An opportunity to resolve Assam’s century-long heartburn over illegal immigration
One of the oldest political issues in Assam, dating back a century or so, is the issue of migration of Bengali Muslims to the fertile lands of the Brahmaputra basin. In 1947, this issue took on an international dimension and the subject of bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh, and accordingly became another thorn in the flesh of bilateral relations with Bangladesh. The underlying dynamic throughout the last century has been one where rapid demographic growth in what is now Bangladesh led to population pressures that are still causing an influx of immigrants into India, attracted by greater economic opportunity and unconstrained by the hard divisions that usually characterise national borders.
Throughout history, political parties in Assam have sought to benefit both from the migration and from opposition to it. So it is small wonder that on the one hand illegal immigration continues apace, and on the other, the issue of identifying illegal immigrants (less their actual repatriation) remains unresolved. The latest salvo in this game was fired by the Supreme Court, which struck down an Orwellian amendment of the Foreigner’s Act that the current Congress party-led central government had enacted to pervert the Supreme Court’s earlier decision to strike down an earlier law another Congress-party led government had enacted to pervert the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s decision, in effect, says that it is for suspected illegal immigrants to prove their Indian citizenship. It also directs the government to constitute the necessary tribunals and get done with the process of sorting out the real Bangladeshis from the real Indians.
The Supreme Court did not consider the practicality of the matter. And practicality is a serious matter. People are bound to each other by history, family relationships and other links that become all the more difficult to disentangle after one or two generations. It is possible to settle every single case on using well-grounded legal principles, of course, but that process will take a very long time. In the process, the entanglements will deepen, making the problem worse. In fact, the practical solution is staring at the face. But it requires both unprecedented political will and credible demonstration of India’s commitment to put an end to this problem. That solution is amnesty followed by even-handed, apolitical and no-nonsense approach to border control. It implies granting citizenship to all those who are already on this side of the border.
It has been attempted before. But a policy of amnesty is only as good as the enforcement that follows, which has been lax because of the appeal of vote-bank politics. There is also the contentious question over the cutoff for backdated amnesties, something that can be solved by not backdating in the first place.
Obviously, quarters that opposed the illegal immigration are unlikely to be enthusiastic about granting the illegals citizenship. Similarly, quarters that profit from the inflow of illegals are unlikely to be enthusiastic about strict enforcement of border controls. Before the Supreme Court’s decision, these quarters had no reason to compromise. Now they do. The big question, though, is will they?