Problem of Bangladeshi migrants
Politico-economic study in historical context
T. V. Rajeswar
THE recent spat between India and Bangladesh over the stranded Bangladeshi migrants in Satgachia in Cooch Behar district was just a tip of the iceberg of the huge problem of migrants in this country. The problem is older than Partition and has an immense potential for the deterioration of the security situation in the East and Northeast of India.
Addressing the state Chief Secretaries and DGs of Police in Delhi in January, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani stated that there were about 15 million Bangladeshis in India and it posed a serious threat to the country’s internal security. What are the dimensions of the problem? The migration problem is more than a century old and it began with large migrations from the predominantly Muslim districts of undivided Bengal into Assam for work opportunities in the rice fields and tea estates there. This continuing influx exploded in 1978 when the All-Assam Students’ Union began an agitation which was temporarily resolved by an agreement signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. This also led to the Asom Gana Parishad coming to power in Assam, but the huge migrant population which was already in the state could not be sent out due to judicial procedures and political contingencies.
The number of Bangladeshis estimated to be in India was put at 10 million about 10 years back. The Intelligence Bureau has reportedly estimated, after an extensive survey, that the present number is about 16 million. This figure may be correct since the migration has continued unabated all these years. Practically, every state in the country has Bangladeshi migrants, but the largest concentration is in Assam, West Bengal and Bihar. Some of the districts of W. Bengal bordering Bangladesh have an alarming proportion of migrants. Since the migrants in these districts have almost completely merged with the minority population there the problem can be seen only as part of the total minority population in these border districts. The districts of Murshidabad, South and North 24 Parganas, Nadia and West Dinajpur are particularly affected, and they are all adjoining Bangladesh. In Assam also, the districts of Dhubri, Barpeta, Goalpara, Hailakandi and Karimganj have a similar heavy concentration of minority population with large sections of Bangladeshi migrants.
This led to vote-bank politics both in Assam and West Bengal and judicial procedures only made it worse. In West Bengal, the CPM, in power since 1977, had turned a blind eye to this issue because of the support it was getting from the minority-migrant population.. Only recently Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya has taken note of the seriousness of the problem. In Assam, the ministry’s survival, when the Congress was in power and also when the AGP replaced it, depended upon the support of a group of MLAs who were against any serious action against the migrants. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act effectively prevented even half-hearted attempts in this direction.
The relations with Bangladesh have deteriorated ever since Begum Khaleda Zia came to power last year. Her attitude towards India has not been too friendly, and Bangladesh and Pakistan have been getting too close for India’s discomfort. To quote Saleed Samad, a Bangladesh journalist, “the government holds power with the help of fundamentalist Islamic groups that are changing Bangladesh’s secular character.” Even during the regime of Seikh Hasina, the Bangladesh armed forces had elements who were suspected to be in close liaison with the ISI in the Pakistan High Commission there. The various insurgent groups in the North-East have had their training camps located in the border regions of Bangladesh and some of the prominent ULFA insurgents have been living in Dhaka for years. Sheikh Hasina failed to evict them or hand them over to the Government of India on one legal pretext or the other, and there is no change in the situation today.
The problem of East Pakistan/Bangladesh migrants was first dealt with, after Partition, by the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950. Consequently, about six lakh illegal migrants were sent back to East Pakistan. However, the migration continued unabated. Mr. B.N. Mullik, the veteran Director of the Intelligence Bureau, had proposed a Prevention of Infiltration Programme which was implemented by the Government of India whereby about 1,50,000 illegal migrants were repatriated to East Pakistan during 1963-65. After the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rahman Pact of 1972 had provided that all those who entered India prior to March 25, 1971, would be allowed to remain in this country while the rest were to return to Bangladesh. Accordingly, as many as seven million refugees returned to Bangladesh. It would, therefore, be seen that in the past India and Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh had amicably settled, through negotiated agreements, the return of East Pakistan/Bangladesh migrants from India.
When Begum Khaleda visited India as Prime Minister during her first term, she made an extraordinary statement that there were no Bangladeshis in India. No doubt, this remains her stand even today. Her Foreign Minister, Mr Morshed Khan, told a Press conference at Dhaka on February 6 that “there is not a single Bangladeshi migrant in India”. This stonewalling tactic on the part of the Bangladesh will not be helpful. But how does India make the Bangladesh Government accept the identification of Bangladeshi migrants spread all over India and how do you make Dhaka agree to take Dhaka back? If there is a genuine desire for cordial relations with India on the part of Bangladesh, this is possible. As already stated, in the subcontinent itself seven million Bangladeshi refugees returned to Bangladesh in 1972 as a result of the Indira-Mujib Pact and earlier in 1950 six lakh migrants were sent back to East Pakistan as per the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
Is it possible to effectively stop this continuous migration from Bangladesh? The enormity of the problem can be realised when the actual border is visited. As Governor of West Bengal in 1989-90, I had visited the border areas in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, West Dinajpur and Malda. The border was indicated with bamboo poles with small red flags which were planted zigzag in the rice fields. Bangladesh labourers regularly crossed over to work in the fields in West Bengal. School children from border villages of Bangladesh came over to study in Indian schools and many of the rickshaw-pullers in the towns in the border districts of West Bengal came during the day from Bangladesh and returned in the evening. But if some of the farm labourers or rickshaw-pullers stayed behind there was no way of finding out. In the border areas of West Bengal people did not view this traffic as a problem, much less a serious threat. This is how the migrant population has grown over the years to the present level. It is left to the policy makers and administrators to worry about the long-term demographic and security overtones of this continued influx.
The continuous influx of Bangladeshi migrants, their spread throughout India and, more importantly, their concentration in the north-eastern states have drastically changed the demographic character of the region. While most of the migrants are “Malthusian” in character, in the sense that they have come to India for a better living condition, their presence in the border region poses a security problem. While European countries as well as Australia and the USA are straining to keep the migrants out for ensuring employment opportunities for their own nationals, India’s problem is different which explains Mr. Advani’s characterisation of this huge presence as a security threat to India.
The issue of Bangladeshi migrants has been one of the important policy planks of the BJP and the VHP. They make a distinction between Hindu and Muslim migrants. They call Hindu migrants as refugees while the Muslim ones as infiltrators, though in fact most of them are economic refugees. However, after the BJP came to power this issue was laid to rest except for occasional references at different levels. Why this issue has suddenly assumed so much importance is not clear. This, perhaps, explains why even knowledgeable observers should suspect that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are apparently whipping up this issue along with that of the Ram Mandir in the run-up to the assembly elections this year and the parliamentary polls next year. Those at the helm of affairs should realise the sensitivity of the issue and the dimensions of the problem and deal with it with patience and understanding.
The writer is a former Governor of West Bengal and Sikkim.