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    South Asia
     May 7, '14

Holes in Modi's Bangladeshi migrant plans
By Bibhu Prasad Routray

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

"I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write down, that after May 16, I will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggage", Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) declared on April 27 in West Bengal's Serampore town. One could interpret this either as a rhetoric designed to catch the imagination of voters - results of the five-week election are announced on May 16 - or as a policy statement.

Irrespective of one's preference, four assumptions seem to

underline the sentiment. First, migration from Bangladesh is a well-concerted strategy to alter the demographic profile of several Indian states. Second, these migrants are easily identifiable. Thirdly, a large section of them can be deported back to Bangladesh legally, and finally, a zero influx regime along the Indo-Bangladesh border can be achieved.

However, all of these points are highly contestable.

Much of the BJP's anti-Bangladeshi migrant posture is rooted in the belief that there is indeed a concerted design on part of Bangladesh to alter the demographic profile of the north-eastern states and West Bengal.

Such assertions are partly rooted in statements by a few Bangladeshi intellectuals who invoked the idea of lebensraum for their nationals. Indeed, a number of districts in Assam have become Muslim majority in past years, due to the unceasing influx across the border.

However, there is little evidence to prove that apart from the natural inclination of migrants to stay together in areas that are perceived to be Muslim majority and hence migrant friendly, that there was indeed any design to Islamize the north-eastern states.

A number of authoritative studies have proved that much of the migration from Bangladesh is economic in nature, assisted by push and pull factors. Lack of employment opportunities and demand for a range of jobs in the Indian states adjoining Bangladesh have created significant opportunities for ordinary Bangladeshis to venture into India and settle down.

Estimates on the number of Bangladeshis in separate states of the country have varied drastically - from the 1997 estimate of 10 million for the entire country by then home minister Indrajit Gupta to a 2012 study which says only 1.3 million migrants could have entered Assam between 1971 to 2001.

However, none of these estimations have impacted on the subsequent identification of these migrants and their deportation, a process remained mired by a deliberately cultivated political and bureaucratic inertia.

While the Illegal Migrants Act long prevented the identification process, Dhaka's refusal to receive people pushed back by India made the task of deportation even harder. According to a white paper published by the Assam government in 2012, only 2,442 persons declared as illegal migrants by the courts have been either been deported or pushed back. Authorities who used the darkness of night to push people back into Bangladesh found that these people have resurfaced in Assam after a few days.

The Tarun Gogoi government in Assam has long maintained that migration from Bangladesh has ceased to exist. On numerous occasions, Gogoi maintained that there isn't a single migrant in his state.

While the Congress government in the state is guilty of playing down the issue of migration, organizations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and the BJP are also guilty of trying to rake up an issue that is more or less settled in states like Assam. Even the militant United Liberation Front of Assam, which was formed on an anti-foreigner platform in 1979, had abandoned its anti-Bangladeshi stand by the early 1990s.

Despite remarks by the publicity seeking AASU-led Bidekhi kheda Andolon (Throw the foreigners out) movement apart, which engulfs both the alleged Bangladeshis as well as the mainland Hindi-speaking Indians, the economic indispensability of the migrants is well appreciated by the Assamese middle class.

There is considerable truth in a joke made by Tarun Gogoi about AGP leader and former chief minister Prafulla Mahanta: Gogoi once said that the laborers employed by Mahanta for building his house are probably Bangladeshis. What that is true of Assam, it is also true for the rest of the country. There isn't possibly a single state or township in India where there are no Bangladeshi migrants.

On March 20, 2013, Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran told the Rajya Sabha (upper house) that since much of the migration activity takes place clandestinely, that "no specific details are available about the magnitude of this illegal infiltration".

It is easy to ridicule the perceived incapacity of the Home Ministry and irrelevance of the fencing-centric initiatives to stop migration. The fact, however, remains that the flow of people driven by poverty and hunger isn't exactly stoppable, by whatever means.

In the United States, in spite of enormous resources and technology investment, illegal migration has increased by over 27% between 2000 and 2009. According to a 2012 study, 58% of the illegal migrants in the US are from Mexico. Both countries share a 2,000-kilometer long border, far less than the Indo-Bangladesh border, both in length and topographical complexities.

Surprisingly, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's March 4 statement in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw, on the impact of climate change on Bangladesh has not received much attention in India and consequently has not found its way into Modi's lexicon.

Hasina said "a rise in one degree Celsius due to global warming would submerge a fifth of Bangladesh, forcing 30 million people to become 'climate migrants'". Since Myanmar isn't an option, much of this migration would eventually happen into the only other country Bangladesh shares its borders with. This is an impending reality, which cannot be countered by a "throw all migrants out"- policy.

If not appreciation of the fact that migration is an economic reality, the sheer impossibility and social costs of attempting to hound out millions of unidentifiable Bangladeshis from the Indian states and townships should be factored into the policies of the new government in New Delhi.

Several worthwhile recommendations, including the issuing of work permits to migrants and developing a cooperative mechanism with Dhaka, have been making rounds for the last several years. These need some serious attention. Lets hope that Modi's statements are simply high-flying rhetoric.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a former deputy director in India's National Security Council Secretariat, is a New Delhi-based security analyst/consultant.

(Copyright 2014 Bibhu Prasad Routray)

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