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Focus back on illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam

G Vinayak in Guwahati | June 04, 2005 17:07 IST

With less than a year to go for assembly elections in Assam, the issue of influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants into the state is back in focus.

The trigger was a subtle campaign launched by a group of youths in eastern Assam's Dibrugarh town urging people not to deal with or employ illegal immigrants.

The campaign initially triggered an exodus of just about 300 labourers from the upper Assam town, but the state government, not willing to take any chances on a possible communal flare-up since Assam has 30 per cent Muslim population immediately went into a damage control mode.
The operation launched by a youth group calling itself the Chiring Chapori Yuva Mancha had a four-point agenda --  urge the public not to employ illegal Bangladeshis; not to travel in any vehicle driven/plied by them; not to have any business transaction with suspected illegal Bangladeshis, and not to provide them with shelter.

Although many suspected illegal Bangladeshis working in brick kilns and as rickshaw pullers in the area fled to unknown destinations following the Mancha's campaign, it became clear that all mainline political parties, including the supposedly anti-immigrant organisations like the Asom Gana Parishad or the Bharatiya Janata Party, are wary of taking a clear stand on the issue, lest they offend the Muslims in the run up to the assembly polls due next May.

The Congress, known to be heavily dependent on the Muslim vote in Assam, dubbed the campaign by the Chiring Chapori Yuva Mancha as a game plan of the BJP. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi went to the extent of saying that those who left Dibrugarh were not Bangladeshis but Indian citizens.

He, however, said his government was committed to detecting and deporting illegal migrants from Assam.

Adding to the confusion was a report of the Assam Governor Lt. Gen (retd) Ajai Singh -- leaked to the press -- which said upto 6,000 Bangladeshis enter Assam every day. Later, the Governor, under attack from the Congress and other minority organisations, retracted a bit by saying he meant 6,000 Bangladeshis were entering India and not just Assam every day.

Singh, however, could not explain on what basis he arrived at the figure. Bangladesh shares 4,095 km of border with India. Over 60 per cent of this border is unfenced. Assam shares nearly 270 km border with Bangladesh, most of which is riverine and hence difficult to fence. 

Infiltration of illegal Bangladeshis into Assam is of course not a new phenomenon. Between 1979 and 1985, the All Assam Students Union had spearheaded an agitation against the foreigners culminating in the August 15, 1985 Assam Accord.

In the intervening years since then, however, the issue has been more or less relegated to the backburner. Suddenly, the Dibrugarh campaign has brought the focus back on the touchy issue.

The AASU is jubilant. "It is a good move. We have been saying this since 1979 when a democratic movement was first launched to focus on the dangers of infiltration. You can't stop people from refusing employment to any particular labourer or domestic hand," says AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya.

The BJP, on the other hand, has backed the Mancha campaign and accused the Congress of trying to protect illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

The Asom Gana Parishad reacted cautiously. It expressed reservations about anyone taking the law into their own hands but blamed the Congress government for the exodus of genuine Indian citizens belonging to religious minorities from Dibrugarh.

This guarded response is being seen as part of the AGP plan to make inroads among the minorities in a traditional Congress stronghold.

Gogoi may deny the fact for his own political survival but the reality is, however, much grimmer than it is generally perceived.

The danger is not just that the illegal Bangladeshis are beginning to emerge as a strong economic force but that they are also gaining political muscle through larger numbers. There is no denying the fact that the names of a large number of Bangladeshi inflitartors have been included in the electoral rolls of the state. At a conservative estimate, the infiltrators are a decisive factor in at least 40 of the state's 126 assembly constituencies.

Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S K Sinha, the then governor of Assam, in a report to the President in November 1998 had given a grim assessment: "As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined. This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of Lower Assam [on the border with Bangladesh]. The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made. The rapid growth of international Islamic fundamentalism may provide the driving force for this demand…loss of Lower Assam [the area close to the Bangladesh border] will severe the entire land mass of the North East from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the Nation."

Sinha's report notwithstanding, there have been no serious attempts to look at this aspect of illegal migration in Assam. The latest episode, many are hoping will perhaps compel the Centre to give more attention to Assam's burning problem.

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