The Politics Of Immigration
Expressing concern over the ongoing violence in Bangladesh in which Islamic fundamentalists are systematically killing Hindus, dishonouring their women and destroying their temples, BJP president Rajnath Singh has called for a national policy for rehabilitation and relief of refugees. “I demand that the government should have a national policy for rehabilitation and relief for refugees coming from Bangladesh,” Singh told reporters the other day.
But then the BJP is not alone in demanding a policy for Hindu refugees. Recently, other parties such as Samajwadi Party, Biju Janata Dal and Congress members from Punjab also joined the BJP in demanding suitable rehabilitation to the Hindu migrants from various parts of Pakistan, all fleeing that country in the face of their systematic persecution by the majority Muslims, who, with the connivance of the police and judiciary, are forcing the Hindus to convert to Islam if they want to avoid religious persecution, financial extortion, abduction and forced marriages of their minor girls. It may be noted that Hindus comprised 22 per cent of Pakistani population (including East Pakistan) in 1951; today they are 1.7 per cent in Pakistan (and 9.2 per cent in Bangladesh). In fact, such has been their plights that the Supreme Court has instructed the government of India not to deport back these immigrants. Accordingly, the government declared that about 250-odd pilgrim refugees from Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab provinces who came to India last year could apply for permanent asylum.
As things exist today, India has no official policy on refugees and immigrants. India has signed neither the International Convention of Refugees, enacted in 1951, nor its amended protocol of 1967. However, it respects the aims of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and allows it to have an office in India. In fact, New Delhi sits on its Executive Committee in Geneva. As a result, some, not all, of the refugees in India are able to get UNHCR financial and material assistance. On its part, the UNHCR has appreciated India’s role from time to time.
Recently, Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was in India and very happy to note that “India with its history, culture, traditions, is today an example of generosity in the way it has opened its borders to all people who have come looking for safety and sanctuary. There are Tibetans, Afghans, Myanmarese in India and it has maintained an open door policy for all. India has a generous approach in relationship to all people and a proof of that is the granting of long term visas and work permits to refugees. We consider India a more reliable partner in the world to guarantee that people who need help will find a place. And more importantly at a time when there are so many closed borders in the world, and many people have been refused protection, India has been generous”.
Be that as it may, any refugee or immigrant in India, legally speaking, is a “foreigner”, governed by the Foreigners Act of 1946, on his or her entry, stay, and exit. His or her treatment in India has depended on New Delhi’s relations with his or her country of origin and on how much local political support he or she has. Of course, we have some famous judicial rulings that help the refugees and immigrants. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the right to life and personal liberty as enshrined in the country’s Constitution protects refugees from forced repatriation. Besides, as India has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; the International Convention on Economic; and Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, among other international conventions, it is expected to protect refugees.
As it is, immigration is an important but controversial topic in almost every country today. Even the researchers and academicians find it difficult to agree on the subject whether the immigrants (including refugees) are assets or liabilities to the host states. On the one hand, economic change and demand for labour in the host state attract immigrants. Often, the immigrants, particularly unskilled and lowly-skilled, do the types of jobs that normal citizens of the host country avoid doing. On the other hand, complications arise in the host state while dealing with the “rights” of the immigrants and the way they adjust, integrate or assimilate into their new environment. Here, ethnicity of the immigrant community is an important factor. Questions become all the more complex when the immigrants become eligible, after prolonged stay, to be “naturalised citizens” of the host country in accordance with its own laws. Can there be some conditions attached to their citizenship or not? Then, there are security implications, particularly when it is found that a massive influx of immigrants cannot be easily absorbed by the receiving country or parts of it, threatening its very existence culturally and economically.
Naturally, as a topic immigration is heavily debated in the political arena, particularly when in this time of global recession in the “developed world”, unemployment is a major electoral issue. Even in developing countries, jobs are in a short supply. Majority of the locals perceive that immigrants damage their chances in the job market and do more harm than good in every respect. Evidence that immigration hurts indigenous workers, however, looks weak on a closer scrutiny, but popular perceptions and the games that politicians play form politics and policy in most countries.
For India, immigration is not a new development. In fact, India has also been a major source of migration to other countries, both developed and developing, throughout its history. Along side the migration, immigration has also been a simultaneous feature in India. Historically speaking, waves of immigrants from Central Asia and West Asia did come to India and settled down for good. That is how various religions Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity came to the Indian subcontinent. Culturally, all these immigrants and their ideas, including religions, not only coexisted but also prospered in India. The Indian culture got enriched in the process. There have been gives and takes between the immigrant cultures and that of the indigenous ones, reflected in food habits, dress, language, art and architecture. “Unity in diversity” became India’s strength.
Though India was a British colony for years and the country was partitioned on communal lines at the time of independence in 1947, the Indian constitution is secular and promotes the culture of pluralism. “Unity in diversity” continues to be the guiding principle. Talking specifically of immigration, the Indian Constitution does not discriminate between the citizens and immigrants in the social sphere. The immigrants, when accorded citizen status, enjoy the same political rights with others without compromising their cultural and religious values. However, immigration, per se, is not an issue in Indian politics. The issue is illegal immigration, with politics coming to assume a role in either promoting the phenomenon or in protesting it because of electoral and economic factors.
The 2001 census in India revealed that more than 6 million residents were born outside the country (including Indian citizens born abroad), but almost all (5.7 million) were from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal; Sri Lanka and Burma accounted for another 243,000. Only 227,000 individuals were born outside of the region: 28 per cent of them in Africa, 25 per cent in the Middle East, and only 20 per cent in Northern America, Europe and Oceania combined. However, anecdotal evidence from Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore suggests that the real number of non-South Asian foreigners in India is significantly higher.
Of these immigrants, some of them are refugees. India has traditionally treated refugees well even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Most famously, India granted refuge to the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet in 1959 and permitted him to set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The Indian government allows the Central Tibetan Administration autonomy in public education, for example, but does not officially recognise it as a government.
Today, about 150,000 Tibetans live in India, according to the government reports. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans who arrived in the first and largest wave received resident permits and were offered low-paying public works jobs by the Indian government. However, more recent Tibetan refugees have not been as welcome, with many denied residence permits. This changed stance is attributed to India, of late, accepting China’s claim on Tibet, apparently in exchange for China’s acceptance of Sikkim as part of India.
However, India continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from other neighbouring countries and respects the UNHCR mandate for other nationals, mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar. Here, the Government of India’s approach to refugee issues is of different standards of protection and assistance among refugee groups. Tibetans and Sri Lankan refugees are protected and assisted by the Indian Government, while the UNHCR is directly involved with groups arriving from other countries (notably Afghanistan and Myanmar). Holders of documentation provided by the UNHCR are able to obtain temporary residence permits from the authorities.
According to a recent report, of the 7,300 asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in New Delhi, a majority of them are from Afghanistan and Myanmar. An estimated 60,000 Afghans fled to India after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Thousands more came when the Taliban took power in 1992. Similarly, since the suppression of democracy in Myanmar in 1990, more than 5000 refugees have crossed the border into India. The UNHCR reports also suggest that about 300 Somali and 100 Palestine refugees reside in India.
Nepalese and Bhutanese citizens have been permitted to move freely across the Indian border. An open border between India and Nepal and India and Bhutan is provided for by a treaty between the respective states. The Nepalese and Bhutanese have the right to residence, study, and work in India. Nepal’s 2001 census reported 584,000 persons born in India of which only 100,000 were registered as Indian citizens.
Ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka began fleeing to India in response to the civil war that broke out in 1983 between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who wanted an independent Tamil state on the island. As of late 2008, about 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees were living in 117 camps across southern India, mainly in Tamil Nadu. Of course, after the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009, some of them went back. But the issue remains potent given the facts that the Sri Lankan government has not been able to arrive at a comprehensive political settlement with the Tamils as such and that the Tamil Nadu politics is very sensitive to the Sri Lankan matters. In fact, most Sri Lankan refugees in India say they would rather not return, citing economic hardship and concern over human rights abuses. So much so that Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka have started coming again. According to reliable figures, there are more than 100,000 ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu, including 68,000 in 112 government-run camps and 32,000 outside the camps.
However, the most sensitive issue of immigration to India is that of those from Bangladesh. And almost all of them enter India illegally. These immigrants generally find work as cheap labour in the informal sector, often as domestic helpers, construction labourers, rickshaw pullers and rag pickers. The Bangladeshi government does not officially recognise those migrants and thus does not provide help or support. In 2003, Bangladesh’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that not a single unauthorised Bangladeshi resided in India.
But then, on 6 May 1997, the then Indian Home Minister Indrajit Gupta disclosed in Parliament that there were upwards of ten million illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators who have made India their home. Some experts have made the picture clearer by looking at the demographics of Bangladesh. According to its electoral rolls of 7 October 1995, Bangladesh had 56,016,178 voters a figure that was 6,165,567 less than that of 1991. Of course some of this can be explained by the fact that the Election Commission of Bangladesh (ECB) de-franchised 2,000,000 voters on grounds of their long absence from the country in 1995. But the same fact can also be cited as evidence to prove that illegal migration of Bangladeshis does indeed take place.
Furthermore, according to a United Nations review, Bangladesh should have had a population of 118 million in 1991, but the Census Report of Bangladesh (CRB) showed 108 million. Where had these ten million Bangladeshis gone?, Assam-based journalists like Shib Shankar Chatterjee (a regular contributor to this publication) ask. Secondly, in 1951, Bangladesh had a twenty-two per cent minority population, which came down to 10 per cent in 1995. What happened to this population? It is likely that either they crossed over and entered India, or were annihilated surreptitiously, Chatterjee explains.
If late JN Dixit, a Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor of India, is to be believed, ‘We have definite information (of the Indian Intelligence Bureau) that between seven to nine million Bangladeshi foreign nationals have not only migrated illegally but also registered into India.’ This he had written sometime in 2000. An Indian Home Ministry estimate prepared in 2001 says: ‘Approximately, 150170 lakh Bangladeshi infiltrators have crossed into India illegally since 1971.’ Similarly, on July 14, 2004, in reply to an unstarred question in Parliament, the then Union Minister of State for Home Shriprakash Jaiswal stated that out of 1,20,53,950 illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators all over India, 50,00,000 Bangladeshi were present in Assam alone as on 31 December 2001. West Bengal topped the list with 57, 00,000 Bangladeshis. The figures were based on Intelligence Bureau reports.
With the geometric rise in population of illegal Bangladeshis, leaders from that community have become powerful in at least one big State, Assam. Out of twenty-seven districts in the State, seven districts (Barpeta, Goalpara, Dhubri, Morigaon, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi) are Muslim dominated, with a sizeable chunk of Bangladeshis. It is estimated that by 2015, out of 126 Assembly constituencies in Assam, about fifty-four would be dominated by Bangladeshi Muslim voters who would one day not only pose a serious threat to the socio-cultural identity and stability of the State, but may also be in a position to form their Government and have their own Chief Minister. The threat was clearly enunciated when on 23 July 2008, the Guwahati High Court stated in a judgment: ‘Bangladeshis have become kingmakers in Assam.’ Similarly, it is said that as many as 53 out of 294 Assembly constituencies in West Bengal have a high concentration of illegal “Bangladeshi voters”.
It may be noted here that the then Governor of Assam Lt. Gen (Retd.) SK Sinha had authored a “Report” in 1998 and titled it “Illegal Migration into Assam”. This “Report” was submitted to the President of India. In it, the Governor “warned that if the present trends are not arrested, the indigenous people of Assam would be reduced to a minority and there may, in course of time, be a demand for the merger of Muslim dominated bordering districts with Bangladesh”. Governor’s report called the infiltration a “national threat”.
Whatever the reasons behind the huge number of Bangladeshi nationals in India, observers say that their overall presence in the country, and the east and northeast regions in particular, is shattering of the socio-economic balance in the region. Illegal immigrants not only occupy char areas in the riverine belt, but also lead to the growth of unauthorised settlements in Government lands, agricultural lands, grazing reserves and forest areas. They compete with genuine Indians for jobs, thereby worsening the already serious unemployment problem. Moreover, by managing to enter their names in the electoral rolls in their zeal to remain within the country, illegal Bangladeshi settlers have already become major vote banks at least in Assam and West Bengal.
It may be noted that illegal infiltration from Bangladesh into India is one of the contentious issues between India and Bangladesh, the recent improvements in the bilateral ties notwithstanding. Indian intelligence officials have often complained that Pakistan has fished in the troubled water in the sense that it, with active grassroots- support of Harakat ul-Jihad-I-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad (all are notorious fundamentalist terrorist outfits in South Asia), it has used its “agents” in the guise of immigrants to exacerbate the communal disharmony between the Hindus and Muslims in parts of the country and promote secessionist- terrorist activities. Besides, many of these immigrants have indulged in smuggling, trafficking, drug peddling, illegal cow smuggling and trans-border gang robbery.
Interestingly, there is also a linkage between immigration from Bangladesh and the division of British India in 1947. This is particularly true in the case of Assam. There were serious attempts at the time of partition to see that Assam went to Pakistan, because always people over-populated East Bengal (which became part of Pakistan) had traditionally migrated to Assam for work. And this trend continued even after partition. So much so that the Muslim population in Assam, which was about 190,0000 in 1947, increased to about 360,0000 within 25 years of Independence by 1972. In 1971, Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation after liberation war against Pakistan with the help of Indian Army. But its first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained consistent with his views that, “without the inclusion of Assam the East Bengal economy could not be balanced”.
In fact, right since its inception in 1947, Pakistan’s geopolitical design has been to promote ‘Muslim expansionism” in Assam and balkanise India on the basis of religion. Z A Bhutto had spelt out this design as far back as in 1968. The late Prime Minister of Pakistan wrote about the geo-political aims of Pakistan in his book, The Myth of Independence. He argued that “it would be wrong to think that Kashmir is the only dispute that divides India and Pakistan, though it is undoubtedly the most significant one, at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute is that of ASSAM and some districts adjacent to East Pakistan”.
It is not that Indian political leadership and officials are unaware of the problem, but then they, particularly the Congress (including Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee, now chief minister of West Bengal) and the Communists, who between them, have dominated the politics of West Bengal and Assam, the two states bordering Bangladesh, have tended to ignore it. The reason is ‘vote bank politics’. Ensuring that there is no documented evidence of illegal immigrants in Indian soil, they have been virtually ensured of solid electoral support of these immigrants. This becomes evident from the following:
In its 2012 – “Annual Report”, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has admitted that checking illegal migration from Bangladesh is a major challenge “considering the porous nature of the international border”. But then, it is only one part of the story. Here, the government wants us to convey that it is trying its best to check the illegal immigration, but that is proving to be a difficult task given the nature of the border that features “riverine areas, hills and jungles”. But then, there is another part of the story which the present UPA government does not say fully. And that is the fact that it is afraid of taking any remedial measures, let alone preventive steps, in deporting back the “illegal Bangladeshis” in India.
In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha on March 21, 2012, Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran said: “There are reports of Bangladeshi nationals having settled in India without valid travel documents. As entry of such Bangladeshi nationals into the country is clandestine and surreptitious, it is not possible to have a correct estimate of such illegal immigrants living in the country. A number of Bangladeshi nationals who have entered into the country on valid travel documents have been found to be overstaying. As per information available, 28,667 Bangladeshi nationals were found to be overstaying as on December 31, 2010.”
What about the number of those Bangladeshis who have entered illegally? Here, the UPA government is prevaricating. For instance, Ramachandran was quoted as having said sometime in 2011 that “almost 1.4-million illegal Bangladeshis have migrated to India over the past decade alone”. But the then Home Minister P Chidambaram suggested on many occasions that there was no official number of the illegal Bangladeshis and that the cited numbers were only “estimates”. And this despite the fact that as mentioned earlier on July 14, 2004, in reply to an unstarred question in Parliament, the then Union Minister of State for Home Shriprakash Jaiswal had stated exact numbers, not estimates!
Not surprisingly, therefore, with every election, these immigrants determine the results in more constituencies. So much so that it has been calculated by experts that in India at the moment, Bangladeshi immigrants are a deciding factor in as many as 20-25 Parliamentary constituencies. They are increasingly becoming an important electoral factor even in places like Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra and Delhi. If this situation continues for another ten years, at least fifty Parliamentary constituencies and 250 Assembly constituency would have to depend of the blessings of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators.
It may be noted here that the Muslim population in Assam in between 1971 and 1991 increased 77.42 per cent as against the figure of 41.89 per cent of the Hindus. In between 1991 and 2001, the corresponding figures were 29.3 per cent for Muslims and 14.95 for Hindus. It is not surprising therefore that today, out of the total 24 districts of Assam, six districts have 60 per cent Muslim population while another six have above 40 per cent of them. And, as outlined earlier, out of the 126 Assembly seats, election of 54 MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) depends on the Muslim vote bank. And all this has been due to the influx of the illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The trend is similar in West Bengal. In between 1981 and 1991, the census figure shows that the Muslim population in the state rose by 36.67 per cent as against that of 21.05 per cent of Hindus. And in between 1991-2001, the corresponding figures were 26.1 per cent for Muslims and 14.26 per cent for Hindus.
Many observers also say that the continuing infiltration of the Bangladeshi immigrants in the east and north-east regions of India is shattering the socio-economic balance in the region, with genuine Indians competing with them for land, jobs and political offices. But then as illegal Bangladeshis constitute a significant vote-bank for some political parties, whenever any official dares to expel them, the concerned political parties do not allow that to happen, even though the Supreme Court and High Court of Assam have expressed their serious concerns over what they call “the silent invasion” on India. The ruling UPA government in Delhi (led by the Congress party, which also rules Assam) has even tried to circumvent the Supreme Court which has struck down the Assam-specific IMDT (Illegal Migration Determination Tribunal) Act. When Assam vote-bank politics dictated passage of the Foreigners’ (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, the Supreme Court struck it down again.
The IMDT Act was Indian law enacted in 1983 by Indira Gandhi government. It described the procedures to detect illegal immigrants (from Bangladesh) and expel them from Assam. The Act was pushed through mainly on the grounds that it provided special protections against undue harassment to the “minorities” that were affected. It was applicable to state of Assam only whereas in other states, detection of foreigners is done under The Foreigners Act, 1946. Under the Act, the burden of proving the citizenship or otherwise rested on the accuser and the police, not the accused; whereas under the Foreigners Act prevailing in the rest of the country, the onus is on the accused. Besides, the accuser had to reside within a 3 km radius of the accused, fill out a complaint form (a maximum of ten per accuser is allowed) and pay a fee of ten rupees. If a suspected illegal migrant is thus successfully accused, he was required by the Act to simply produce a ration card to prove his Indian citizenship. But then it was very easy as most of them had these cards, fraudulently obtained.
When the Congress government tried to circumvent the 2005 Supreme Court by bringing the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order of 2006 that again put the onus of proving a particular person as a foreigner on the complainant. The Government argued that the absence of such provision would lead to genuine citizens belonging to the minority community being victimized and harassed in the name of detecting Bangladeshi aliens. But this did not muster the approval of the highest court of the country, the ground being that there cannot be two sets of rules with regards to the “foreigners”.
As it is, if the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 is not being amended as demanded by many civil rights activists, it is because the government says: “India has [a] large population and land-population ratio has decreased over the period of time. Employment opportunities are not available due to increase of population manifold. In such a situation, the country is unable to undertake additional burden of refugees/migrants from other countries. Keeping in view the economic and population reasons, citizenship cannot be granted to those who have come on or after March 25, 1971.
The problem is basically with the immigrants from Bangladesh, most of whom happen to be Muslims. Some political parties like the BJP have made them a huge election issue and accuse the Congress and Communist parties of pandering to Muslim vote-banks by legitimizing them fraudulently by facilitating their names to be included in the voters’ lists. As has been pointed out, many senior officials, including governors and national security advisors, not to speak of the Supreme Court and High Court, also find merits in the allegations that the state governments (run by the Congress and the Communists) are in fact promoting illegal immigration. And there are strong merits in this argument. After all, the present Central government headed by the Congress party and perceived to be heavily dependent on Muslims’ support, withdrew, in February 2009, all the existing official data on the number of illegal Bangladeshis in India as “unreliable” and based on “mere hearsay”!
In short, though inter-related, the immigration issue in India has three aspects. First is the electoral aspect. Second is the economic aspect. Third is the racial or ethnic aspect. Of course, one can also add to the security aspect, given the fact that unfriendly governments, as has been seen in the latest clashes between the Bodo tribes and Muslim migrants in Assam, aggravate the problem of communal strife through their agents amongst the migrants. All these aspects operate, or have to operate, within the overall constitutional framework that encourages pluralism or multiculturalism. The problem that one faces these days is whether the ideal of pluralism is being stretched too far to be abused or not while dealing with the question of immigration. This is particularly so when apart from playing their economic role (on which there can be some understanding), the immigrants adversely affect the country’s political process by making and unmaking governments, thanks to their “bogus” (as they are not the genuine citizens of the country) voting.
Given the above scenario, the fact remains that immigrants have become problematic politically, economically and ethnically/socially. Of course, immigration, as such, is a global phenomenon and no country is an island when it comes to migration. But unlike elsewhere, here in India, there is no political consensus to acknowledge its existence. For instance, in France that has a far larger problem of legal and illegal immigration, both the Right and Left, recognise the existence of the problem. The causes and the possible solutions are hotly debated during and between elections. They form a part of the entire gamut of debate, be it political, economic, social or religious. In India, except the Right, no other sections in the polity, including the ruling Congress party, admit it publicly that there is the factor of immigrants. As a result, unlike France, India does not have any laws pertaining to immigration. The Assam-specific laws have not stood judicial scrutiny; in any case these had been worded in a manner to remain self-paralysed, thanks to the vote-bank politics. And that means that unlike in France where the ruling party often gets more votes in the name of checking immigration, in India, those ruling the states where immigrants are concentrated the most (Assam and West Bengal) achieve so by courting migration, albeit silently.
By Prakash Nanda