally.”
The question then remains, what happens to those found “illegal migrants”? Sanjeev Tripathi of Carnegie India points out,
“The practice of occasionally pushing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants back across the India-Bangladesh border has not been effective. They are either prone to re-enter voluntarily from a different porous stretch or pushed back into India by Bangladeshi border guards. Moreover, such a system of deportation is devoid of any legal strength. It not only could attract protests from Bangladesh if carried out on a large scale but also could come in for criticism from both within and outside India on grounds of being non-enduring and extralegal.”
A Prospective Solution?
The main initiative to solve this enormously complex problem would be to codify a national refugee law so as to clearly distinguish between refugees and illegal immigrants. Until now, all refugees/illegal immigrants, are covered by the Foreigners Act, 1946, which simply defines a foreigner as “a person who is not a citizen of India”.
In the case of refugees, there are three possibilities: voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, the granting of Indian citizenship, or resettlement in a third country. Illegal immigrants—a category that would include asylum seekers whose request for refugee status is rejected after due consideration—would fall under the provisions of the 1946 Foreigners Act, which will need to be suitably amended to meet the new requirements.
But just clarifying the difference between refugees and illegal migrants is not enough. A concerted effort has to be made by both India and Bangladesh to take back mutually recognized illegal migrants back from both sides, followed by their resettlement. But this is easier said than done as the net migration (people entering minus people leaving) is a large positive for Bangladesh. This would mean that in any such pact, Bangladesh would have to accept a lot more people back than India. The socio-economic consequences of such a move would be devastating for a relatively small economy like Bangladesh.
A long term strategy requires addressing the root of illegal migration. Economic prosperity in Bangladesh is critical for vulnerable individuals who, in status quo are forced to leave their country in search of better prospects. That too would require India to do some economic heavy lifting by providing economic assistance to Bangladesh, especially if it wants to prevent increasing Chinese influence in the region.
About The Author
Niraalii is an undergraduate pursuing Literature from Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She is a social activist and has worked with the NGO, Safecity in Delhi to raise awareness about women's safety. She is also a part of the Internal Complaints Committee of her college. Niraalii has worked with Member of Parliament Meenakshi Lekhi on multiple Voter Awareness Campaigns. Niraalii is an avid reader of History, Political Science and International Relations.