Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses
The recent changes in the Indian citizenship law were meant to give relief to the Assamese people from illegal migration from Bangladesh. Ironically, it has made a section start a new movement. These people are opposing the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), fearing that Assam would be swamped by migrants from across the border. They want all illegal migrants who came to Assam after March 24, 1971 evicted from the state. This is an almost impossible task to achieve as the situation in the state has changed dramatically since the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 between the Central government and the protesters.
The signing of the Assam Accord brought peace to the state agitating against the illegal migration from Bangladesh. Unfortunately, not much was done to stop the Bangladeshis from illegally infiltrating into India once the accord was signed. In states like West Bengal, the Left Front government actually actively encouraged people from Bangladesh to come to India. This has changed the demography of a number of districts in West Bengal that border Bangladesh.
To make matters worse, in 1990, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power in that country. This party is quite hostile to the minorities. The period also saw the rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh. Jihadis, who had fought in Afghanistan, were returning to Bangladesh after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
This development made the life of the minorities further difficult in Bangladesh and people migrated to India in large numbers.
Things somewhat improved when the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996. However, even Hasina could not do much for the minorities during her first tenure. Weak Central governments in India could not effectively take up their cause. Rather, it would not be incorrect to say that persecution of minorities and illegal immigration from Bangladesh have never been high on the agenda of the governments in India in the past. This allowed an exodus and because of this, the number of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh has increased even in Assam.
However, under political pressure, for the first time, the National Population Register (NPR) was created in 2010 and updated in 2015. The NRC exercise was undertaken in Assam only when the Supreme Court intervened in the matter. The updating of the NRC on August 31, 2019, has thrown up its own challenges. As no serious step was taken to check the illegal migration even after the signing of the accord in 1985, people kept coming to Assam unhindered.
The NRC exercise left nearly 1.9 million out of the citizenship register of which more than a million were Hindus. These are the people who had left Bangladesh under difficult circumstances after facing religious persecution in that country. If the Central government tries to send them back or leaves them stateless in India, it would create a new problem. The CAA has been created to deal with this challenge. Besides, it will also help the non-Muslim minorities who have fled from Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The argument that the CAA goes against the spirit of the Indian Constitution and secularism is bogus. People who say this have to look at the history of South Asia and how states were created here. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims as Jinnah and his party, the Muslim League, argued that Muslims and Hindus were two nations. He further argued that Muslims were not safe in Hindu-majority India. If this is so, then how can a Muslim be persecuted in his homeland of Pakistan or Bangladesh? Some critics of the CAA say that the Ahmadis are persecuted in Pakistan. Interestingly, Ahmadis, on the other hand, take pride in supporting Jinnah and helping him create Pakistan.
The issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh has become complicated because of the inaction of the Central governments in the past. This has led to a massive increase in their numbers and infiltrators have now moved to almost all parts of India.
The states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal have borne the brunt for being the bordering states of Bangladesh. It’s hardly surprising that the people of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura are concerned about the changing demography of these states. However, they should also realise that at present, the judiciary in India, including the Supreme Court, and the Central government, seem serious and are working in tandem to deal with this vexed issue of illegal migration.
People who don’t want a solution to the problem of illegal immigration are spreading the lie that the CAA would lead to a large-scale migration from Bangladesh and the Assamese people would be overrun. Nothing could be far from the facts. Political parties which did nothing to check illegal immigration since Independence are now talking of protecting the Assamese language and culture. Clearly, they don’t mean what they are saying. They just want to put the whole process in limbo to gain political and electoral advantage. They also argue that they don’t want ‘Assam to be run by Nagpur’. But if the illegal immigration from Bangladesh continues, it would be a recipe for Islamist rule in Assam.
The issue of illegal immigration has always been a political football. It’s high time political parties in India stop acting on the basis of their short-term political and electoral interests.
The Central government has already declared the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, even for the Hindu migrants. At this point, the interests of the affected states in the North-East are better served by cooperating with the authorities.
If the exercise of NRC and NPR is halted for whatever reason at this time, then there will be no solution to the issue of illegal migration in the foreseeable future.
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