Going legit in Assam

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?

8 thoughts on “Going legit in Assam”

  1. Nitin,
    Interesting views.
    These people came here for mainly economic opportunities but today some of them are indulging in terrorist activities here. So is amnesty a wise idea?

  2. RS,

    The number of terrorists and their supporters is much smaller than the actual number of immigrants. Terrorism should not get in the way of solving the illegal immigration problem (and vice versa).

    Indeed, counter-terrorism becomes much tougher when hundreds of thousands of people are in the twilight zone. That’s a breeding ground for criminality and terrorism and suchlike.

  3. “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.”

    I beg to differ. First seal the borders and then go with amnesty. Besides, wherever possible (the ones who were not ‘entangled’ in the first place), send them back.

  4. “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.”

    I am not sure that’s what SC intended? It’s not about separating families that settled two generations ago – grown up children born on Indian soil are Indian citizens. Recent immigrants should be, or can be, sorted out.

    Amnesty is no real solution. It just encourages more illegal immigration. Either complete sealing of the border, like the west front, or a fairly prosperous Bangladesh are the only things that will stop illegal people flow across the border. Neither is going to happen anytime soon. Bangladesh can get rich fairly quickly if it taps wells into the soil to get that natural gas out. But then middle class is hard to manipulate and control for long.

    Combined with Indian politics of creed, this issue will pester for decades to come.

  5. I think amnesty should be given only in the rarest of rare cases. The rest should be sent back otherwise we might end up in the situation where prospective illegal immigrants will think that all they have to do is get across the border somehow and lie low for a while and then get citizenship.

    Another alternative is to issue work permits.This will help check illegal immigration, get an handle on who goes in and who goes out.This work permit program will help needy and genuine immigrants.If someone is not here on a work permit he should be considered a security risk and deported.

    This work permit program will also help us gain diplomatic leverage on Bangladesh.Maybe then they will stop acting less roguish. If they don’t co-operate we just turn off the gravy train and kick everyone out.

  6. Sriram, Chandra, Apollo,

    Why send back only “recent” illegal immigrants, and allow those who came in before an arbitrary date to stay? It is neither fair nor useful to forgive old crimes and punish new ones. So the operative date of the amnesty has to be now or some time in the future. Ideally it should be such that the announcement of the date does not create a new flood. For example, as of 5pm today.

    For an amnesty to be effective, there has to be a balance of rewards and punishments; generosity and harshness on either side of the cutoff date. So yes, there has to be a rigorous enforcement at the border after the cutoff date. But “sealing of borders” is not practical in the India-Bangladesh context. Just take a look at a detailed map of the border. It’s not your usual straight line dividing two countries…it’s convoluted and enclaved and passes through populated areas. So we need a system where inability to seal borders does not come in the way of identifying and repatriating illegal immigrants.

    Work permits are an interesting idea taken from the US-Mexico context. I’m not sure what is the exact labour market situation in Assam, but if there is demand for workers, the supply can come from other Indian states. So work permits may be out of place.

  7. >> The Supreme Court did not consider the practicality of the matter >>

    Nitin, the courts usually do not.

    The government must take “good faith” measures, whatever they maybe to curb illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The ideas expressed by you and other commenters are all candidates. The absence of any measure is not acceptable.

  8. Everything we know now says that the border with Bangladesh well guarded. But the border is still porous. And just because we have amnesty today, I am not sure how that will stop tomorrow’s flow – Bangladeshis come to our country to make a living, not to become citizens.

    We have lot of unemployed in India – I agree that work permits are a no-no, especially for unskilled workers.

    The only way to stem the tide – almost 10% of Bangladeshi population of about 150 million is in India! – is to make it difficult for them stay, that is, to have a systematic process of legally identifying and deporting people (instead of harassing them). Amnesty for everyone already here would just muddle the process. Even if politicians agree to that, I doubt we can get past the so-called civil society groups.

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