Beggaring the neighbour

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The NDA government's hard-line position on suspected Bangladeshi migrants reeks of hypocrisy and xenophobia; it will earn India enormous discredit in the neighbourhood.

IT was hard not to be moved by the plight of the 213 "gypsy snake charmers" who became the object of utter and complete brutalisation by both India's Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), and were stranded in no-man's-land near Satgachi for six days. Until a group of "cattle-smugglers" reportedly brokered a deal for their re-entry into Bangladesh, they were disowned by both governments, and suffered more than 30 "push-in" and "counter-push-in" operations.

The wretchedly poor people belong to other "no-man's-lands" or grey zones too. They are Muslim by birth and have Islamic names. But they worship a snake goddess and follow a host of Hindu rituals. Culturally, they belong to neither country, and yet to both. They also straddle that other grey, indeterminate, space between tradition and modernity, between settled and nomadic existence, between belonging and homelessness, between independence of spirit and helpless dependence on the charity of spectators.

The 213 people were transformed from flesh-and-blood human beings into mere inanimate objects: litmus tests for macho nationalism to determine which of the two contesting states has the stronger will and which blinks first; bones of contention between ultra-nationalists in both countries; and objects of ridicule as "illegal aliens", "infiltrators" and worse.

It should worry and shame us that Satgachi almost became an India-Bangladesh version of Sangatte, the recently closed down transit camp in France for the much-vilified refugees from all over the Third World who would try and enter Britain from it by perilously climbing on to fast-running trains. The difference was, there were many human rights activists from both France and Britain, who fed, protected and defended the Sangatte refugees. At Satgachi, there were none. The 213 became victims not just of two paramilitary forces, but of callousness on the part of civil society and pitiless disregard on the part of the privileged.

The present crisis began on January 15, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government launched semi-military operations to summarily deport "illegally overstaying" migrants from Bangladesh. The backdrop to this was a series of intemperate statements by India's Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani and other functionaries, claiming that there are 15 million, even 20 million, Bangladeshis who live here illegally. Advani said they pose "the biggest threat to national security".

Advani told journalists at Bhiwani in Haryana on November 7 that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the Al-Qaeda are both particularly active in Bangladesh, from where they now conduct "subversive" operations against India. On January 6, Advani addressed State Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police and said that 11,500 Pakistani nationals and as many as 15 million Bangladeshis have been overstaying the duration of their visas in India; they deserve to be deported.

This is part of the hysterical campaign that Advani & Co have conducted over the past few months about the country's "extremely grave" security situation - something worse than an "emergency", and rather "like war", where all Indian leaders are under threat "all the time" from all kinds of dark forces, ultimately traceable to our Western neighbour and, of course, in the Sangh Parivar's demonology, to Islam.

This is the Advani version of the "Foreign Hand", which once brought discredit to a leader belonging to a camp Advani considers inimical, namely Indira Gandhi, who blamed external conspiracies for all domestic problems and failures. The difference is that for Indira Gandhi, the "Foreign Hand" referred to hegemonic powers like the United States. Advani's "Foreign Hand" comes from India's immediate neighbourhood, from states far weaker than itself.

This campaign is integrally, inseparably, linked to the xenophobic hysteria, which the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to work up on the issue of immigration. This is an extension of its line on "terrorism" as the biggest threat to the very existence of Indian society, from which fierce, militarist nationalism alone can protect it. In early February, Advani in Southeast Asia elevated (military) "security" to the plane of "development" itself. The same "security-above-all-else" message is likely to be rung out of the BJP Yuva Morcha's "international" conference on terrorism on February 10-11.

The BJP is making this a major issue in the coming round of Assembly elections. Unlike the Ayodhya temple or Article 370 - and efforts to sabotage a "healing touch" approach in Kashmir - the party hopes it will not be strongly opposed on this, and can even claim a consensus, just as it very nearly did on the recent 10-month-long military confrontation with Pakistan. It is using the "patriotic" card to play a deep communal game.

This xenophobic campaign is fundamentally ill-conceived and based on prejudice. Admittedly, significant numbers of Bangladeshi nationals have migrated into this country, some of them illegally. But 15 or 20 million can only be a wild exaggeration, based on reckless speculation, coupled with paranoia. If there were indeed an influx of this magnitude, a radical demographic change would have been evident not only in a number of States that border Bangladesh, but also further away in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and all the way to the relatively more prosperous West and South.

A majority of Bangladeshi migrants are essentially economic refugees, fighting for basic survival by moving from one of the world's poorest countries into one that is slightly less poor. Yet, neither the Census of India nor the Election Commission's rolls show any radical demographic change. In many cases, the proportion of Hindus in the population has risen, not fallen.

As distinct from the vague, non-quantified concept of a "huge influx" of "illegal immigrants", relatively credible numbers are available on legal refugees from sources such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These put them at a maximum of 325,600, including those from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Myanmar. With the return of the Afghans, and deportation of the Chakmas and many Sri Lankan Tamils, the numbers could only have fallen from that peak.

It is utterly irresponsible for high government functionaries, especially the Home Minister, to make provocative allegations unsupported by systematic surveys and hard empirical evidence. Where investigations were undertaken - for instance in Delhi, where the BJP launched an "Oust Bangladeshis" campaign 10 years ago, or in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena tried to repeat it in 1995 - the results disproved the official claim. This is also true of the latest surveys in Delhi in areas such as Yamuna Pushta, where the police found just 200 Bangladeshis instead of the tens of thousands expected.

Large-scale illegal immigration cannot take place, indeed is inconceivable, without extensive corruption in India's state apparatus, beginning with the organisations in charge of security, working through the police and ration-card authorities, numerous agencies which register births and deaths or deal with urban housing, all the way to electoral rolls and land-ownership certificates. This corruption is well known, and widely experienced by Indian citizens.

It is a measure of the monumental hypocrisy of our high functionaries that they have done nothing to cleanse the state apparatus, and that they do everything possible to harass and vilify those who are merely suspected to have crossed over illegally in search of a modest, often miserable, livelihood.

THIS attitude is no different from the xenophobic racism of the developed countries, which conjures up fears of their societies being "overrun" by people of colour from the Third World. These attitudes ignore historical inequalities and structures of oppression, enforced through right-wing policies that endanger survival in parts of the Global South. These xenophobes are morally insensitive to colonialism and the enduring inequalities it produced. As the slogan of the immigrants' movement in Western Europe for equal rights used to say: "We are here because you were there."

Some other factors make the Indian official attitude especially hypocritical. India is the source of 20 million-plus pravasis and migrants, some of them illegal. Illegal emigration from India literally runs into tens of thousands of people each year. In 1999, the government told the Lok Sabha that a total of 2,36,085 nationals were deported to India from various countries over less than three-and-a half years.

India has also been indicted by various international reports on "human trafficking". This is a modern version of the slave trade, especially in women and children. A July 2001 U.S. State Department report places India, along with Bangladesh, Nepal, China and Sri Lanka, among states that do not practise minimum standards to prevent trafficking, but "are making significant efforts to comply". New Delhi staunchly denies such reports.

Exact figures are not easy to come by on the number of Indians who emigrate illegally. But each year, there are gruesome stories of mostly young people taking enormous risks, and often dying, in the process of reaching foreign shores. Among the worst was the 1996 Malta Boat Tragedy in which 283 youth from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were drowned. In 1997, Pradeep Saini, a Sikh youth, miraculously survived a 10-hour ordeal stowed away in the wheel-bay of a Jumbo jet which landed at Heathrow from New Delhi. Pradeep survived the journey in spite of temperatures "plunging to -50{+o} degrees Celsius" and lack of oxygen. But his younger brother "froze to death".

Reproduced below are random excerpts from recent newspaper clippings:

January 24, 1997: "Saudi Arabia will deport within a week another batch of 46 Indian children, illegally staying in the oil-rich kingdom and begging on the streets in holy places there ... These children are at present lodged at the deportation centre in Jeddah ... What makes Indians go to Saudi Arabia to beg? Since ... Muslims believe in charity, especially during the month of Ramdan, a beggar in Saudi Arabia can earn Rs.500 at one go. [A] whole lot of middlemen ... from India are involved in sending beggars to Saudi Arabia."

October 9, 1997: "Over 26,000 Indians from Saudi Arabia and 4,000 from Bahrain have left for India availing [themselves] of an amnesty ... for illegal immigrants". "On an average 350 to 500 people approach the embassy and consulate daily for the emergency certificate, which is a one-way travel document to travel to India."

The Times of India on February 2 last reproduced an Agence France Presse (AFP) photograph illustrating "how illegal immigrants from India and Pakistan are smuggled from China into Hong Kong inside suitcases by a smuggling syndicate". The immigrants are wheeled across the Lowu border from the southern city of Shenzhen. The smugglers charge up to $300 per person.

In 1997, the Indian Ambassador to Belarus, Madhu Bhaduri, made The Road to Germany, a 90-minute film on illegal immigrants passing through Belarus en route to Lithuania, Poland and finally Germany. "The camera," wrote a reviewer, "moves from one immigrant to another, freeze-framing their memories of extortion and even torture at the hands of first, the agents and of the police when captured. There is Raju Marwari, who was robbed and stripped and left unconscious on the freezing streets of Minsk ... One of the boys tells of how he had to bribe the camp guards with his woollens - first his gloves, then his sweaters and finally his jacket - before they would let him use the toilet."

Most Indians would consider it the duty of our embassies abroad to protect these vulnerable people. We would hate to see them being humiliated and deported forcibly. Yet, we adopt altogether different attitudes when it comes to Bangladeshis, who are culturally close to us.

SUCH double standards can only spring from monumental arrogance and supercilious attitudes towards Bangladesh, which many Indians imagine, we brought into being - something for which "those people" are not even grateful.

It is precisely this arrogance that led India to erect a barrage on the Ganga at Farakka unilaterally in 1975. It also precipitated the terrible armed clash between the BSF and the BDR in April 2001 over disputes on the ownership of some 200 "enclaves". Eighteen people were killed in the clash.

Then, BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra accused "rogue elements" in the BDR of being in league with the ISI. He accused Bangladesh of having "taken advantage of the fact that we are friends", but warned "friendship should not be taken as a sign of softness". BJP and Shiv Sena leaders described Bangladesh as a "small, poor state", an "Indian creation", which should never aspire to dignity, or to equality with India. The "Pakistan link" theory was pure, self-serving speculation. Bangladesh's Prime Minister then was Sheikh Hasina, considered sympathetic to India.

Today, under Khaleda Zia's premiership, the same charge is mindlessly repeated by the same Sangh Parivar bunch. They stoop to insulting Bangladesh as a vassal state of Pakistan. It is as if Bangladesh's struggle for liberation was meaningless. It is beyond their comprehension that people in small countries have dignity and self-esteem.

Many Bangladeshis do not see India's support to the liberation struggle as wholly principled or selfless. Rather, New Delhi tried to influence events in its own favour. There is an ugly side to India's current image - as an overbearing, increasingly arrogant nation with pretensions to global superpower status, which looks down upon its neighbours. India now thinks it is in another league as a nuclear weapons-state, a prime ally of the U.S., an IT superpower, an emerging industrial giant. The NDA government's conduct, driven by base political motives, is sure to darken India's image and cost it huge amounts of goodwill.

One final proposition. The effects of strong anti-Bangladeshi prejudice have been nowhere more evident than in Assam, which in the first half of the 1980s saw a coercive agitation by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) against "foreigners". I covered the movement in its most vigorous phase. Then too, all kinds of numbers about illegal immigrants and bahiragatas (outsiders/aliens) were bandied about - two, four, seven million, in an 18-million population. Many educated people believed this and attributed all of Assam's problems, including its lack of industrialisation, even entrepreneurship, to illegal migration.

AASU's rabid elements eventually evolved in two directions: the United Liberation Front of Asom, which wants secession from India on ethnic grounds; and the Asom Gana Parishad, an inept and discredited political party. The net result of the anti-"foreigner" agitation, besides economic disruption, social unrest and a culture of violence, was the Illegal Migrants (Determination) Tribunals Act, under which illegal migrants were to be deported. Over two decades, less than 1,500 people have been deported.

There is a simple lesson. India and Bangladesh should negotiate ways of jointly identifying migrants and instituting work permits. Coercive methods just won't do. Nor will xenophobia and Islamophobia.

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