One must be dishonest or naive to deny that illegal immigration from Bangladesh constitutes a serious problem for the country. It will overwhelm us in the years and decades to come if it is not checked. Bangladesh’s is among the fastest growing populations and slowest growing economies. As it is, the land-man ratio is extremely adverse. The conclusion is inescapable: Bangladeshis will continue to pour into India in ever-increasing numbers.
The greater India’s success in economic growth and population control, the graver the danger. The genuine question, therefore, is how this problem is to be dealt with.
The problem is, of course, not new. It has been with us since Partition. Millions of Bengalis from across the border moved into India without valid papers before Bangladesh became an independent sovereign entity. That was precisely why an agreement was reached with President Sheikh Mujibur Rehman fixing a date beyond which new immigrants would be sent back and Dhaka would accept them.
As is well known, the agreement did not prove to be worth the paper on which it was written. Immigrants continued to cross over into northeast India in large numbers. The prolonged agitation in Assam in the late seventies and eighties was provoked by this massive and continued immigration.
Agitators in Assam, mostly Hindus, did not draw a distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants and wanted all of them expelled. In the specific context of Assam, and indeed in the general political climate of India, the agitators did not have much of a choice.
The All Assam Students Union was able to force an agreement on Mr Rajiv Gandhi and even install its leaders into office through the ballot box. But neither helped to ease the problem.
The atmosphere in the country has changed in recent years as a result of the Ramjanambhoomi movement, as reflected in the rise in the strength of the BJP. Apparently that has persuaded the party leadership not only to take up the contentious issue at the all-India level, but to insist that a distinction be made between Hindu ‘refugees’ fleeing from discrimination, insecurity and persecution and Muslim immigrants pouring to India in search of economic opportunities or whatever else.
In all honesty, several factors justify the distinction. Partition itself involved discrimination against the Hindus in East Bengal because unlike in the case of the Hindus and Sikhs in West Pakistan, there was no agreed transfer of population. In plain terms, they were denied the opportunity to choose their country.
In 1971, they were among the worst victims of the reign of terror unleashed by the Pakistan army and its supporters. The Hindus constituted the large majority among the around 10 million refugees then. Since this fact was deliberately obscured for understandable reasons, it needs to be emphasized.
They returned to their hearths and homes in the fond hope that, rid of the west Pakistani control, genuinely Bengali Bangladesh would give them a fair deal. This hope turned out to be an illusion.
On their return, the Hindus found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover their properties even when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was around in Dhaka and Mrs Indira Gandhi in New Delhi.
Political uncertainty and the drift towards Islamic fundamentalism in recent years have compounded the difficulties of the Hindu population.
Its pretensions notwithstanding, however, such humanitarian considerations do not weigh with the dominant Indian elite and the political community. In this case, the problem is aggravated by the fact that in the border state of West Bengal, both major parties – the Congress and the CPM – look upon the Muslim immigrants as useful addition to their ‘vote bank’.
It may be recalled that when Mr Rajeshwar, former governor of West Bengal, wrote articles in The Statesman establishing how the population ratio in several border districts had changed as a result of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, the chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, sought to rebut him.
The rebuttal, of course, did not add up to much; it could not. But the weakness of his case did not embarrass Mr Basu. And, in Assam, with the Congress back in office, illegal immigration has become a non-issue.
Whatever the explanation, it is incontestable that Indian public opinion is indifferent to the fate of the Hindus in Bangladesh and the consequences of continued immigration of Muslim Bangladeshis. The BJP has to overcome this indifference. On its success or failure will depend what policy New Delhi will pursue in coming years.
The BJP leadership has been seized of the issue for some time. At the national executive’s meeting in Bhopal last August, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee sought to make a distinction between Hindu refugees and Muslim infiltrators, but beat a hasty retreat.
Its Delhi unit announced its intention some months ago to launch an agitation in the Capital where, according to senior officials, at least 300,000 illegal immigrants are present. It too found it necessary to postpone the agitation.
If, despite this dithering in the past, the BJP national executive has adopted a resolution on the subject, the reasonable assumption would be that it means business.
While time alone will show whether this inference is valid, it is obvious that behind the BJP’s resolution lies a view of India which represents a radical modification of the existing definition of the Indian nation.
It will be less than honest to suggest that this view involves any kind of discrimination against the exiting minorities in the country. The BJP has not thought through this problem carefully. In fact, it operates within parameters fixed by its opponents. But that is a separate question.
More pertinently, in the present context, it must be admitted that the BJP’s stand on the immigration issue involves a redefinition of India as a Hindu country, sympathetic by virtue of identity to the persecution of Hindus in other countries and willing to allow them entry.
Such a self-definition will not be new in the world. All individuals of German descent are, for instance, automatically entitled to citizenship in Germany. There is no restriction on immigration for white members of the Commonwealth into Britain.
It is inconceivable that Russia will ever seek to restrict the return of Russians in other constituents of the former Soviet Union and they number 25 million. But the issue in our case is not going to be settled by reason and argument.
It can be settled only by the strength of public opinion. As noted earlier, this opinion is right now apathetic to the cause the BJP has taken up, and, on the present reckoning, it is not likely to change soon.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 13 April 1993