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Unwanted guests from the East
May 07, 2003
Here is a conundrum for the legal eagles amongst you. Assume that a cat burglar enters your house and gets away with some piece of jewellery. The next day he gets careless, and is shot by an angry householder. Are the thief's children then entitled to claim that necklace which their father had stolen as part of the property that they have inherited?
I confess that I am using this as a metaphor. The cat burglar who broke and entered is an illegal migrant. The house is India itself. And the priceless property he stole -- and which his children now have the cheek to claim as by inherited right -- is citizenship of this republic. Trust me, this is no joke.
There are said to be up to 57 lakh [5.7 million] illegal migrants living in West Bengal alone. (Just to put that into perspective, that is roughly one-tenth the total population of the United Kingdom.) Conservative estimates say that there are 50 lakh more in Assam. Now, the menace has spread well beyond those states which have the misfortune to neighbour Bangladesh; the authorities are concerned as far away as Mumbai.
Some months ago we heard a lot about drastic measures to identify these illegal migrants and then to deport them. Has any action been taken, or has it all been just so much talk? One officer summed it up succinctly. The whole scheme, he says, has become little more than a 'Leave Travel Concession scheme courtesy the Government of India.' Here is why he waxes so sarcastic:
The special team in Delhi identified a few hundred illegal migrants. (That barely rates as the tip of the iceberg, but I suppose it was a beginning of sorts.) They were rounded up, and sent to a special camp. They were then sent under escort to West Bengal by train, to be pushed back across the frontier. There, the Border Security Force personnel flatly refused to handle anything more than ten, repeat ten, persons every day.
Simple mathematics says that at this rate India cannot deport more than 3,650 Bangladeshi migrants in the calendar year 2003. And the time taken to send back all one crore [10 million] or more of them is something to boggle the mind.
By some miracle -- known only to Heaven and the Border Security Force -- I understand that a few hundred were escorted across the international boundary. Here is the cream of the joke: some of them are now back in Delhi. I understand they are all very happy about the whole incident. And why should they not be? After all, they have just had a free holiday courtesy the Government of India, seen all their friends and relatives back home, and then come straight back after about a month's vacation. Now, do you see why officers are sarcastically calling it a 'Leave Travel Concession scheme'?
But let me return where I began: with the children of all those illegal migrants. It is safe to assume that at least a tenth -- an underestimation if ever there was one -- of those one crore Bangladeshi will marry and reproduce. And under the law as it exists today those children born on Indian soil may claim Indian citizenship as by right. This is one of those situations where one can only helplessly echo Dickens and exclaim that 'the law is an ass!'
Mercifully, laws made by men can be repealed or amended, and this is one such case. New legislation is on the anvil that will make it illegal for the children of illegal migrants to claim Indian citizenship automatically. But this is not going to solve the problem in its entirety since it only blocks any automatic grant of citizenship; the offspring of illegal migrants are still free to claim the right to stay on through other means. That is not really good enough, but something is better than nothing.
I think we may as well face the fact that it is impossible to wield the broom on the one crore or so Bangladeshis who are already here in India. All we can do now is to prevent any more useless mouths from entering. Give the Border Security Force 'shoot at sight' orders. And if anyone is caught employing illegal migrants, fine that employer so heavily that all his colleagues and competitors will also think twice. And, in Heaven's name, stop this farce of a 'Leave Travel Concession scheme' for Bangladeshis!
Tailpiece: I have been following the point-counterpoint on rediff's message boards with no little interest. While I don't have the time to participate actively, I would like to answer some of the points my readers make once in a while. So, here are some points relating to last week's column:
i. It was not T V R Shenoy but the Karunakaran faction that is trying to see Kerala politics through religious -- Hindu:non-Hindu -- spectacles. (I apologise if this point was left muddy.) Will such a ploy succeed in unseating Antony? The chief minister's well-known agnosticism and personal integrity leave him invulnerable to any charge of playing a communal, leave alone Christian, card. But Sonia Gandhi is not so secure, or, which comes to the same thing, *feels* less safe -- which is why there was so much talk of the high command being pro-Christian. Her pusillanimous response -- Muraleedharan being retained as president of the Pradesh Congress Committee, Ambika Sonia losing charge of Kerala -- suggests that it might be easier to remove Antony through Delhi than through direct action in Thiruvananthapuram.
ii. While I love Kerala, I have always been aware of the skull beneath the skin so to speak -- if not of actual communal conflict, then at least of the potential for the same. (No student of history could be otherwise; the Moplah Rebellion was as ghastly an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim battle as anything seen before Partition -- and without a tenth of the reason.) Recent events in Kozhikode district's Marad village give the point to my fears. Communal harmony is not a gift from the gods, everyone in Kerala must work actively to create and then maintain it.
iii. One reader commented that I had my facts wrong in citing Andhra Pradesh's Rajasekhara Reddy as a Christian. There is no need to debate this; without venturing too far, I suggest taking a look at this article which covered the point quite adequately.
Finally, do keep those brickbats coming, while I can't respond on a point-by-point basis, I promise to skim all of them. (Bouquets would be nice too, but in my experience disagreement is always more likely to draw out a letter!)
T V R Shenoy