The migration problem unpacked

Without a pragmatic approach to migration, instability will only increase.

The surge in communal clashes in parts of Assam—between Bodos and Muslim migrants—earlier this month was serious enough to require the army to be called out to subdue the violence. Such violence is a clear indicator of failure of governance at various levels. Good intelligence, sensitive local governance and astute political tactics should have kicked in long before violence escalated to riot levels. This didn’t happen. It is important to ask why it didn’t happen and hold the state government to account.

That shouldn’t blind us to the big underlying problem—an inability to evolve a workable policy towards migrations into India’s north-eastern region from the regions around it. This problem is more than a century old. The British couldn’t deal with it satisfactorily and ended up sowing the seeds of discord that exist to this day. The Indian republic’s record is no better. As Sanjoy Hazarika points out in his Strangers of the Mist (or Sudeep Chakravarti in a recent Mint article), while the issue of migration (of which illegal immigration from Bangladesh is an important subset) has been exploited politically, there has been no serious attempt to evolve a national policy response.

Yes, it requires a national policy response, for two reasons. First, while border fencing and patrolling can work to some extent, migration can be managed by reducing people’s incentive to migrate. People move in search of greener pastures. Second, the heart of the problem is not the flow of migrants, but their concentration in some areas. 10,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim people from Bangladesh arriving in India is not as much a problem as the same people settling in one village in Assam. [See this editorial in the Assam Sentinel]

Therefore it’s important for Bangladeshi economy to grow at a rate that will reduce incentives for Bangladeshis to want to migrate to India. It is in India’s interests to ease demographic pressure by supporting Bangladesh’s development. Proximity geopolitics is not easy. One of two mainstream Bangladeshi political parties is plainly hostile towards India. Even so, it is meaningless to think India can address the problems of illegal immigration if Bangladesh fails to keep pace with India’s own development.

More importantly, as this blogger has argued elsewhere, the focus of India’s national approach to migration must be to manage the flows in a manner that does not undermine the already weak social capital across the country, and especially in ‘remote’ regions. A work permit system that allows Bangladeshis and others to legally work in India and travel back to their homeland is necessary. This might not be a popular idea—but it is a better alternative to both pretending that there are no illegal immigrants and to hyperventilating that there are too many of them. Issuing work permits and allowing state and local governments to assign limits on the number of work permit holders in their communities will be an improvement on the status quo.

What about the politics, you ask? There is something in the idea for either side of the political spectrum. The Congress party’s fortunes in Assam will brighten once the illegal migration issue is settled. It can claim to have protected the rights of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims who no longer face the risk of harassment. The BJP, for its part, can credibly call for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants.

Work permits for Bangladeshis offers absolute gains for most political parties. Their own calculations, however, are on the basis of relative gains — “does it benefit our party more than the other party.” Both great leaders and good politicians would smell a political opportunity here. We do have some of the latter.[How to fix illegal Bangladeshi immigration]

By invitation: Peace comes to Assam?

Betweeen Sheikh Hasina’s gift and the need to neutralise the recalcitrant faction in Myanmar

by Bibhu Prasad Routray

There is expected hype in Assam regarding the proposed 10 February round of talks between New Delhi and a faction of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). At the same time, however, there is a terrible sense of unease with the actual delivery capacities of the negotiation process to what is being euphorically described as the ‘outbreak of peace in Assam’.

Cadre strength of ULFA, born in 1979, has continuously declined since the December 2003 offensive by Bhutan, where the outfit had maintained sizeable presence. The outfit lost half of its 1500 cadres and several important leaders to arrests, disappearances during and subsequent to the month-long military maneuvers. In 2008, two potent companies of ULFA’s main fighting arm, the 28th battalion based in Myanmar, came overground complaining of the divide between the ULFA top ranks and the field based cadres. Even though rest of the cadres and leaders, mostly based in the safe houses in Bangladesh, sat tight and vowed to continue with their three-decade long armed struggle, arrests of several of its top leaders in Dhaka provided the turning point.

By all means, the present development is a gift from the government in Dhaka. Since she came to power, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has delivered consistently on her promises of not allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities. Even in the face of little reciprocation from the Indian side, Bangladesh has arrested and handed over several ULFA top leaders—including the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Barua and ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury—to India. It is this gesture, and certainly not the military operations by the army, para-military and police combine in Assam, that has broken the back of the outfit and led to the creation of a sizeable section of pro-talks leaders within the outfit.

A lot has been commented upon ULFA now agreeing to an unconditional round of talks with the government by giving up its key demand of sovereignty for Assam. However, such a stance has not emerged out of a change of heart among the pro-talk ULFA leaders, but rather is a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. This is Mr Rajkhowa’s second hobnobbing with the peace process. In the early 1990s, he disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he and his accomplices have nowhere to run to. At the same time, a façade of negotiations and its associated paraphernalia— frequent trips to New Delhi, money bags, furnished office space in the Assam capital—is much more than the elderly ULFA leaders can bargain for.

In a politically charged and divided Assam, ahead of the May 2011 elections to the state Legislative Assembly, the initiation of talks with the ULFA will add to the list of ‘achievements’ by the incumbent Congress party and would possibly translate into popular support it badly needs while being pitted against a united opposition. To facilitate Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for the third successive time, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appears amenable to contradict its own stand of not negotiating with factions of militant groups.

Paresh Barua, ULFA’s commander-in-chief, is believed to be in Myanmar leading a gang of 100 odd cadres. He remains opposed to the talks and continues to issue periodic statements to the media vowing reprisal attacks. Mr Barua is accompanied by a number of senior leaders like Jiban Moran and Bijoy Chinese and retains the ability to create nuisance. It is the neutralisation of this group and not the present peace talks, which would hold key to peace in Assam in times to come.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Gurukanth Desai is not “of Indian origin”

Suspected British jihadi must have used a Gujarati Hindu name to avoid suspicion

Soon after the British authorities released the names of nine suspected terrorists yesterday, most Indian media reports rushed to tell us [1 2 3 4] without a hint of doubt or uncertainty, that one of them was “of Indian-origin.” Given that there was very little time for them to do background checks, they just assumed that a person going by the name of “Gurukanth Desai” must be a person of Indian origin.

They didn’t even google him up.

If they had, they would have found that Gurukant Desai is actually the name of the lead character in Mani Ratnam’s 2007 movie Guru. Gurukanth is an unusual first name for a person with the surname Desai. Gurukanth Desai is also an unusual name in a list in which the others are Abdul Malik Miah, Omar Sharif Latif, Mohammed Moksudur Rahman Chowdhury, Shah Mohammed Lutfar Rahman, Nazam Hussain, Usman Khan, Mohibur Rahman and Abul Bosher Mohammed Shahjahan.

It should have raised eyebrows and, at the very least, a qualifier indicating that he might be of Indian-origin. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. [The Calcutta Telegraph was an exception]

It turns out—as I pointed out on twitter yesterday—that Gurukanth Desai, 28 years old and a father of three, is Abdul Malik Miah’s brother and of Bangladeshi origin. The Hindu Gujarati name, taken off a Hindi film, was probably adopted to ward off suspicion.

Apart from exposing lazy journalism in India, this episode is yet another indication that Indian embassies and consulates must exercise much greater care while issuing visas to people presumably of Indian-origin.

This is also disturbing because it might make visa applications and travel more difficult for the genuine Gurukanth Desais of the world, not least because it is impossible to prevent jihadis from assuming names like David Coleman Headley or Gurukanth Desai. This case is an argument against profiling based on religion, but where such profiling exists, a Mr Desai or Mr Singh might become a little more suspect. (This is not to say that there cannot be real jihadis of Gujarati Hindu origin, as the case of Dhiren Bharot/Abu Musa al-Hindi tells us. Rather, that such cases are exceptional and very rare.)

Tailpiece: A few years ago, friends of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London 7/7 bombers, gave their names as “Sanjay Dutt” and “Shahrukh”…and the New York Times reporter didn’t get it.

Pax Indica: Work permits for Bangladeshi migrants

Illegal immigration can only be tackled by allowing legal migration

In an email exchange last week, Sanjoy Hazarika, author of one of the best books on India’s North East, told me that he has been advocating work permits for the last two decades. The proposal needs a serious consideration now.

[The] blunt, impractical and half-heartedly implemented measures we have used to address the problem have only worsened it. Attempts to force them to go back have created an illicit political protection racket that has undermined national security. Fencing is in progress, but it is impossible to erect an impenetrable barrier along the entire India-Bangladesh border. Over the years, many border officials and security personnel have become mixed up in organised networks smuggling everything from cough syrup to human beings. Indian and Bangladeshi border guards sometimes even exchange fire, indicating policy failure at so many levels. Amid all this, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants make their way into India each year.

We need a new approach. India should consider establishing a system of work permits to allow Bangladeshis to work in India, legally.

It is practically impossible to fight demographic pressure, not least given the geography of India’s North East. It is, however, possible to ensure that the flow of immigrants does not concentrate in Assam or other states adjoining Bangladesh. The real political problem is not so much the inflow, but the accumulation of illegal immigrants in one state. If work permits are subject to state-wise quotas, then it is possible to distribute the flow across Indian states. This will allow migrant workers to work in states that need them, and prevent them from crowding in certain states.

Work permits with state-wise quotas can thus address Assam’s genuine and longstanding concerns — the state can cap the number of Bangladeshi migrants it will accept. India’s national security concerns become more manageable by bringing the migration out into the open. Obviously, Bangladesh stands to benefit too, not least the immigrant who need not live a often fearful life in the twilight zone. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

This column benefits from the discussions I had with participants and friends at Economic Freedom Network Asia’s conference on international migration in Jakarta last week.

Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India’s policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government’s inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India’s dealings with the world’s powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India’s growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi’s ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It’s not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu — it’s popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India’s southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It’s a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India’s leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi’s policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India’s geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government’s ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India’s politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India’s borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India’s (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say ”we will only send troops under the UN flag” you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It’s somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don’t properly talk to the Maoists. It’s the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that’s no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don’t, and Pakistan’s legal system is a joke (I’m not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad’s shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there’s the paradox of neighbourhood—we can’t choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn’t consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of “South Asia” as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is, and includes East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you’ll find it full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural — foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency — we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

(This is the unedited version of my column in Yahoo! India)

Pax Indica: We are not South Asian

The term ‘South Asia’ is an attempt to appropriate the Indian subcontinent’s geography while denying its composite civilisational history

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of the organisers argued that the “South Asian identity” has made inroads across the world. He supported this argument with an example. Many universities in the United States, he said, now have bhangra and garba troupes, often consisting of people of entirely non-South Asian backgrounds.

I nearly fell off my chair.

There is nothing ‘South Asian’ about bhangra and garba, just as there is nothing ‘South Asian’ yoga, ayurveda or tandoori chicken (when was the last time you went to a North South Asian restaurant?). Actually, there’s nothing South Asian about qawwals, ghazals or the Multani raga (when was the last time you went to a South Asian classical concert?). In fact—and you might think, I’m stretching it—there’s nothing South Asian about Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If you measure Asia north to south, roughly along the 120°E longitude from the Siberia’s Arctic coast to Indonesia’s southern islands, you’ll find the subcontinent more or less in the middle. Geographically, if there is a South Asia, then the self-confessed ‘South Asians’ are neither in it nor from it. Read the rest at Yahoo! India »

Failed states index – a look under the hood

It’s not the ranking, it’s the change in the score

In 2005, when Foreign Policy magazine first published a failed state index, The Acorn argued that “rankings by themselves do not convey as much information as the direction of their change. How countries change their position, even by this imperfect measure, will be the thing to watch in future years.”

In fact, the rank on the league table is not so informative as the actual change in the country’s score. For instance, Pakistan’s rank improved this year (from the 9th most failing state in 2008 to the 10th in 2009). Yet, it’s total failure score increased from 103.8 to 104.1 (See the article on the magazine’s website). Assuming that the good people at Foreign Policy have used the same methodology year after year, this doesn’t suggest an improvement in Pakistan—it suggests a worsening of conditions.

Here’s a comparison of the actual score of countries in India’s neighbourhood over the last four years.

Data: Foreign Policy/Chart: The Acorn

It’s generally bad news: other than Bangladesh, state failure is worsening in the neighbourhood. Bhutan does best, but even its score has (surprisingly) fallen.

Related Post: A post on the 2006 index.

A finger pointed at Dhaka (and Dubai)

Internationalising the terrorism issue

When accosted by a frowning teacher, the first trick that naughty primary school students use is denial. When that doesn’t work, they try one or both of the following: develop stomach ache and point finger at classmate.

It’s stomach ache time when you hear about Pakistan being "a victim of terror". And now Pakistani authorities have used the third trick by letting it slip that they are "closing in on a Bangladeshi connection to the terrorist strike and are said to have evidence of not only the involvement of a banned militant organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-B), but also of its role in planning the attack and training the terrorists."

They allege that at least one of the terrorists came from Bangladesh, and that the plot was partially hatched in Dubai. Now they can afford to drag Bangladesh into this but naming Dubai can have political repercussions for Pakistan and personal repercussions for its political leaders. Still, it is illuminating to know that Pakistan might allege that the terrorist attacks were conducted by "‘international network of Muslim fundamentalists’ present in South Asia and spread all the way to Middle East" and might even be
"remotely linked to Al Qaeda’s international terror network." (Now who would have suspected that?)

Tomorrow, you’ll see a foreign office spokesman in Dhaka asking "but where’s the evidence"? Groan.

The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide Archive

Remember

Rezwan of the 3rd World View, a good friend and one of the pioneers of blogging in Bangladesh, is the moving force behind the Bangladesh Genocide Archive project. Last week, on the occasion of the 37th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Victory Day, he dedicates the project “to the hundreds and thousands of people who have died in the war and those brave souls who has fought for the country with firearms, support and stood in solidarity with the Bangladeshis.”

The essay that Kissinger wants to write

…has already been written

Speaking to Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express, Henry Kissinger said, “Some day, I’ll write about (1971) from one point of view: how two countries, each pursuing absolutely logical policies from their point of view, each pursuing the national interest and perceiving it correctly, can come to a clash, that in the terms of the period was unavoidable.”

That essay has already been written. Here.

…the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. [The Acorn]