Dark Truth; Infiltration from Bangladesh
It was almost dark near the Maslandapur railway station, quite close to the Indo-Bangladesh international border in West Bengal. Nitai Gharami, a man in his late forties, was walking in a sombre mood along the railway track. I walked up to the man and engaged him in a conversation. “I hail from the Barishal district in Bangladesh. There I had two bighas of land. I cultivated it myself with the help of hired labourers. In addition I had a small grocery shop. Thus I could make my both ends meet. But one day one of my neighbours came and told me ‘aaj ratre ami tor bour hate paan khete asbo’ ( Tonight I shall come to be entertained by your wife). On that day I left Bangladesh leaving all of my small properties behind,” Nitai said. Now he lives in a shanty near the Maslandpur station and works as a mason. “But life here is very hard and I find it extremely difficult to carry on with the meagre income that I can earn,” Nitai said.
Things are more tragic for Habul Ghosh, a 61-year-old freedom fighter who had fought valiantly in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. “I was then only 18 years old and I fought in the Jessore-Khulna sector. But things changed totally after the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman. Ziaur Rahaman, Mujibur’s successor, was anti-freedom fighters and he let loose several kinds of harrassments on us. So I left Bangladesh and settled in India,” Habul said. But how does he make his both ends meet here? Habul has grown old and he can no longer do any hard work. So he has invented a peculiar profession. Each day he sits in the Maslandapur bus stand with his friends and as a new Bangladeshi infiltrator alights from a bus (each day buses coming from the border offload quite a good number of such illegal immigrants) Habul blackmails him. “This way I earn nearly three hundred rupees a day,” he admitted.
While wandering in the Jangipur sub division of the Murshidabad district I suddenly met one Ehsan Ali who once worked as a domestic help in our residence in Kolkata. Ehsan has migrated from the Faridpur district of Bangladesh in 2004. “I have now purchased a plot of agricultural land and also carry on some small time trades,” he said. His answer is interesting in the sense that it points out to the trend of acquiring of private properties by Bangladeshi infiltrators in India.
Today the phenomenon of infiltration from Bangladesh has become a national problem. During the just concluded parliamentary election Prime Minister Narendra Modi had referred to it. This, in return, elicited sharp reactions from Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The infiltrators’ presence was felt in the Lok Sabha poll results in West Bengal and Assam as large numbers of them have already enrolled themselves as voters through questionable means and they have become catalytic factors behind certain socio-economic and political developments in West Bengal and the northeastern states of our country.
The issue is communally sensitive and statesmanship is required to handle this problem. For quite a long time successive governments, both at the centre and in various states, just tried to deny the existence of such a sustained and planned infiltration as every interested party considered the infiltrators as its vote bank. It is only when the problem acquired a security dimension—with Islamic fundamentalists striking deep roots in Bangladesh and exporting terrors to India through infiltrators—the governmental authorities of India suddenly awoke from their slumber. This trend has continued from the 1980s.
But there were eminent men who had cautioned against the menace long time back. One of them was TV Rajeswar, a former Governor of West Bengal, who drew attention to the abnormal rise of growth of a particular community in West Bengal as per the 1981 census figures. Rajeswar also pointed out that this growth rate was well above West Bengal’s population growth rate as whole.
So the problem is nothing new and a silent invasion of West Bengal and the north-eastern states, particularly Assam, has been going on for a long time. In the 1981 census, the total population growth rate for the state of West Bengal was 23.2 per cent while the same for the minority community was 29.6 per cent. Logically speaking, it pointed out to heavy infiltration from Bangladesh. In the same census the overall yearly population growth of the state was around 2.3 per cent. But in the districts bordering Bangladesh, the figures were higher: 2.71 per cent in 24 Parganas, 3.3 per cent in Nadia, 2.55 per cent in Murshidabad, 2.66 per cent in Malda and 2.66 per cent in Jalpaiguri. Naturally the immigrants’ first choice was to settle in the districts just across the border.
So there is no point in disputing the fact that the identity of West Bengal as a component state of India is now under threat. Although each and every Bangladeshi politician denies it, yet the fact remains that migration from Bangladesh to India started right from the birth of that new nation. It is difficult to guess the reason for at that time bonhomie between the majority and the minority community there was at its peak. However, composition of immigrants in those early years reveals that not only Muslims but Hindus also chose to cross over to India soon after the birth of Bangladesh. If one studies the Bangladesh Census Reports right from the beginning then it becomes crystal clear that the country is always plagued by a bizarre phenomenon called ‘the missing population’.
Bimal Pramanik, a researcher in Kolkata, has done pioneering works on this subject. According to him, in 1970, the total population in the then East Pakistan was around seven crores and fifty lakhs. But the 1974 census, the first one in Independent Bangladesh, showed the figure to be 7,14,78,000. Even if it is assumed that around 30 lakhs of people had perished during the Bangladesh liberation war, still there is no trace of more than five lakhs of people. Moreover, if the 3.1 per cent annual population growth rate during the 1971-1974 period is taken into account, then the total population of Bangladesh should have shown an increase of 22 lakhs. So where had all these people vanished? The axiomatic answer is: they had crossed over to India. Moreover between the first census of Bangladesh in 1974 and the second in 1981, there had been a 1.4 per cent decrease in the Hindu population. On the contrary, as per the national growth rate the total number of Hindus should have increased by more than 21 lakhs.
Strangely most of the politicians of West Bengal have tried to turn a blind eye to this phenomenon. The statistics mentioned above establish a continuing process which is found to be reversed in the 2001 census of India. But this census is now a matter of intense controversy and it is extremely difficult to accept the conclusion that the process of human immigration from Bangladesh which India has been experiencing since 1971 has suddenly come to an end.
In the 1991 census the average population growth rate of West Bengal was 24.73 per cent, quite an abnormally high figure. But the districts bordering Bangladesh showed even higher figures: North Dinajpore (34 per cent), North 24 Parganas (31.69 per cent), South 24 Parganas (30.24 per cent), Murshidabad (28.20 per cent) and Nadia (29.95 per cent). Significantly the growth rate was considerably lower in those districts of West Bengal which are situated far away from the Bangladesh border.
The enormity of the problem can be gauged from the fact that in 1982 the actual population growth rate of West Bengal exceeded the rate of natural population growth by 2.7 per cent. The number of infiltrators to the state during the 1981-1991 period stood at 14,74,000. This was nearly 11 per cent of the total number of population increase i.e. 1,34,00,000. (Source: Sample Registration Survey Reports by the Registrar General of India).
Given this trend, the 2001 census report for West Bengal gives sufficient cause for scepticism.The overall population growth rate for the state comes down from 24.73 per cent in 1991 to 17.84 per cent in 2001. Moreover growth rates of most of those districts which had returned abnormally high figures, come down considerably. Still these districts showed growth rates which are far above those of the interior districts, away from the Bangladesh border. But the most alarming aspect was the fact that the Election Commission had delimited constituencies basing primarily on the census data.
How many illegal immigrants have really entered India? Reliable estimates put the figure between 15 to 20 million. Of them about 8 to 10 millions have settled in West Bengal, 6 to 8 millions have sneaked into Assam. The rest have arranged shelters in Tripura and other north-eastern states and also in areas like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Delhi.
It is an explosive national problem in India but there is no point in giving it a communal colour. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country and it is only natural that there would be significant number of Muslims among the immigrants. In 1951, Bangladesh had 22 per cent Hindus. Now the number has come down to only 7 per cent. On the other hand, in 1951, West Bengal’s population had 79.40 per cent Hindus and 18.63 per cent Muslims. In 1981 the number of Hindus decreased to 77.10 per cent while that of the Muslims increased up to 21.55 per cent. In 2001, share of the Hindus in the total population of West Bengal further came down to 72.90 per cent but the Muslims’ share jumped up to 25.37 per cent. As per the 2011 census the share of the Hindu population has decreased further to 72.5 per cent . The respective figure for the minority community has also experienced a decline. But its rate of decrease—25.2 per cent- is less than that of the majority community. But the thing that has raised scepticism among population study experts about the 2011 census is the rate of population growth in West Bengal during the period 2001-2011. According to it the rate of growth has experienced a sharp nosedive—from 17.84 per cent in 2001 to 13.84 per cent in 2011.
This is a sensitive issue and must be dealt with in a statesman like manner. Over the years West Bengal has witnessed a certain amount of change in its district wise composition of population. At present Muslims comprise 33.2 per cent of the population in the district of South 24 Parganas, 25 per cent in North 24 Parganas,25.2 per cent in Nadia, 35.1 per cent in Birbhum, 63.7 per cent in Murshidabad, 49.7 per cent in Malda and 47.4 per cent in North Dinajpore. According to the 2001 census, among the illegal immigrants in West Bengal 98 per cent are from Bangladesh.
This is not surprising as Bangladesh happens to be the most densely populated country in the world. Among the Bangladeshi intelligentsia this has given rise to the demand of ‘labansraum’, a German word which means living space. Some Bangladeshi intellectuals, notably Sadeq Khan and Abdul Momin, two former diplomats; have argued that since the volume of population is overflowing there, it has a natural right to flow towards a sparse and less populated area. The conclusion is inescapable: they are demanding the right for the Bangladeshis to move out of their geographical limitations and settle in parts of India, mostly West Bengal and the north-eastern states.
Although inter community relations in West Bengal have not yet reached any flashpoint, yet bitter relations exist between the Bangladeshis who came after March 25, 1971 and the local people of the state. The latter are ascribing continued surge in criminal activities including explosions, contraband trades and sleaze rackets to the presence of the Bangladeshis. “In the 1960s all the districts of the state running along the border of the then East Pakistan were much less populated. Atmosphere didn’t show signs of decadence all around as it does now. Naturally human values had a place in our society. But all these have changed after the hordes of Bangladeshis have settled here,” said Krishna Bannerjee, a houewife who lives quite near to the Indo-Bangladesh border.
Those who have come and settled in India after the birth of Bangladesh have no citizenship right. Crime syndicates have grown up around them. Some panchayat functionaries enter into illegal contracts with them and issue ration cards to these people in lieu of money. A large number of them have also been able to enrol themselves as voters by dint of unethical arrangement with some employees of the West Bengal government.
I was moving in my car in the Basirhat sub division of the North 24 Parganas district, an area notorious for infiltration by ISI agents through Bangladesh. As I was having tea in a roadside stall quite a few curious faces were watching me. They were all Bangladeshis but none would admit this lest he should be pushed back by the Border Security Force. Through some of my local contacts I sent the message across that I would like to talk to them. Readily they agreed to talk and took me to a house nearby.
There was one Kamal Baral among them. “I participated in the Bangladesh freedom struggle”, Kamal said. As a proof he lifted his shirt. There was a row of bullet wounds in his chest, received at the hands of Pakistani soldiers. “But I had to flee as the social situation turned bad. Today I act as a double agent of two intelligence agencies of the Government of India”, Kamal said.
Life is equally harsh for 32-year-old Sajal who had crossed over to India in 1999 when he was a teenager. I met him in Maslandapur. He is in two types of smuggling—contraband trade and shipping in illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India and vice versa. The entire Indo-Bangladesh border is dotted with numerous points through which illegal immigration and migration take place. These points are called ‘ghats’ in local terminology. Those who control this trade are known as ‘dhoors’ (a Bengali word having a pejorative connotation). Sajal acts as a sub agent under one of these ‘dhoors’. He asked me whether I would like to go to Satkhira, now a sub district of Bangladesh, immediately. His offer was very simple. I would have to spend 1500 rupees. The shipment will take place at once. I can spend the whole day in Satkhira and come back at night.
There are big smuggling syndicates in the border area, dealing mostly in textiles, cosmetics and electronic goods. They appoint carriers. Sajal is one of them. “From the border the smuggled goods are brought to important entrepots like Maslandapur and Duttapukur, two important railway stations en route to Kolkata, and handed over to us. By train we take these consignments to Dumdum (an important railway station on the outskirts of Kolkata proper) and hand them over to other people,” Sajal said. For carrying these goods safely to the Kolkata market the smuggling syndicates have unholy alliances with the law enforcing agencies. Sajal fished out three small cards from his pocket. The cards had separate emblems. They were given by various law enforcing agencies. Each card signifies safe passage for the contrabands.
In Kolkata and in its surrounding regions population pressure has now reached an unbearable point. Meanwhile Bangladeshis are purchasing properties by passing the law and both Hindus as well as Muslims are in it. According to intelligence reports Bangladeshi criminals were seen actively fomenting trouble when troubles erupted in Kolkata some years back over the question of deportation of Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer. Sleuths are also known to be keeping a close watch on brisk transfer of properties to Bangladeshis in certain parts of Kolkata.
But equally serious developments are taking place in the districts. Employment situation in Bangladesh is horrible. Pitiable economic conditions are pushing people into India. They are mostly day labourers and are offering their services at much cheaper rates. I met a middle aged man in Nadia district who owns large plots of lands and has to use pump sets for lift irrigation. “I always employ Bangladeshis for running the pump sets because their service is cheap,” he said. As a result local labourers are now being deprived of employment opportunities. This is giving rise to a lot of social tension.
Where does the solution lie? Detection and deportation of foreigners are to be continued. But above all politicians and governmental authorities in India must admit that such a problem exists. At the same time the Government of India should take initiative to generate international efforts to improve conditions in Bangladesh. Of late experts do not repose much faith in Bangladesh census as they suspect that the figures given there are often doctored to suppress the actual volume of population. Be that as it may, the actual population in Bangladesh has already crossed the 15 crores mark whereas the intake capacity of the country is only 13 crores. Basing on a United Nations Population Fund estimate Amalendu De, the lately deceased renowned historian hailing from the Jadavpur University, Kolkata , has calculated that by September, 2020 AD the total population of Bangladesh is expected to reach 25 crores mark.
So immigration from Bangladesh is an undeniable fact. There are reasons behind it as 85 per cent of the population there live below the poverty line, 55 per cent are landless and 11 per cent have no roof over their heads. Each year nearly one third of Bangladesh gets inundated by floods displacing about 19 million people. But the administration there can reclaim only about 50 per cent of the flood ravaged area. Thus people living in the balance 50 per cent area will continue to be pauperised and forced to migrate, either within the country or beyond.
By Amitava Mukherjee