Unabated illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into Nagaland is
emerging as a major problem in the state, threatening to assume proportions that
have already disrupted populations and peace in the Northeastern neighbourhood.
Better economic prospects and a shortage of local labour are compounded by a
critical absence of mechanisms to prevent such an influx. Despite their serious
demographic, economic, security and political ramifications on a tiny state like
Nagaland, these developments continue to remain substantially outside the realm
of the security discourse in the country.
Nagaland does not share a direct land border with Bangladesh, but illegal migrants are infiltrating into the state from Assam, with which Nagaland shares a nearly 500-kilometre-long land border.
Areas around Dimapur town and the foothills along the Assam-Nagaland border have emerged as the prime targets of migration, spreading gradually thereafter into other distant locales. The very cosmopolitan nature of the Dimapur area makes detection of illegal migrants a difficult task. Worse, the illegal migrants are also in possession of valid official documents like ration cards and voter identity cards procured from the states of Assam or West Bengal, where these are available against a small bribe. The fact that Dimapur town and its surrounding areas are not covered under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, which prohibits all non-Naga outsiders (including Indian citizens) to settle in the area, is visibly being exploited by the immigrants before they trickle into other areas of the state.
Once in Nagaland, the illegal migrants manage to get absorbed in widely available occupations, including agricultural labour, domestic helps, rickshaw pullers, manual labourers in construction sites and shop attendants. Besides, a section among the locals patronize them by providing land for cultivation and temporary settlements. Bangladeshis, providing cheap labour, have become the preferred option, rather than the relatively expensive and inadequate pool of local workers.
Accurate estimates of the numbers of illegal migrants staying in Nagaland are not easy to come by. Available estimates vary between 75,000 and 300,000. Despite the absence of a precise figure, these estimates underscore the magnitude of the crisis in this tiny state, which has a total population of barely two million. Surprisingly, the Dimapur area alone is believed to have more than 100,000 illegal migrants. Way back in February 1999, the former Nagaland Chief Minister and currently the Governor of Goa, S.C. Jamir said that there were about 60,000 Bangladeshis illegally staying in Dimapur.
The continuing influx of illegal migrants has created a serious threat of destablisation in the state, with migrants progressively usurping the economic base of the Nagas. In major marketing areas of the state like Dimapur, they have already secured considerable influence in trade and commerce and this is expanding rapidly. Muslim migrants today run almost half of the shops in Dimapur, the biggest commercial hub of the state. In 2003, a local newspaper editorial noted succinctly, "There is no denying the fact that on any Muslim religious day, at least half of the shops in Kohima and some seventy five per cent in Dimapur, remain closed. The point is that this is a clear indication of how much the migrants have been able to make an impact on trading."
A survey conducted by the Nagaland state Directorate of Agriculture in 2003 revealed that about 71.73 per cent of the total business establishments in the state were controlled and run by ‘non-locals’ including both legal and illegal migrants. According to the report, out of the 23,777 shops in the state, the local people own only 6,722 shops (that is 28.27 per cent). While the report made no effort to separately identify illegal migrants among the shop owners, there is a large body of supplementary evidence that suggests their sizeable presence. Illegal migrants are also acquiring land and other immovable properties in collusions with their local sympathizers.
The impact of Bangladeshi migrants is also visible in the unstable demographic profile of the state. With a population of 19,88,636 under the Census of 2001, Nagaland recorded the highest rate of population growth in India, from 56.08 per cent in 1981-1991 to 64.41 per cent in the decade, 1991-2001. Significantly, the population growth was been uniform throughout the state. Several areas in the Dimapur and Wokha Districts bordering Assam have recorded exceptionally high population growth. Wokha district, bordering the Golaghat District of Assam, recorded the highest population growth of 95.01 per cent between 1991 and 2001, the highest figure for any district in the entire country. Evidently, the silent and unchecked influx of illegal migrants in the District, has played a crucial role in this abnormal growth.
Migrants marry locals to secure legal and social acceptability for their stay in the state. As a result, a new community locally called ‘Sumias’ has emerged in some parts of the state. These ‘Sumias’ are estimated in the several thousands and are concentrated mainly in the Dimapur and Kohima Districts. There are rising fears among locals that voters’ list are now being doctored to accommodate the "Sumias" as well as other migrants. These apprehensions have been further reinforced by the fact that, as the Census 2001 records, the population of Muslims in the state has more than trebled in the past decade, from 20,642 in 1991 to more than 75,000 in 2001. Illegal migrants are widely believed to account for an overwhelming proportion of this recorded increase.
Worried by such developments the vocal Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) has sought to impose restrictions on Naga girls marrying illegal migrants. On August 10, 2003, a Naga student leader said that the NSF has already imposed a ban on Naga girls marrying illegal migrants from Bangladesh. However, he also regretted the fact that the ban could not be strictly implemented. On some occasions, the student body also claimed to have ‘deported’ illegal settlers from the state. Unfortunately, those deported reportedly came back after a brief stay in neighbouring Assam. The state government has also claimed to have deported about 20,000 infiltrators between 1994 and 1997, but most of them were again reported to have come back. In any event, such claims of ‘deportation’ have little meaning as they involve nothing more than dumping the illegal migrants from one Indian state to another.
The presence of large number of foreign nationals has also created a vulnerable constituency for exploitation by hostile Bangladeshi and Pakistani Intelligence services. The threat has been further compounded with the emergence of several Islamist extremist groups in the region, who secure support from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence and the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
The debate on migration from Bangladesh has been politicized in the past, contributing directly to demographic destabilization in Nagaland and the wider Northeastern neighbourhood. Successive central and state governments have proved ineffective in formulating workable measures to stop the flow of illegal migrants into the country in general and the Nagaland in particular, and this neglect is extracting an increasing price in social, economic and security terms as time goes by, and threatens to secure the dimensions of a major internal security crisis in the foreseeable future.
M. Amarjeet Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine