Its time to bell the cat

‘Business’ Of Illegal Migrants

By Poonam I Kaushish

In the summer of 1975, hundreds of thousands of people fled South Vietnam after Saigon’s fall for fear of political persecution. They escaped in rickety and unseaworthy wooden boats. This was the largest mass exodus of asylum seekers by sea in modern history. Giving rise to the term “boat people”. The world embraced them as refugees after a great deal of drama. The US which created the mess, led on the people it had walked out on. Canada, Britain, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan even tiny Bermuda followed.
Fourteen years later in 1989, the world changed its mind. The boat people had become an albatross round the neck. Worse, a new breed of boat people was taking to the seas: economic refugees. They were farmers, factory workers and labourers looking for a new life in new safe havens. They had no proof that they faced persecution if they returned.
In 2016, the world woke up to another set of boat people whereby over 22 million Syrians sought asylum in various parts of the world following six years of civil war. Of these 13.5 million required humanitarian assistance and another 5 million wanted refuge in European countries. One year later again the past repeated itself when 164,000 Rohingyas (Muslims) fled violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State and sought asylum in India and Bangladesh.
In India history seems to have come a full circle. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who had made Assam their home might no longer be able to stay put. Thanks to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which has sifted through 3.29 crore people who had applied for recognition as Indian citizens, of these 2.89 crores made it to the second and final draft of the NRC while the fate of 40 lakhs hangs in balance.
Kudos to the Government for taking the first step towards identifying and throwing out illegal migrants, which was a time bomb waiting to explode. Predictably, this has raised hackles of Opposition leaders with Bangla Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee warning of a “bloodbath and civil war”. Forgetting that the genesis of the problem started in 1951when East Pakistan immigrants settled in Assam due to the 4,096-km-long and porous India-Bangladesh border which made crossing easy.
Following the All Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation in 1985 then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi promised identification and deportation of illegal immigrants under the Assam Accord as it had significantly altered the region’s demographic complexion, particularly in Assam’s border districts, its six North-eastern sisters and Bangla with important political implications.
For over three decades the issue continued to be political fodder and finally in 2015 the Supreme Court directed the Government to update the NRC in a time-bound manner under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. The process took off only in 2016 under the BJP Government which intends politically milking the issue and cornering the Congress and Trinamool’s Chief by accusing them of indulging in minority appeasement.
Paradoxically, even as the ‘secular’ Parties swear by secularism, competition for the minority vote-bank has consistently communalised the issue. Most have recklessly imported them to inflate their vote-banks. Notwithstanding, the ugly reality that illegal migrants have completely changed Assam’s demographic landscape, threatened livelihood and identity of indigenous people.
Think. Eight of Assam’s 27 districts have a Muslim majority population and hold the key for 60 of 126 Assembly constituencies. Over 57 show more than 20% increase in voters, over 85% of the total encroached forest land is with Bangladeshis. According to intelligence reports, “In 70 years 1901-1971, Assam’s population rose from 3.29 million to 14.6 million – a 343.77 % increase” over a period when India’s population went up by only about 150%!
This, despite Assam’s fertility rate being 126.5%, lower than the all-India rate of 137.3%, even as the Muslim growth rate in areas bordering Bangladesh was over 60% compared to faraway districts where the growth rate varied between 30-50% (1971-1991). Clearly, this unnatural growth is a byword for illegal migrants.
In Mizoram the anti-outsider feelings vents itself in frequent volatile student’s stir. In Nagaland, the population of Muslims, mostly Bangladeshi illegal migrants has more than trebled in the past decade – rising from 20,000 in 1991 to over 75,000 in 2001. Tripura is a tragic example of obliteration of local identity.
Worse, seven districts of Bihar, Bangla and UP have been affected due to large-scale illegal migration. The Union Capital has over 12 lakhs and Maharashtra over 100,000 illegal Bangladeshis. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Bangladeshis have even secured ration cards. From rag pickers to domestic help, agriculture workers to rickshaw-pullers all are mostly illegal migrants who take away jobs from citizens.
India is also home for over 150,000 Tibetan refugees, 70,000 Afghanis, 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils and 3.5 million Nepali refugees. With an ever burgeoning population bursting at the seams this spells disaster. Against 1.3 billion Indians the ratio of illegal migrants is 100 to 2.5 thereby putting colossal pressure on scarce resources, rising unemployment which is pushing wages lower.
“Undoubtedly, the influx from Bangladesh is more than an “aggression” and has “created a fear psychosis, made people’s life wholly insecure and caused insurgency in alarming proportions,” said a senior Home Ministry official.
Given the socio-economic complexities of our politics and society there should be a debate on their minority rights. As international migration scholar Myron Weiner says: Population flows across borders “do not merely happen. More often they are made to happen”. Governments sometimes force immigration “as a means of achieving cultural homogeneity or for asserting the dominance of one ethnic community over another”.
In fact, globally countries are realizing their open door policy to refugees was a grave mistake. German Chancellor Merkel is now regretting her decision, France is waking up to Islamisation by 2030, Denmark and Scandanavian countries are throwing them out. All realize it isn’t merely demographic change and culture shock but with scarce resources, joblessness is on the rise resulting in increasing crime. US President Trump is making life hell for immigrants.
Where do we go from here? Pander to rabid rabble rousers? To politics of vote banks? Allow the Push and Pull theory of illegality to continue? The Push back to poverty vs the Pull of India’s rich pastures. The option is narrow. The solution must be clearly dictated by India’s primary interest: its integrity and stability.
But it’s not going to be a cake walk as the Opposition wants the Government to take a humane and holistic view, read vote-bank politics. Bangladeshis will gladly trade their votes for the right to stay here with the backing of ‘secular’ Parties.
Is the Government capable of defusing this powder keg? It may be necessary to launch a series of major offensives to drive home the message to illegal immigrants. Clearly, the time is far gone to pussy-foot the issue. The need of the hour is to understand the seriousness of the problem, deal assertively with the issues and set up time-bound measures. The NRC has shown him the way. More than talking tough, Modi once and for all needs to bell the big fat cat of illegal migrants. —-INFA