Across the river and into the trees

Across the river and into the trees

By Gautam Mukherjee | 9 July, 2016
A Border Security Force (BSF) soldier stands with his bicycle as he patrols the unfenced India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal on 20 June, 2015. REUTERS
There are lakhs of people on the electoral rolls of the eastern border states with ‘D’ for doubtful written next to their names when it comes to the authenticity of their Indian citizenship.

It made him feel as a wound does that you think you cannot bear.

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. 

There is something of a war in Partition and illegal immigration. Not only is it rooted in an artificial dismembering that makes little sense to the ordinary people affected by it, they go on to write their own narrative.

This is a story written by ordinary people, independent of the pundits. It rides, not on one horse like a motive, but on a herd of conceptual horses.

The border problems of Bangladeshis infiltrating into India, disowned if returned by their own government and that of Mexico and Mexicans sneaking into America are not very different. Or for that matter the Syrians that are desperately fleeing into Europe. In that sense, there is a certain universality about it—war as a catalyst and economics as a slow-burn, quite apart from the sinister uses such immigration can be put to when infiltrated by inimical forces.

Bangladeshis and Mexicans principally cross the border illegally because impoverished and illiterate as they are, they have no other way to do so. And the simple motive—to make a better life for themselves, even if it is as a construction worker, a domestic servant or a prostitute. That these people are used by politicians on the other side to create vote banks and by terrorists as human cover/shields, indeed even by their own governments, to ease a chronic lack of opportunities is another story altogether.

But at the core, on our eastern borders, it is a human problem of migration based on an economically unviable partition and the commonality of a shared sub-continental ethos. This, of course, is compounded, both when bilateral relationships deteriorate and also when they get better, as at present.

There were already 3,084,826 Bangladeshis in India as per the 2001 census, albeit not all of them illegal, or they wouldn’t readily own up. Nothing is written on the matter in the 2011 census, updated to 2013. It is as if the question was not asked because the government did not want to know.

But yes there are lakhs of people on the electoral rolls of the eastern border states with “D” for doubtful written next to their names when it comes to the authenticity of their Indian citizenship. Attempts to update the National Register of Citizens (NCR) have been on since 2005. To determine which is which has proved to be a gargantuan and easily stymied task.

Any one of 14 none too secure documents can be used to lay claim to citizenship. These include a bank/post office account, or an LIC policy document in one’s name, amongst more onerous ones like a copy of the NRC 1951 showing one’s name, or that of an acceptable ancestor, or one’s name on the electoral roll up to 1971. It is no wonder that the grand sounding NRC is seen to be just a method to legitimise lakhs of illegal immigrants.

Inevitably, therefore, the NRC process has led to multiple political protests, especially from the original and indigenous population in the eastern border states. Voices have been raised, however, both for and against the procedure and court interventions have been made all the way up to the Supreme Court (SC).

The SC has tried to institute a time-frame for the completion of the exercise, which, accordingly, was meant to have been concluded by January 2016. Nothing of the sort has happened.

The former three-time Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, laid some stock by the NRC exercise, and many think of course that he would because the Congress is widely perceived to have aided and abetted illegal Bangladeshi immigration to bolster their Muslim vote banks. This tacit immigration policy, though below the radar, led to periodic clashes with the native Assamese, including the infamous Nellie massacre of 1993 and the bloody ethnic riots of recent times. There are Muslim majority districts, in most, if not all, the border states, where dramatic demographic changes have taken place in recent years.

The deterioration in the demographic situation fraught with multiple implications, was a big feature of the recently concluded Assembly elections in Assam. Congress lost the elections convincingly, partially due to anti-incumbency and dynasty politics, but also because of encouraging rampant Bangladeshi illegal immigration through a long and porous border.

While the Assam border with Bangladesh is only about 350 km long, the entire border touching our eastern states is 4,100 km long. And there are similar echoes and rumblings emanating from Tripura and Meghalaya as well, though the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal has benefited electorally from its patronage of Bangladeshi immigrants. However, there too, communal clashes in the border areas like the North 24 Parganas and Malda are increasing in number and viciousness.

This is partly because in the wake of the needy immigrants, there is a caravan train of professionalised terrorists, smugglers of counterfeit currency, human traffickers, particularly of young women, bomb-makers and political seditionists—some with affiliations with the Pakistani ISI—Chinese agent provocateurs, Maoists, other insurrectionists aiming at the Northeast, and “non-state actors”.

Smuggling is an organised business too and covers in-demand Indian bicycles and cows, herded across to beef-eating Bangladesh, as well as gold, silver, drugs and betel nut coming the other way into India. All this cannot happen without organised collusion of the authorities on both sides. The overall current day problem, however, has a long trail embedded in the Partition. Not counting the Hindu exodus into West Bengal from East Pakistan in 1947 and its prelude, when the two-nation theory gained traction, the seeds of the present influx of Bangladeshi Muslims flooding in has its near genesis in the creation of Bangladesh on 24 March 1971. Some 10 million Muslim refugees swarmed into West Bengal almost overnight.

The first gush were war-time refugees, whom we could scarcely turn away, having been instrumental in the liberation of their country, earning the undying hatred of Pakistan in the process. But the subsequent waves were economic refugees and fugitives. With illegal and constant reinforcements—91,000 per annum between 1981-1991, as per a sober assessment by Samir Guha Roy of the Indian Statistical Institute.

However, despite Guha Roy’s estimates, there are no thorough tallies of illegal Bangaldeshi infiltration even to date. When Maharashtra threw out what they called Bangladeshis, many turned out to Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, from West Bengal instead.

That is not to minimise the problem, however. Journalist Indrani Roy, writing in November 2014, cites a single festive night in 2011 when an estimated 100,000 Bangladeshis came into India from Khulna in Bangladesh to Taki, across the Ichhamati river. It wasVijaya Dashami (Dassera), the last night of Durga Puja. Traditionally, the idols were immersed in the middle of the Ichhamati from decades before Partition. But since this planned and massive breach of security taking advantage of the festive crowds on hand, the practice has now been discontinued.

The recent signing of the Land Boundary Agreement by the Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina governments and the exchange of various hamlets that were in positions of adverse possession have also helped reduce infiltration. And now, in redemption of an election pledge, the tight fencing of the entire Assam border and the strengthening of other vulnerable points along other contiguous states plagued by the same problem will also help.

But as the 85,000 BSF men who guard the border say, you need smart fencing, cameras, motion sensors, tamper-proof alarm systems, to cope. Of course, if there are millions of Bangladeshi Muslims who have come into India, enough to cause communal riots and demographic shifts in certain places, it has happened with massive political collusion, mostly on the part of successive Congress/UPA and Left governments in all the affected states.

But once in the country, the immigrants have made bold to travel all over in search of livelihood. There are significant numbers of Bangladeshis to be found in New Delhi, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Trivandrum, and so on, in addition to the border states and their capitals.

Most of whom have crossed over have acquired documentation—passports, Aadhar, election, PAN and ration cards. These are often under assumed names and addresses. Many have bought property. Muslim men and women are often seen posing as Hindus, given away only by slight differences in their use of the Bengali language. But others claim NRC style original inhabitant status as they brandish their documents.

Along with impoverished illegal immigrants, often aided and abetted by BSF personnel and area politicians, there are terrorists, moles and sleeper cells trained in Bangladesh and Pakistan and even China. These dangerous characters too have streamed in via Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal. Most recently they were identified as responsible for the Bardhaman (Burdwan) bomb factories and accidental blasts.

However, the ruling TMC is unwilling to crack down, mindful of its solid support amongst nearly 30% of the West Bengal population who are Muslims. This includes large contingents from Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Modi made campaign pledges in 2013-14 that he would identify and send back illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But, in practice, this is difficult to do, and stoutly opposed by, amongst others, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Besides friendly Bangladesh is not willing to accept them as illegal cross-overs either. We can secure the border to curb the menace, but will probably have to live with all, except those who stay on after their visas expire.

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