A growing thorn in Indo-Bangladesh relations

Publish: 4:11 PM, August 4, 2018 | Update: 4:11:PM, August 4, 2018

Recent developments on illegal migration from Bangladesh has brought the issue of illegal entry of Bangladeshis into India center-stage, yet again. According to recent Indian press reports, the threat of the indigenous population of Assam being reduced to a minority by the year 2047 looms large. Consequently, it is recommended that a high-powered inquiry be ordered into a number of issues concerning the illegal migration from Bangladesh.
Earlier, the Supreme Court of India took cognizance of the reports and gave a wake up call to the Indian Government on what was seen as an issue jeopardizing the security of the country. The one-man commission report, submitted to the Apex Court, by Upamanyu Hazarika is the third on ‘The India-Bangladesh international boundary’. Hazarika is a senior lawyer with the Supreme Court of India. The report is being seen as both crucial and comprehensive in several quarters.
The Supreme Court had earlier passed an order directing the Union of India and the Government of Assam to take corrective measures. However, not much has changed since the last decade. The malaise of Illegal migrants is deep rooted. The Hazarika Commission suggested that there should be a restriction in the transfer of land – whether by way of sale, purchase, gift or any other such transaction, or by way of allotment from the government or any other agency – only to those who have been citizens of India in the year 1951 and their descendants. It zeroed on this conclusion after extensively touring the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam.
The issue is not new.A burning issue, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, has been fraught with political implications in the entire region of North East of India, particularly in the state of Assam. Otherwise dormant, it becomes politically volatile when elections are on the anvil. It is but a coincidence that Hazarika report submission and the Court’s directive for the Centre and state to pull up its socks has come at a time when elections in Assam are due. Politicians on their part have used the issue of illegal immigration to the hilt with an eye on the vote. Whether the electorate fell prey, or does so in the near future, to the antics of political parties or not is another question.
Cashing in on the Hindu rhetoric, BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, then the Prime Ministerial candidate, had asserted in the recent past that were the BJP voted in, detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with. India, he had then said, is the only place for them and Hindus, he had said, cannot be left to suffer. A little later he had said that Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed. The BJP, it is well known, always made a distinction on communal lines. It has treated Hindus emigrating from Bangladesh as refugees and Muslims as illegal migrants.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had then dared Modi to “touch Bengalis”. Adding to the political slugfest Poresh Barua commander of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA, Independent) had alleged that politicians and the Indian bureaucracy together were letting aliens become Indian nationals and settle in Assam at the cost of the Assamese people. He has often warned against dividing illegal immigrants on communal lines.
It took the Hazarika report for the RSS to pitch in and demand a country- wide debate on illegal migration. Crying foul, the RSS warned that if the trend continues then Indians would be reduced to a minority and be outnumbered by foreigners. It has, in the past, underlined the need for correcting the imbalance of the population growth in the context of the Census figures that had registered an increase in the Muslim population count.
The communal rhetoric, particularly with the RSS leading the charge, could spell trouble for the Modi government. While the Hazarika report is enough ammunition for the RSS to further harden its anti Muslim stance, it could also cast a shadow on bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. The Modi government has, after taking over, delivered the much awaited Land Boundary Agreement and signaled on more occasions than one about Bangladesh being a neighbor and important ally.
While the issue of illegal migration is one that needs to be addressed, the Modi led government needs to tread with caution. Ofcourse the report is enough reason for the RSS sharpens its claws and cry hoarse over the illegal immigrants issue. Yet the central Indian Government needs to handle it with care. It has got enough flak for charges of intolerance including castigating beef-eaters. Given its communal leanings, any attempt to correct the imbalance at this stage could prove counter-productive and seen as Muslim bashing. Internationally, it could upset the delicate balance in its relationship with Bangladesh.