Since the outbreak of violence in western Assam this summer, some commentators have cited census figures to bolster their argument that “illegal immigration” of Bangladeshis to Assam is a myth. But others have inferred from the same set of data that illegal immigration is out of control, and that the Bodoland violence is its effect. However, the binary opposition between myth and reality that frames this discussion is problematic. Myths and reality tend to be more intertwined in human affairs.
Most commentaries on the Assam crisis seem to be incapable of seeing through the foundational myths of the post-Partition Indian state. Terms like “Bangladeshi” and “illegal immigrants”—and the assumption that the meaning of these terms is obvious—tend to focus on one part of the story of cross-border migration. Willingly or unwillingly, it ignores another equally important part: the persistent confusion about the people who cross the Indo-Bangladesh border without documentation.
By now it is clear to most observers that the Partition of 1947 did nothing to reverse the logic of Assam’s historical predicament as a frontier region with ample unclaimed land available for cultivation. The insertion of an international border could not suddenly turn off the flow of people from one of the subcontinent’s most densely populated areas to a relatively sparsely populated region. But that is only a part of the story.
What is less explicitly recognised is that significant migration of Hindus also continues to take place across the Partition’s eastern border, along with the migration of poor Muslims as also the circular migration of seasonal workers. Unlike the post-Partition border with Pakistan on the west, where an ‘exchange of population’ amidst extraordinary brutality more or less ended in the years immediately following the Partition, across the eastern border it has remained an open-ended process.
Indian citizenship laws may reflect the ground realities of the Partition’s western borders, but they do not take cognisance of the population flows across the eastern borders. However, there has been ex post facto acceptance of the ground realities of the east through amendments of our citizenship laws. The reason is not far to seek.
The official rejection of the two-nation theory means that Indian law cannot distinguish between Hindu and Muslim arrivals from Pakistan or Bangladesh except in the context of the immediate post-Partition years. Yet many in India believe that Hindus from Pakistan/Bangladesh have an implicit right of return. The international legal principle says that a person has the right to return to his or her “country of origin”. While Indian law does not recognise such a right of return, politically speaking, post-Partition India has never been in a position to close its doors to Hindus coming in from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. What this has meant is that the state has had to take the same attitude towards everyone else crossing the border since its secular ideology inhibits keeping the doors open to one set of immigrants and shutting them to another.
Certain peculiarities of our citizenship practices have made it possible to live with this ambivalence. Like in order to acquire Indian citizenship, legally speaking, a cross-border migrant from East Pakistan or Bangladesh has to go through a formal registration process—which is not a requirement for exercising voting rights. Voting rights in India are based on proxy citizenship papers. As a Task Force on Border Management constituted following the Kargil war puts it, “irrespective of the legal niceties, passport, election card and ration card are treated as evidence of citizenship”. But such proxy documents, said the Task Force, are “easy to get by providing an illegal gratification of just a few hundred rupees to the concerned functionaries in government departments”. It was dismayed by this state of affairs and called it a “disconcerting aspect of our national life”.
Whether this ‘aspect of our national life’ is ‘disconcerting’ or not, it has served our national mythology rather well. For all practical purposes, for the first three decades after independence, almost any adult in Assam could get his or her name included in the electoral rolls, allowing officials to simply sidestep the thorny problem of differentiating those immigrants that are legally entitled to Indian citizenship from those that are not.
These are rather strange clauses to have in a country’s citizenship laws. Indeed a date that now became a central part of Indian citizenship law thanks to this amendment—March 25, 1971—resonates more in Bangladesh than in India. For that was the day when the Pakistani military crackdown on the liberation struggle in East Pakistan began, initiating a massive exodus of refugees—Hindus as well as Muslims—to India. According to an agreement signed with India in 1972, Bangladesh took responsibility for those who moved to India during the liberation war. However, Bangladesh did not take responsibility for the migrants from East Pakistan who entered Assam before that. It was only because of this that Indian citizenship laws had to be amended to legitimise the status of all Hindus and Muslims who migrated from East Pakistan during the quarter century following the Partition. However, there was no public declaration of conferral of citizenship as such. As a result, while thousands of cross-border migrants were accepted as citizens through an amendment of the citizenship law, there was no effort to publicise the move in order to change popular perceptions at the grassroots.
The Way Out
To address the crisis of the institution of national citizenship at the heart of Assam’s political turmoil, Indians must accept that the Partition’s vision of two, and subsequently three, bounded nation-states does not quite match the subcontinent’s ground realities. But no one should expect that to be easy. After all, the idea that only citizens should vote and have a say in national policy is foundational to the contemporary global political imaginary. Whether India should recognise some version of a right of return like Israel or Germany should be debated as well. While it would be hard to grant such a right, an open debate can only serve the public interest, especially in Assam.
Meanwhile, India will have to find a way of having a meaningful conversation with Bangladesh on the cross-border movement of people. While there is a lot of talk in Indian society and polity about illegal immigration, Bangladesh flatly rejects the notion that there are any illegal Bangladeshi citizens living in India. Be that as it may, the two countries will have to find a way to talk about cross-border population movement rationally. If that were to happen, at least for a start an Indo-Bangladesh protocol on labour movement could take some of the pressure off from the circular migrant who now has to find proxy citizenship papers and participate in elections in order to find security. That could in turn reduce some of the strain on Assam’s legal and political institutions.
It is also incumbent upon the government to increase popular awareness of the amendments to Indian citizenship laws that has turned many formerly unauthorised immigrants into citizens, and to build grassroots political support for those laws.
(Sanjib Baruah is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York.)
This situation on the border and the issue of illegal migrants should have been sorted out at Independence (Why Maps Can’t Redraw the Truth, Sep 24). Every nation in the news today is there because of ‘international’ disputes. We were not ready for independence when we got it. It’s all the fault of the Brits, they delineated the border with Pakistan and China, why didn’t they tell us about its implications?
Aditya Mookerjee, Belgaum
The Congress destroyed the state of Assam with its votebank politics. What we need today is someone politically incorrect, some party that doesn’t mind losing the polls but will tell the truth like it is.
Like in Kerala, people in the Northeast need others to do their menial work for them. So you find that the farm labour, the construction worker, the domestic servant are all immigrants. Is it any wonder that in time, with the support of contractors and politicians, they have now started flexing their muscles?
Vishnu. S, Kollam
India is perhaps the only country where the government has no data on the number of illegal immigrants in the country nor is it interested in establishing even a reasonable estimate.
Mahesh Kumar, Delhi
All major parties like congress,bjp, aiduf and ajp thrives on this issue.
Political reasons aside the people in NE region ,especially the youth, do not want to work on fields, construction, and other menial jobs and earlier the majority of this works were done by Biharis but after ULFA started targetting them they left and now the only place Biharis visible is in guwahati railway station as porters , rikshawals and doodhwalas. Now almost the total construction workers, farm labourers and domestic servants are bengali speaking population( a good percentage of them are illegal immigrants). These workers are encouraged and protected by contractors and these contractors are in turn protected by the politicians. This riot will not be the last instead i can gurantee that soon same problem will start in othe NE states also.
------ What this has meant is that the state has had to take the same attitude towards everyone else crossing the border since its secular ideology inhibits keeping the doors open to one set of immigrants and shutting them to another. --------------
wait a sec............. is this dork arguring , Since India rejected 2 nation theory, India must accept everyone who crosses over the India/Bangla border (and India/Pak border) and make them a citizen?? ...
the dork continues.....
Whether India should recognise some version of a right of return like Israel or Germany should be debated as well. While it would be hard to grant such a right, an open debate can only serve the public interest, especially in Assam. ---------
that means millions of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis crossing over to India LEGALLY and becoming citizens and changing our demography forever!!!!! What an idiocy!!! Why would Outlook continue to publish such outlandishlt naive articles?
Right to retun.....??? especially Assam??? Did any Assamese got stuck in Bangladesh BEFORE partition??? to my knowledge NO.....then what right to return is the author talking about? Is he arguing since Assam has plenty of virgin lands Bangladeshis should be ALLOWED to settle in Assam (because Bangladeshis were Indian in the past)??? Nonsense!!
What is the solution? India seems to enjoy an existence, or at least the people do, that I wouldn't wish to my enemy. The North East has a border with China, and Bangladesh. Every nation in the news today, is there because of international disputes. Either territorial, or religious, or social, or political. This should have been addressed when India was made an independent nation. I don't think India needed independence immediately, when she got it. The British had delineated the border with Pakistan and China. Why did not the British explain what the border signified and implied? Did India know, why China and India had their borders? Why did India not convey her understanding of modern Indian history, and the British understanding with China, and ask Britain to explain to both China and India, together? The British made the nation of Pakistan, along with the political class, and Britain was assisting India by the appointment of Mountbatten as the first Governor General of India. India also had a British Army Chief of Staff, after independence.
Congress destroyed the state of Assam playing vote bank politics. Our intellectuals/media cannot take them head on because of the rampant pseudo secularism, oppurtunism plaguing every sphere of our politics and media. WE NEED SOMEONE POLITICALLY INCORRECT AND DARE TO LOSE ELECTIONS BUT WILL SPEAK THE TRUTH.
A brilliant and timely article that was long due. The exploration of the grey should remain the primary concern. I agree with Baruah's argument that the myth is not of Bangladeshi immigration, but that of the very foundation of a post-partition Indian state in the eastern region.
The fact remains, there has been reckless migration into Assam. And the sufferers are the migrants themselves. It is indeed, at the interest of maintaining a peaceful condition in Assam and the security of the migrants, both the nations need to work out a solution. The non-sensical poetics of eternal humanism, by evoking John Lenon, however tempting it may be, is not going to get us anywhere near a solution in a complex South Asian reality. Such intellectual attempts rather try to turn a blind eye to these inter-ethnic complexities.
Sanjib Baruah's article is thus refreshingly free from such eurocentric sweeping generalizations and formulations. It is a pragmatic rational way of looking at the whole thing.
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