Right-wing politics at play

Print edition : February 28, 2003

A long-term solution to the problems of border demarcation and illegal migration will prove elusive as long as the BJP views these through the communal prism.

in New Delhi

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani with West Bengal Governor Viren J. Shah (left) and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Kolkata.-BIKAS DAS/AP

RELATIONS between India and Bangladesh faced fresh and serious strains when tensions arose at the Satgachi outpost. Caught in the vortex of the diplomatic parleys was a group of 213 immigrants who were left high and dry on the border. The Border Security Force refused them into Indian territory. The Bangladesh Rifles said they were Indian citizens. As the group of people was pushed around at gunpoint, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) offered to deliver humanitarian aid if approached by either country. Meanwhile, efforts were mounted in New Delhi to resolve the crisis - which was essentially of the government's own making.

On February 3, a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs, Mira Shankar, met the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, Tufail K. Haider. She reiterated that the citizenship of the 213 people was not an issue as far as India was concerned - for they are all Bangladeshis. Haider was firmly told to take back the Bangladeshi nationals stranded in "no-man's-land''.

The border incident was symptomatic of the larger problems that plague India-Bangladesh relations. It took place just nine days after the two sides came together in Dhaka for a Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting held to resolve the issue of the demarcation of the border, mark enclaves and exchange adverse possessions. The JWGs, which have been meeting regularly since February 2001, have achieved little so far. These meetings have not gone beyond the exchange of documents and data. On January 24, the two-day meeting ended without any positive outcome. The two sides discussed several outstanding issues, including the demarcation of land boundaries, but did not make any headway. There was no joint statement at the end of the deliberations.

This was not surprising given the prevailing political mood in both the countries, which seems to prefer trading accusations and counter-accusations rather than exchanging goodwill. As a result, relations have been on a steady decline. The recent crisis came in the wake of accusations made by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who threatened the immediate deportation of all Bangladeshis who are in India. This was the second in a series of adverse comments by Advani. On November 7, 2002 he had said that Bangladesh was becoming a hotbed of activities of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This caused resentment in Dhaka.

On January 7, addressing a Conference of Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police, Advani said that the 11,500 or so Pakistani nationals and half a crore or so Bangladeshis who remain in India after the expiry of their visas posed a serious threat to the country's internal security. He said the Central government had delegated to the State governments and Union Territories the powers to deport those who are overstaying.

Advani announced that national identity cards would be issued to the people in 13 States in order to combat the "serious threat'' to internal security caused by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. The States concerned are Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Pondicherry and Delhi.

Advani's comments elicited protests in Bangladesh, and Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury questioned the figure that was mentioned. Dhaka sought an explanation from India regarding "contravention of the laid-down legal rules to deport illegal people''. The Foreign Secretary asked: ``Did he refer to the movement of people before or after the Partition of India in 1947?'' During the Liberation War in 1971, nearly 10 million people took refuge in India and in February 1972 the Indian authorities made an open statement that all of them had returned home. Chowdhury said: "It is nothing more than an inspired anti-Bangladeshi propaganda ploy done from time to time seeking to project Bangladesh in a negative light internationally.''

IN India, Advani's proposal raised questions about the merits of the exercise of detection and deportation of aliens. The step is easier said than done, point out experts. Advani's claims are found to be questionable on several counts. For one, illegal Bangladeshis are well entrenched in India. They have their names in the voters' list and have acquired ration cards. They have become a part of vote bank politics, making it difficult for political parties to muster the political will to make their exit possible. Second, logistic bottlenecks such as identification of immigrants on the basis of spoken language or religion would place a question mark over the whole exercise.

It was clear that for right-wing political reasons Advani was keen to identify Bangladeshis as "infiltrators'' rather than as "economic migrants''. As the reality stands, most of them come to India in search of economic opportunities, given the demand for cheap labour by Indian households and employers. Said writer and activist Sanjoy Hazarika: ``While detection is a possible solution, when it comes to Bangladeshi migrants their deportation is near-impossible.'' Issuing national identity cards to all residents in India and special work permits to fresh entrants from Bangladesh may be a workable solution. Such an exercise should, however, be sensitive to the ground reality that most Bangladeshi migrants are economic migrants and are also contributing to India's economy.

The deportation of Bangladeshis has remained a contentious issue in India with little consensus within political parties on how to resolve it. A large proportion of them are concentrated in the northeastern States, Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi and Maharashtra. A majority of the deportations so far has taken place from Maharashtra and West Bengal. However, it is in Assam that the political fissures are apparent most on the issue. Much political bickering has taken place on the issue of the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunals Act. In August 2000, the Supreme Court ordered the Central government to repeal the Act by January 2001. The court ruled that the law, which is largely aimed at illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, is being applied only in Assam and is therefore discriminatory. The order has not yet been complied with. The Central government acknowledged that the law had been applied in a discriminatory manner and was aimed at Bangladeshis but claimed that it was unable to repeal the Act for the lack of a consensus on the issue in Parliament. The Congress(I) in Assam has been opposed to such repeal, and has stalled it in Parliament. Hazarika said: "As a result, an incompetent law which stands the international law on its head continues to be used in Assam. The rate of prosecution is dismal. My estimate is that three lakh complaints must have been filed under the Act in the period between 1985 and 1998. Because of the ineffectual provisions of the Act, only 1,500 illegal immigrants have been detected so far.''

What has lately complicated the picture in Assam is the stand taken by Hindu fundamentalist forces such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Its senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore has promised to conduct a "survey'' in April to find the number of illegal migrants in each district in Assam. A survey by the Bajrang Dal will be preceded by a rath yatra organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which will work to mobilise the people against Muslim migrants.

For over a decade now the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) have been alleging that neither the Centre nor the State government had done anything to stop infiltration. While the AASU is up in arms against all illegal migrants irrespective of their religion, the Sangh Parivar's definition of infiltrators covers only Muslims.

While the exercise of demarcation of the border through diplomatic channels could resolve the issue in the longer run, the BJP's tendency to see the migrants issue through the prism of Muslim infiltration has made a long-term solution impossible. Legally, the migrants issue has so far been handled in an ad hoc manner. Says advocate Jasmeet Singh Wadehra: ``We need to regulate the Bangladeshi immigrants in a better fashion than has been done so far.'' Constitutionally, illegal migrants come under the purview of the Foreigners Act, 1946. This has placed the Bangladeshi immigrants in the same category as refugees, asylum-seekers and others who have overstayed their visa. With the government bent on approaching the issue as the "Muslim other'', the chances of a constitutional amendment being made are dismal.

As things stand, once they enter India illegally it becomes nearly impossible for Bangladeshi immigrants to change their status to citizens of India through legal means. Legally no status determination of Bangladeshis has taken place; political decisions alone have decided their fate. A constitutional or diplomatic solution to the problem is a distant prospect with the BJP-led government concentrating on its communal politics. That the latest border incident took place within less than a month of the National Democratic Alliance government holding a jamboree for non-resident Indians to attract rich ethnic Indians abroad only revealed the nature of the iniquitous promises of a government which is unwilling to resolve long-standing issues with a relatively poor neighbour.

In Bangladesh it is common for India to be referred to as a big neighbour with a small heart. In India it is not uncommon to see an element of surprise when Bangladesh does not act like a docile or quiescent neighbour. The BJP's right-wing politics has only made matters worse.

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