Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech at Assam on December 01 assured that the land swap—which his own party had previously vehemently opposed—would stop illegal Bangladeshi migrants from entering into India. “The government will utilise the India-Bangla land transfer agreement to seal all routes across the international border through which illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been entering Assam and creating havoc in the state,” the prime minister said. However, stopping illegal migration from Bangladesh isn’t simple. India-Bangladesh border is a very long, snaking boundary that traverses multiples states and terrains — and has settlements on both sides. The entire stretch consist of plain, riverine, hilly/jungle areas and with hardly any natural obstacles. The area is heavily populated, and in many stretches, the cultivation is carried out till the last inch of the border. Narendra Modi has specified that his government is open to implementing a land swap with Bangladesh that will iron out long-standing border disputes and help thousands of people who live along the 4,096.7 kilometer-long common land boundary. The deal, once ratified by the Indian parliament, will redraw India’s boundary with Bangladesh, where New Delhi will cede 17160 acres of land, in return for 7110 acres and swap enclaves. Enclaves are areas which are surrounded from all sides by foreign territories. India currently has 111 enclaves belonging to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh has 51 such areas.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been part of political discourse in the North Eastern region. India has raised this issue many times. It actively pursued this issue with General Ershad and later with Begum Khaleda Zia when she visited India in 1992. Since Bangladesh refuses to accept that the Bangladeshis are illegally migrating, India decided to fence the border and has adopted push back policy, which sometimes has resulted in tension on the border. The magnitude of this issue, ambivalence of political parties and complete denial on the part off Bangladesh government made the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001 to announce that the BJP government is contemplating to provide work permit to all the illegal migrants in India admitting the difficulties in deporting them because of legal and constitutional hurdles. In 2003, a crisis erupted when 213 nomadic people, especially the snake charmers from Bangladesh were stranded in no-man’s land and Dhaka refused to take them back. This led to border tension and a bilateral political crisis as both India and Bangladesh refused to own these people creating a humanitarian crisis. Finally, these people were mysteriously made to vanish from the no-man’s land as a face saving measure. To deal with the issue in 2003, the BJP government introduced Amendment to the Citizenship Act which for the first time defined ‘illegal migrants’ by inserting clause b to section 2 of Citizenship Act 1956.
Both the Awami League and the BNP do not accept illegal migrants from Bangladesh creating hurdle to resolve this longstanding issue. Source of political problem in the North East has contributed to the identity politics in these states. This is one of the issues on which the civil society groups and intellectuals in Bangladesh maintain a studied silence. Some even argue that Bangladeshi goes to Middle East but not India because India is not a lucrative destination for Bangladeshis. However, the fact is that these poor Bangladeshi illegally migrate to work in India as agricultural labourers, construction workers, housemaids and some are sold as prostitutes.
The border encompasses six states, with West Bengal and Tripura sharing the longest boundaries with Bangladesh. Although, the government is fencing 3326.14 km—the world’s fifth longest such fence—of the 4096.7 km-long border, the project is running behind schedule because of land acquisition problems, protests, wildlife and environmental clearances and other factors. Other estimates range between 10 and 15 million Bangladeshis living in India illegally, but there are no reliable numbers. Our government even cannot deport the Bangladeshis who are staying in the country illegally. At the end of 2012, for instance, 16,530 Bangladeshi citizens with valid travel documents were found to be overstaying in India—while 6,537 and 5,234 were deported in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Meanwhile, fake identity cards are being issued to a large number of illegal migrants in West Bengal, which makes it even more difficult for authorities to identify and deport them. Lastly, the influx of Bangladeshi nationals isn’t restricted to just eastern India, though West Bengal, Tripura and Assam are the largest source of deportations. So, simply attempting to seal Assam’s borders won’t help. Modi and his government will need to do a lot more to stop the influx.
Inputs from various agencies