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November 19, 1998


With the assembly election, there have been no more round-ups of Bangladeshis

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Patralekha Chatterjee in Delhi

It was dark under South Delhi's Moolchand fly-over. Two beggars and a rag picker were arguing over the day's spoils. The lame old beggar was dribbling in his rage. The young beggar kept saying, "the sack was full of paper. I know you sold it for thirty rupees. Now give us our share." The rag picker did not agree. All spoke in a dialect of Bengali you would not hear this side of the Padma.

The accent, the turn of phrase give them away. The threat of deportation looms large. But the Bangladeshis have carved out a niche for themselves in India's crowded job market. At the lowest rung of the capital's rag trade, pulling rickshaws, working in middle class homes, sweating it out at construction sites, they still hang on, feigning a Hindu name and a fake birthplace. It is not much of a life, but better than back home.

For the Bangladeshi rag picker, survival often means outwitting, and undercutting his rival -- the Bihari migrant -- who roams the streets, scrounging for trash. On a good day, the pickings can be up to Rs 150. Then, there are days when the income is zero.

Bangladeshis without valid papers are usually fair game for politicians of a certain hue in India. In the past, the Bharatiya Janata Party has often demanded that Bangladeshis be sent home by force. The BJP has also often accused its main political rival, the Congress, of shielding illegal Bangladeshi immigrants for the sake of the vote bank they represent.

Right now, the BJP is in power in Delhi. In September, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office in Delhi deported 30 Bangladeshis without valid papers. The local police had picked up most of them from slums in east and north Delhi.

But, with the assembly election, there have been no more round-ups. The police say they have too many other things to do -- like trying to tackle the rising rate of robberies in the city. The cash-strapped and under-staffed FRRO admits it has no money and no infrastructure to deal with the flood of illegal migrants.

Political analysts wonder if the ruling party sees the immigrants as a potential vote bank this time -- immigrants are traditionally prone to vote for the party in power. This electoral calculation will work for the BJP only if the immigrant vote can outweigh the votes of the Hindu middle class voter who is presumably happy if the immigrants are sent back. Or is it that the Hindu middle class voter does not really care? Does he actually prefer to have on tap a labourer willing to undercut others in terms of cost?

A cynic would see a curious pattern in the bouts of activity and the long stretches of inactivity. Do Indians really want to see the last of the Bangladeshis? India and Bangladesh are in pretty much the same situation as the United States and Mexico. Despite the fences, the walls, the gadgetry and the dollars spent beefing up the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, ever-increasing numbers of impoverished Mexicans sneak into affluent United States. If illegal migrants often outwit the US border patrol, the reason is obvious. The pull factor is strong. Americans have no qualms about exploiting the cheap labour pool of unskilled, illiterate Mexican and other workers to pick their crops, dig their ditches and clean their homes.

It is not fashionable to say so, but if India remains irresistible to poorer Bangladeshis -- despite the threats of deportation -- it is because illegal migrants from Bangladeshi serve a purpose. Middle class Indians willingly hire Bangladeshi domestic help at cut-price rates. Indian contractors prefer to use cheaper Bangladeshi labour to build houses and Indian politicians see a vote-bank in the swelling ranks of undocumented Bangladeshis in India's big cities.

Logistically, it is impossible to hunt down every Bangladeshi national who has sneaked into India, and intends to stay here. Moreover, there is much muddle-headed thinking on who exactly can be labeled an illegal migrant. The BJP, RSS and their ideological kin would have us believe that Hindu Bangladeshis who have sneaked into India have done so because of political persecution whereas Muslim Bangladeshis cross over the porous border with the idea of taking away jobs and homes from Indian nationals.

Organiser, the RSS weekly, suggests in its September 13 issue that it is the "responsibility and duty of Muslims in various localities to inform the police about such infiltrators residing in their midst" and observes that "had the Muslim community taken the initiative to ferret out such infiltration, what an amount of botheration and unpleasantness would have been saved!" But since the RSS recipe is tantamount to creating an atmosphere similar to that prevailing in Nazi Germany, it is unlikely to be ever implemented in democratic India.

The old market-place axiom would appear to provide a suitable remedy. Eliminate demand and the supply disappears. But as in the United States, there is a great deal of hypocrisy in the Indian attitude towards Bangladeshi migrants.

Admittedly, policing the 4,096 km Indo-Bangladeshi border running through villages, paddy fields, rivulets and individual dwellings, or quantifying the extent of illegal migration across it, are awesome tasks. Add to that the obtuse stand of labour-surplus Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government officially does not concede that any of its nationals are staying illegally in India. Even Bangladeshi scholars skirt the question of their countrymen illegally migrating to India.

A 1998 occasional paper by Tasleem Siddiqui of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka states "the current number of total migrant workers from Bangladesh is not available. The Government of Bangladesh only keeps record of Bangladeshis who have left the country for overseas employment each year. There is no data available on the migrant workers who return after finishing their contracts. Again, the figure provided by the government is a gross figure. According to such figures, from 1976 to 1997, 2,008,621 Bangladeshis have left the country for overseas employment."

However, as Siddiqui points out, "a large number of Bangladeshis go abroad, undocumented. These cases do not get formally recorded." Needless to say, India bears the brunt of this unrecorded flow of migrants. Employer sanctions such as those used in developed countries to monitor undocumented aliens will not work in this country, because 90% of workers, both in Bangladesh and India, are part of what economists call the "informal sector." Bangladeshis find work in India as agricultural labourers, rag pickers, rickshaw-pullers, domestic help, construction workers and so on. None of these activities form part of the statistically recorded organized sector.

Last year, in reply to a question in Parliament, the then home minister, Indrajit Gupta declared there were 10 million Bangladeshi nationals staying illegally in India. The real number, home ministry officials say privately, may be double that. How do we deal with the problem? Deportation, the favoured mode of dealing with the tide of illegal immigrants, is an impractical way of dealing with the issue.

How do you conclusively prove someone is a Bangladeshi migrant without valid papers when there is no way of even proving the citizenship of every Indian. Not every Indian has documents to prove his/her citizenship since identity cards are not mandatory in this country.

One such attempt in September 1992 -- code-named Operation Pushback -- was a huge fiasco. Hundreds, suspected to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, were rounded up by the police in Delhi and Mumbai and shipped to the border. Bangladesh refused to take them back and the Indian government was forced to abandon the operation. In August, the Mumbai police attempted a similar exercise, though on a smaller scale. Once again, the results were disastrous.

Opprobrium apart, there is the question of cost. According to a senior FRRO official in Delhi, it costs anything between Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 to verify the antecedents of a family, suspected of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Typically, outside West Bengal, the local police have a hard time distinguishing a Bengali migrant from a Bangladeshi. The latter always claim they are from West Bengal. Checking out the facts is a costly and time-consuming affair.

Further, in metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai, where there is already a large migrant population, there is no organised resistance to Bangladeshis. Second, as many Bangladeshi illegal immigrants would say privately, Indian politicians across the ideological divide have a stake in Bangladeshi illegal immigrants. With fake ration cards, they are convenient tools to shore up support bases during elections.

India and Bangladesh have to live with each other and the reality of a highly porous border. India has its teeming poor. It cannot host all the wretched in its neighborhood. In the long-term, the only sensible thing that India can do is to alleviate Bangladesh's poverty through aid and investment so that the incentive to migrate for a marginally better existence is reduced. As Abul Faquir, the Bangladeshi poet, wrote: Give me rice /Or I will eat up your map.

It isn't charity. Self-interest dictates that India take greater interest in Bangladesh's prosperity. However, in the short-term, India has to crack down on agents and corrupt border guards who facilitate the exodus.

In deportation lies the very real threat of sending out Indian Bengalis

Assembly Election '98

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