By Pranaav Gupta
The Indian subcontinent shares a land border with Bangladesh, exceeding over 4000 kilometers, making the border with Bangladesh the longest amongst all the neighboring countries. The border is for most parts largely unfenced and porous making it easy for undocumented migrants to easily pass through the two countries. Ever since the creation of East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh after the historic war of 1971, Bangladeshi nationals have been attracted by the allure that the Indian state provides. This has led to a constant influx of immigrants from Bangladesh to India. While initially, India did manage to absorb most of these nationals and provide them with citizenship, their growing numbers has a posed a steady challenge to India.
The influx of these immigrants brings to the fore a number of practical challenges and difficulties for India. The ethnic clashes in the North East between the local Bodo population and the immigrants a majority of whom are Muslim, the demand for citizenship rights of new immigrants, etc. are compounded by the inability of India to put in place an effective mechanism for deportation of the incoming immigrants.
The current governments in the state of West Bengal and Assam have been criticized for being overly sympathetic with the constant stream of migrants as they form a very electorally relevant constituency. To put things into perspective it is estimated that annually, over seventy five thousand immigrants find themselves crossing the border in search of better economic opportunities.
Narendra Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister, while campaigning during the Lok Sabha polls had emphatically stated that all Bangladeshis would be deported from West Bengal after the results of 16th May. In an earlier speech he had sought to differentiate between Hindu and Muslim illegal immigrants. Suggesting that India would welcome with open arms any Hindu who fears persecution in a foreign country.
While Assam has been the hotbed of ethnic strife, the two polarized opinions of, one, the current Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in stating that no immigration occurs from Bangladesh to Assam and, two, the opinions expressed by local groups in squarely blaming immigration for the spurt in communal tensions, completely seems to miss the point.
As has been explained the truth lies somewhere in between, illegal immigration is a reality. The intense competition for limited resources between different groups does lead to communal flare-ups, however this flare up cannot be solely attributed to the issue of illegal immigration but reflects a larger and more systematic problem of a governance deficit.
In the state of Assam, where the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to bag 7 out of the 14 seats, vigilantism has led to even the legal local Muslim population of the state feeling a sense of fear and moving to Muslim dominated areas of the state.
It must also be noted that the issue of illegal immigrants also includes people who are brought to India for the purpose of prostitution and forced labor. Given the hazy network of officials in the border areas, this phenomenon presents a grave human rights issue and needs to be addressed at a war footing.
Understanding the economic reality of immigration
It is human nature to move towards places and areas that offer better economic opportunities. While there have been an umpteen number of statements by policymakers highlighting, how the immigration is a concerted effort on part of Bangladesh to Islamise, Indian states. These statements ignore the basic push and pull factors that ultimately cause immigration.
Another important factor in addition to economic allure, that has not been highlighted in India to the extent that it should is the consequence of climate change. It has been predicted that a rise in sea level by even 0.5 meters by the year 2050 has the ability to cause displacement of over 15 million Bangladeshis. In the absence of an internal mechanism to deal with such severe displacement, these migrants are most likely to look for India as a refuge point.
In a thought provoking article Bibhu Routray, gives the example of the United States, which despite its heavily guarded border with Mexico has Mexicans making up more than 60% of the country’s population of illegal immigrants
The impact on the Indian economy
In nearly every Indian state there are undocumented Bangaldeshi nationals who through their cheap labor prove to be indispensible and are therefore considered to be vital for the Indian economy.
Need for an effective solution
The problem with the ‘throw all migrants out strategy’ advocated by a few policy makers is that the social cost of hunting out illegal Bangladeshis currently residing in Indian states is unimaginable.
It has been noted that the “bilateral Task Force of Bangladesh and India on Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration of Trafficked victims/survivors to discuss human trafficking at least provides a political space to deal with the sensitive subject of people who have migrated ‘involuntarily’ ” is the first among many steps to address the issue of illegal immigration.
While a Coordinated Border Management Plan has been in place since 2011, International Law prohibits unilateral deportation. With the Bangladeshi Rifles refusing to accept illegal immigrants that India seeks to deport, this plan continues to remain in limbo.
Bangladesh has also time and again sought to deny or downplay the issue of illegal immigration. The non-acceptance of the issue continues to be a major hurdle in the effective functioning of the joint management committee dealing with the issue of illegal immigrants.
Given the protracted nature of the dispute, a solution still seems like a long distance away. India must work towards providing temporary work permits, to Bangladeshi nationals wishing to work in India. While the issue must be looked at from a humanitarian perspective, India must act in ways that best serves her own national interest. At the same time it is imperative that India must not react with knee-jerk reactions but ensure that India joins hands with Bangladesh in contributing to it’s economic development, which will therefore automatically stem the refugee influx.
(Pranaav is a third year student of National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. He writes on the issues of International Relations and Foreign Policy. Pranaav can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)