Dialogue  January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3

Infiltration of Bangladesh nationals into India

Harekrishna Deka

“Illegal migration from Bangladesh is no longer a regional problem that can be pushed under the carpet. These migrants are now spread in several states and in distant places such as Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and so on. They have become so much a part of the citizenry of the country that one of them was, in fact, appointed as a special executive magistrate in Mumbai! They exert considerable influence on election results, not only in several constituencies in Assam, West Bengal and Bihar but also in Delhi and some other states.”

Dr. Madhav Godbole in the foreword to the book “Illegal Migration from Bangladesh” edited by B.B.Kumar (Astha Bharati).

Because of the Assam Agitation many people think that the problem of infiltration of Bangladesh nationals into India is a peculiar problem of Assam. But one needs to understand that this is a national problem with grave security implications that affects national integration too. What Madhav Godbole, the former Union Home Secretary, has said in the above quotation is very significant in this respect. Therefore, my endeavour in this paper will be to discuss this problem from the national perspective rather than as an identity-related problem of the Assamese people.

At the outset, I feel it pertinent to refer to the Supreme Court judgment in writ petition (civil) no131 of 2000 (Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India & others, judgment dated 12.7.2005) reminding the Central Government of its duty under the article 355 of the Constitution of India which reads as follows, “It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the Government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” The Supreme Court after elaborately discussing the term ‘aggression’ ruled that large-scale illegal immigration is equivalent to ‘aggression’ on a country.  India’s national security implication arising from large-scale infiltration is very clear from this judgment. Infiltration of Bangladesh nationals is a national problem and not just a regional one. Therefore prevention and detection of illegal immigrants is more a Union responsibility than that of the affected state.   

No exact figure of Bangladesh nationals illegally entering into India and settling here is available. But the population census figures of both the countries give a fair idea of large-scale infiltration of Bangladeshis into India. Pranati Dutta of the Indian Statistical Institute of Kolkata who wrote a paper (Push-Pull factors of Undocumented Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal: A Perspective Study) in 2004 on the basis of a qualitative research project undertaken by her and three other scholars funded by the Government of India gave an estimate of 15 million Bangladesh nationals illegally staying in India. This figure tallies with the figure quoted by the Group of Ministers on National Security in their report on ‘Border Management’ submitted in 2001. Kanchan Lakshman and Sanjay K Jha in their joint paper ‘India-Bangladesh: Restoring Sovereignty on Neglected Borders’ gives an estimate of 20 million such Bangladeshi immigrants, of whom 10 millions are supposedly in West Bengal and Assam. None of these writers give the basis of their estimates. But everyone studying and analyzing this problem has come to the conclusion that large-scale infiltration from Bangladesh into this country has indeed taken place over many decades. Of the official documents, the report of Lt General S.K.Sinha, the then Governor of Assam submitted in 1998 relies on census figures of both India and Bangladesh to convincingly argue about disturbing demographic changes taking place in Assam due to illegal migration. Assam witnessed a 6 year long popular agitation over the issue from the later part of 1979 to the middle of 1985. The Assam Governor’s report stated that such infiltration changed the population profile of 4 Assam districts, namely Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta and Hailakandi in favour of immigrant population and two other districts were on the verge of being so (2001 census shows that population profile has changed in one of those two districts, namely Nagaon, as predicted.) An internal note prepared by the Home Ministry, Government of India, now made public in a book ‘Illegal Migration from Bangladesh’ edited by B.B.Kumar (page 243-265) gives an estimate of 4.4 million Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in West Bengal (1987 figure) and 2-3 million in Assam. Rita Afsar, a Bangladeshi research fellow in the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) presented a paper for a panel discussion at the 20th European Conference on the Modern South Asian Studies (ECMSAS) held in the School of Arts, History and Culture, University of Manchester, UK. (Held from July 7 to 11, 2008) in which she gave a figure of Bangladeshi immigrants in India estimated between 12 and 20 million based on Indian research sources but cautioned against dependability of such figures. On the other hand, she admits that the 1991 population census of Bangladesh shows a missing population , initially estimated to be 10 million and subsequently revised to 8 million (6.27 millions Muslims and 1.73 million Hindus). Indian researchers strongly feel that this missing population found their way into India.

Bangladesh came into existence in December 1971 but infiltration into India from the region started much before that. The flow of Muslim peasants from Eastern Bengal to Assam was encouraged by the British officials from the first decade of the twentieth century as there was abundant waste land waiting to be cultivated and the Government needed revenue from the settlement of waste land. Sometime before the partition, when the Muslim league realized that their demand for Pakistan was going to be conceded, they adopted a political programme in Assam to occupy all vacant land and the immigrants from East Bengal, mainly Muslims, were instigated to squat on government land, wherever possible. The Muslim League’s design was to make Assam a Muslim majority state so that the region could be included into Pakistan. These are historical facts. After partition, the boundary between India and Pakistan was demarcated hastily by the Radclife Commission and the Indo-East Pakistan border remained porous with unchecked infiltration of people from East Pakistan in the absence of a proper passport regime till 1952. Subsequent events show that even after 1952 travel restrictions imposed through a passport system could hardly act as a deterrent against illegal movement of Pakistan/ Bangladesh nationals to India. The nation’s security was jeopardized as a result. The then Intelligence Bureau Chief B.N.Mullik in his 1965 report submitted to the Government at the centre had this to write, “In several past instances it has been seen that while they have come and they are making a living in this country, their sympathies lie entirely with Pakistan. This can be illustrated by the attitude of the immigrants in Darrang district during the time of the Chinese invasion in November, 1962 and Morajhar area of Nagaon district recently.” (Italics mine) (See ‘Documents on North-East India vol. 5, page 153 to 163, edited by S.K.Sharma and Usha Sharma) The Late Mullik possibly referred to the incidents of Pakistani flags raised by a section of people of immigrant origin in these two districts at that time.

Many attempts at infiltrations have been foiled by the BSF and an anti-infiltration machinery is in existence in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura funded by the Central Government (PIF scheme) but those who enter illegally far outnumber those who are pushed back. It is learnt from the B.S.F sources that they intercepted the following numbers from 2004 to 2008:

                     Year                    Detection         

                     2004                    13373

                     2005                    10708

                     2006                    9680

                     2007                    8019

                     2008                    5957

                     2009                    2025 (till May)

On the other hand, fresh illegal immigrants detected mainly at or near border and pushed back by Assam Police from 1985 to 2008 were 26890 (source Assam Police). But these detections have been insignificant compared to the magnitude of the infiltration problem.  A significant observation was made by General (retd) Shankar Roy Choudhury (then MP) in April 2000 in Rajya Sabha that on account of illegal migration, Bangladesh demographic border intruded upon India’s political border over a 10-20 km deep area.

Admittedly, the management of Indo-Bangla border has not been an easy task. It has a length of 4095 km and the border is shared by 5 states namely West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, each with different characteristics of terrain. West Bengal has the longest length of this border (2216km), the rest being shared by the 4 North-eastern states mentioned above. But of this length, 6.5 km are yet to be demarcated and this will leave a gaping hole, even if the rest of the border is completely fenced (These 6.5 km are in Lathitilla-Dumabari in Sylhet-karimganj border, Muhuri in Feni-Tripura border and Daikhata in Jalpaiguri border. Adverse hill terrain in Meghalaya and Mizoram and riverine borders in West Bengal and Assam also restrict possibility of complete fencing.) Again, at a number of places, construction of border fence has been opposed by Bangladesh as an agreement between the two countries does not allow construction of defensive installations within 150 yards of the zero-line border. India’s border fence has been interpreted by Bangladesh as a defensive installation (Under the Shaikh Hasina Government, the attitude of Bangladesh appears to be mellowing to some extent.) Besides, India has logistic difficulty in this regard at many places, as about 3500 Indian villagers either have houses or agricultural cultivation within this zone and they will be unable to move freely if a fence is constructed. In West Bengal alone there are about 100 villages on the zero line and about another 100 on Assam and Tripura side. The existence of a large number of enclaves on both sides is another complication. Many of these enclaves can be exchanged but the issue is yet to be resolved. Bangladesh has 51 enclaves within Indian Territory and India has 111 such enclaves. Over and above, there are 52 pieces of land belonging to Bangladesh in the adverse possession of India and 49 pieces of Indian land in Bangladesh’s adverse possession.

Then there are riverine borders. In West Bengal alone about 643.59 km are riverine, where no fence can be constructed. In Assam the riverine distance is 110 k.m. out of a length of 262 k.m. Willem Van Schendel, professor of Sociology in Amesterdam University, in his book ‘Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia’ (2006) has pointed out that inhabitants of Bengal for long adopted migration e.g. settler immigration to Assam or migration from Barisal to Dhaka on a regular basis as a strategy to deal with frequent changing of course by river and river erosion. It is a common practice for settler migrants to first move to a river island (char) on the border and gradually move inland in search of fertile land or for other engagement. A look at the pattern of population growth in Assam indicates that increase of population in Assam chars is unusually high. According to Socio-economic survey report of the Char Areas Development Authority of the Government of Assam conducted in 1993-94 and 2002-2003, the char population in Assam was 2,49,0397 (in 2251 villages) in 2002-2003 against 1600244 (in 2089 villages) in 1993-94, a rise of more than 8 lakh (50 per cent) in 9 years in 360927 hectare land. ( Gorky Chakravarty in his recently written book ‘Assam’s Hinterland’ has given the district-wise break-up of the char population.) This is a very high increase of population. Since population flow is generally from char to inland except during erosion and not vice versa, the actual increase may be even more as the ex- migration from char to mainland has not been taken note of here. Dhubri district, being one of the entry points of the immigrants from Bangladesh has shown an enormous increase of char population from 230206 in 313 char villages (1992-93) to 689909 in 480 villages (2003-04), an almost three-fold increase.                                                                                                

Indian censuses have been showing high rate of population increase in states bordering Bangladesh. The decadal growth of Muslim population in Assam and West Bengal has been unusually high and cannot be explained by natural causes of birth and death. During 1971-91, Assam’s population increased from 14.6 million to 22.4 million. While Hindu population grew at the rate of 41.9 per cent, that of the Muslims increased by 77.4 per cent. During 1981-91, three border districts of Assam, namely, Dhubri (71%), Cachar (56%), and Karimganj (58%) had very high growth of Muslim population. During the next decade, (1991-2001), though Assam showed lower population growth compared to the overall growth of India’s Population, Census figures clearly points to the fact that increase of Muslim population in 9 districts were far higher than that of non-Muslim population as shown below,

      District of Assam                    Increase of population

                                                               Muslim       Non-Muslim        Total


        Dhubri                                          29.5             7.1                          22.9 

        Goalpara                                       31.7             14.4                        23.0

        Hailakandi                                    27.2             13.3                        20.9

        Karimganj                                     29.4             14.5                        21.9

        Cachar                                          24.6             16.0                        18.9

        Barpeta                                         25.8             10.0                        18.9

        Nagaon                                         32.1             11.3                        22.2

        Marigaon                                     27.2             16.3                        21.2

        Darrang                                        26.9             9.6                          15.8

(See Appendix VIIIA page 232 of the book ‘Illegal Migration from Bangladesh edited by B.B.Kumar.)

In West Bengal, increase of Muslim population in 1981-91, as per census data was 36.89 per cent and that of Hindu population was 24.73 per cent. In 1971-81, increase of both Hindu and Muslim population was lower than that of the next decade but comparatively Muslims showed more than 8% higher increase than the Hindus (Muslim=29.55%, Hindu= 21.37%).

In Tripura percentage of tribal population has shown steady decline causing a sense of identity threat amongst these people. The following figures show this decline,

                             Year                P.C of tribal population

                             1941                               53.16

                             1951                               37.23

                             1961                               31.50

                             1971                               28.95

                             1981                               28.44

                             1991                               30.95

Bangladesh population census of 2001 shows a sharp decline of Hindu population in that country. Hindus were 9.2% according to this census, a decline of 4.5% from the first census held in 1974 which had shown 13.5% Hindu population. This indicates a scenario of forced migration of Hindu population due to religious persecution in that country. Besides, a comparison of the increase of West Bengal and Bangladesh, two geographically contiguous and culturally similar regions, shows sharp difference of population growths over decades in these two regions. Between 1951 and 2001 Bangladesh had a growth of 244.68% Muslim population and West Bengal had 310.93%, a much higher rate of growth indicative of migration of population from one area to the other. If we compare the growth of Hindu and Muslim population in West Bengal, the increase of Hindu population at 198.54% is much lower than that of Muslim population. Some of the districts of West Bengal show sharp difference in the Hindu and Muslim population as is evident from below:

Growth of Hindus (%)                       Growth of Muslims (%)

   Cooch Behar      18.51                                      37.48

   Jalpaiguri           22.54                                       44.58

   Darjeeling          24.50                                       58.18

   Midnapore        19.74                                       53.08

   Bankura             14.33                                       38.71

   Malda                 24.39                                       36.09

   Murshidabad    19.55                                       34.15

These data are indicative of migration of Muslim Bangladeshis to West Bengal.

Besides, a large number of Bangladesh citizens coming to India with valid documents do not return and become untraceable. For example, West Bengal government in its counter affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on the writ petition (civil) no 125 of 1998 moved by the All India Lawyers Forum for Civil Liberties (AIFCL) admitted as follows, ‘between 1972 and 1997 a total number of 9, 91,013 Bangladeshi nationals entered into Indian territory with valid travel documents but they did not return to Bangladesh and have overstayed.’ Sources say that by 2005, Bangladesh nationals entering West Bengal with valid document and vanishing in India rose to 11, 80,000. It may be more now as the trend continues.

In this respect the remark made by the Group of Ministers on National Security in their report of 2001 is quite revealing. This contained an indictment on the Government’s failure to take appropriate steps to prevent infiltration. They said, “There is an all-round failure in India to come to grips with the problem of illegal immigration. Unfortunately, action on this subject invariably assumes communal over-tones with political parties taking positions to suit the interest of their vote banks. The massive illegal immigration poses a grave danger to our security, social harmony and economic well being.” (Italics mine) (From the Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security)        

Even if we assume that the reference to ‘vote bank’ was intended as a dig at a particular political party ruling the country during the major part of the post-Independence period of history, we, as conscious citizens, need to agree that illegal migration from across the Bangladesh-India border is a grave threat to national security and social harmony.

A pertinent question may arise here—why despite large-scale infiltration taking place in West Bengal, there has been no socio-political upheaval in that state as it happened in Assam between 1979 and 1985. Perhaps cultural nationalism mellowed down the impact of massive infiltration in that state and therefore there has been a quiet acceptance of a process of assimilation. Moreover, unlike in Assam, the migrants have not created pressure on land there which is already scarce (population density in West Bengal according to 1981 census was 615, in 1991 it was 766 and in 2001 it has been 904. Though the illegal immigrants might have occupied some government and forest land, it is not as acute as in Assam. Assam’s density of population in 1991 census was 284 and in 2001 it rose to 340. There has been large-scale encroachment on government khas land and forests in Assam due to official apathy in protecting these lands.) In recent times, the illegal immigrants have been coming to West Bengal particularly in search of low paid jobs in the labour market, especially for those jobs for which the locals have an aversion. Moreover, a good percentage of illegal Bangladeshi migrants use West Bengal only as a corridor to get dispersed to various urban cities in search of low paid jobs and local agents help them. They work as wage labourers in construction sites, brick kilns as well as in agricultural fields as far as in Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat and Maharastra (In this context, Willem Von Schendel in his book ‘The Bengal Borderland’ refers to New Delhi authority’s ‘Operation Pushback’ programme in which hundreds of people suspected of Bangladesh origin were rounded up and shipped to the border with Bangladesh. Bangladesh refused to accept these people and the operation had to be abandoned.) Many job-seeking migrants take West Bengal corridor to come to Assam as well. Women workers work in cigarette and bangle factories in Bengal border districts. Many earn living by pulling rickshaws of Indian owners and many others work as day labourers or domestic help. Willem Van Schendel in his book ‘Bengal Borderland’ writes that many of them are seasonal workers who travel back and forth.  Without disputing his finding, one can say that a large percent stay back in this country and clandestinely obtain citizenship rights with the help of vested interests, as the unusual change of population pattern in some of the Indian states including Assam clearly indicates.

The main pull factor is that the standard of living is higher here than in Bangladesh. In Assam, the main attraction in the first few decades of the twentieth century was waste land opened up officially by the then provincial government as a part of ‘grow more food’ programme, but after the Independence, the settlers started targeting  vacant government khas and forest land as well.  Of course, during the last few decades, a large number of them are coming to Assam also as wage labourers. The Line System introduced by the British administration since 1920 to deter the East Bengali migrants from occupying lands of the native population failed either by default or due to the deliberate design of the then government formed by the Muslim League. The effort of the Late Gopinath Bordoloi ministry to evict the squatters did not succeed in face of resistance. After the Independence, the Assam Land Revenue Regulation was amended in 1947 to protect tribal lands by creating blocks and belts. The so-constituted tribal blocks and belts had an area of 1, 24, 47,355 bighas or 16, 59,647 hectares.  According to report, as per a survey conducted in 1980, 79,594 bighas of land in the tribal blocks and belts have already been alienated. A large per cent of the illegal settlers appear to be Muslim settlers whose citizenship is doubted by the indigenous people on compelling reasons. One may recall the communal conflict that developed in the Bodoland area between 1989 and 1998. From a few minor incidents, a serious flare up arose in the area causing death to and displacement of people, both Muslims and Bodos. Many are still living in temporary camps under police protection. In the same area, some extremist groups even undertook an agenda of ethnic cleansing as a sequel to this ethno-communal conflict. Behind the massacre of Nellie in 1983, the conflict of interest between the native tribal people and the migrant Muslim community over land cannot simply be brushed aside as an insignificant cause. It was rather the main cause. Though resistance to 1983 Assembly Election by the Assam Movement supporters and support to the election by some minority organizations triggered immediate tensions between the locals and the migrants, animosity between the two communities had been growing over a long period of time as the migrants went on squatting on village reserve lands undisturbed, which was encouraged politically by vested interests and conveniently ignored by the government officials concerned either under pressure or due to corruption. The native tribal community must have felt that by tradition they had the right over the land for the community’s shared use, even though this perception of the indigenous people had no legal backing due to the principle of eminent domain adopted by the British and followed by the national governments subsequently. Not only they felt a sense of deprivation when the land got occupied by a migrant community culturally quite different, but also such encroachment on an area which had earlier vast open land interfered with their daily movements and cattle grazing. The undercurrent of tension was brewing for a long time before it flared up over an immediate emotional issue.

In Assam, besides alienation of tribal land, massive encroachment of forest land is taking place. Encroachment of forest land in this State is the highest in India. According to a 2005 estimate, 342650 hectares of forest land out of a total of 13, 99,264 hectares were under encroachment. According to a PTI report datelined March 10, 2010 (The Assam Tribune), the encroachment seems to have further increased to 4,85,674 hectares as replied by the Minister, Jairam Ramesh to a query in the Lok Sabha. The Supreme Court had ordered in a judgment that all post-1980 encroachers of forest land should be evicted. According to the Assam Government estimate, 205,775 hectares of forest land were under occupation of pre-1980 encroachers. If so, it is the bounden duty of the Government to evict the rest of the forest encroachers. But as seen above, squatting on forest land has gone on increasing over time even after the Supreme Court judgment. The figure provided by the State Government in 2001 to the Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court on the interlocutory application no 502 of 2000 in the context of the Writ Petition (Civil) no 202 of 1995 had shown 2,54,711 hectares were occupied by encroachers in Assam at the time of the report. This figure may not actually be correct. The empowered committee had then suspected that encroachment was under-reported by the State Governments (including Assam). The Empowered Committee remarked that there was a lack of political will to evict encroachers from forest land in all the states. They remarked, “Influential persons with political affiliations not only promote encroachments but also abet in the entire process.” (Italics mine) In Assam, the problem is more complicated as the native people suspect that vote bank politics is involved in the pronounced reluctance of the political government to undertake eviction of encroachers. It must be said that immigrants and natives all alike have encroached forest land in Assam. The Government has to ensure a few things: (1) that no fresh encroachment takes place in forest land; (2) that as per Supreme Court order, all post-1980 encroachers are identified, evicted from the forest land and landless Indian citizens of native origin are rehabilitated elsewhere under a feasible rehabilitation programme; and (3) that forest-wise task force is organized to make detailed inquiries to ascertain the nationality of all forest encroachers and initiate appropriate action against the people of doubtful nationality as per established procedure.

To prevent illegal migration from Bangladesh, India is raising border fences (with the arrangement of floodlight in more vulnerable portions) on 3286.5 kms in two phases. When completed, there will remain a gap of 808.5 km, most of which is riverine. This will be covered by increased river patrolling by the B.S.F.  Assam, on its part, has sanctioned 18 char areas police stations for the first time but they are yet to be established. These arrangements may reduce the number of illegal migrants but the problem of illegal migration will continue even then. The fact remains that the entire border cannot be fully sealed for the reasons already stated above. But more importantly, there is economic push factors in Bangladesh for the migrants to seek their destiny in India and elsewhere. India’s geographical contiguity with Bangladesh has made the problem more acute for this country.

Illegal migration from Bangladesh is induced by economic and environmental factors coupled with high population growth in that country and scarcity of living space. A section of Bangladesh intellectuals advocate legalization of cross-border movement. In 1990, Sadeq khan, a former diplomat of Bangladesh, tried to legitimize the theory of ‘lebensraum’ (natural living space) and quoted another intellectual Prof Amena Mohsin of Dhaka University as follows, “migration is a normal and natural phenomenon and cannot be stopped, the need today is to evolve ways to legitimize it.”

Migrants do not wait for such legalization. An illegal organized network of brokers has been functioning on both sides of India and Bangladesh, which, Rita Afsar of Bangladesh calls a ‘migration industry.’ They not only smuggle cheap labour, but are also involved in smuggling of goods worth millions. She said that in 2004 goods worth US 2 billion dollars entered Bangladesh with the help of traders or their agents who physically transported the goods across the border. An ‘institutional system of bribery paid to security agencies’ and ‘low-level of fines imposed on confiscated goods’ is helping this informal and illegal trade, as she said. Cattle smuggling/cattle theft is a thriving business and the canned beef industry in Bangladesh even benefits from such activities. According to a BSF source, they recovered 685729 cattle heads between 2003 and 2009 (till May 2009) from such smugglers. Significantly, M. Morshed Khan, the then Foreign Minister of Bangladesh said during a discussion at the Overseas Correspondents Association in Dhaka, “India accused us of illegal migration. I say there is. The border is vast. But to make it an issue is ridiculous. We have found a solution to the problem-the cross-border illegal trade must be checked to control illegal migration.” (Daily Star, 24 April 2003, as quoted by Willem Von Schendel in his book ‘Bengal Borderland’, page 207, 2005.) Though sounds naïve, Morshed Khan’s remark has shown the extent of cross-border illegal trade between India and Bangladesh.

Recent trend of migration indicates that most migrants have been coming from the extremely poor segment of the Bangla society. Some are jobless, some are poorly educated and others are uneducated. Many of them leave their native place as very uneconomic holding of land do not provide them sustenance of life. The others do not have even that much of land.

The literacy and employment rate of the districts from where there is a flow of population towards India or to their own cities like Dhaka is revealing. The literacy rate in those districts is invariably low and unemployment rate is high. The following data from the Bangladesh districts can be cited as examples. The figures are taken from the Statistical Year Book of Bangladesh, 2004.

District                 Population       Economically       Literacy rate (%)

                                                           (over-15)               active persons

                                                                                           (in thousand)      

Sunamganj            1990360                   590                          22.29

Sylhet                     2547320                   555                         33.85

Jamalpur                2106040                   627                          21.48

Mymensingh        4460120                   1204                        25.47

Netrokona             1971240                   541                          25.97

Sherpur                  1267940                   327                          19.49

Gaibandha             2129700                   661                          24.34

Kurigram                1762920                   555                          23.81

Rangpur                 2527060                   678                          26.70

    Population pressure is very acute in Bangladesh. The density of population rose from 285 per sq k.m in 1951 (East Pakistan) to 975 per sq k.m in recent time. As per 2001 census, Bangladesh population was 129.2 million and the latest Bangladesh Plan projects that it will rise to 169.8 million by 2020, which means that the density of population will go well beyond 1000 per sq k.m. Even now, the density is the highest in the world. The man-land ratio is 0.15 acre per capita which is not favourable for sustainable food grain production for such a huge population. About 8 million hectares have already shown fertility decline. Disproportionate distribution of land is another reason for land scarcity. According to Bangladesh National Agricultural Census of 1996, 24.14% of rich farmers own 56.89% and operate 58.81 % of land. The landless people who have home-stead but no cultivable land constituted 28.06 % in 1996 compared to 19.23 % in 1984, which indicates a worsening picture. Bangladesh economic and human situations show that because of such push factors, migration of population from that country is likely to continue in future unless there is a miraculous economic development in that country and population stabilizes with near zero growth in the next decade or so, which at this moment appears unlikely. Not to speak of the environmental situation in Bangladesh, India itself has strong pull factors for the Bangladesh nationals living at the subsistence level, who have nothing to lose but everything to gain from cross-border migration. Even the Union Government recognizes this. In an internal note prepared by the Home Ministry in March 1992, the following pull factors have been mentioned:
       (1)   Porous and easily negotiable border with Bangladesh.
         (2)   Better economic opportunities.
         (3)   Interested religious elements encouraging immigration.
         (4)   Patronage extended by the vested political groups.
         (5)   Organized immigration by touts and anti-socials.
(Annexure X in ‘Illegal Migration from Bangladesh edited by B.B. Kumar)

India needs to take deterrent measures to prevent illegal migration from across the border as large-scale migration is a serious security threat to India. Moreover, the complex population pattern and historical memory in one of India’s border state, Assam, is such that if large-scale migration causes pronounced demographic changes in favour of a particular migrant community to the political and socio-economic disadvantage of the indigenous communities in this sensitive region, communal harmony will get seriously affected, instances of which were noticed during Assam agitation and also have been noticed in recent times. Alienation effect arising from slow economic development and the fear of being surrounded and overwhelmed by migrants from outside the region has already bred secessionist feelings amongst a section of its people with a strong centrifugal tug on national integration. India must not forget what its own ‘Group of Ministers’ in their report of 2001 commented in respect of infiltration from Bangladesh (already quoted above).

The need of the hour is to prepare a National Register of Citizens (for the whole country and not for Assam alone) and this task needs to be completed during the next census in 2011. The Union Government has created a Ministry to provide a Unique Identity Number to all residents in the country with a view to creating a data-base of the country’s residents. Unfortunately, the Government is shy of clearly identifying the Indian citizens through this mechanism to distinguish the citizens from persons of doubtful nationality residing in the country. The country needs to evolve some criteria for this on the basis of the Citizenship Act and the Foreigner’s Act so that people illegally entering this country from any foreign soil do not find it easy to enjoy all the rights and privileges of an Indian citizen as they have been doing now. The Government must provide a tamper-proof Citizen’s Identity Card (CIC) to genuine citizens and ensure that all persons of doubtful nationality (those whose documentary proofs create suspicion) get only an identity card of recognizably distinctive colour different from the CIC and an identifying number with a distinctive mark and sign with the stipulation that they have been allowed to stay temporarily subject to verification of their places of origin. The holder of such cards will not be entitled to any citizenship right though allowed to pursue their livelihood for the time being on humanitarian ground i.e. until their nationality is settled by enquiry conducted by a designated National Immigration Investigating Agency. Such an agency should be constituted under the Foreigners Act, if necessary, creating appropriate provision for it under the Act. The investigative machinery should be under the Central Government and not under the State Governments concerned where vested lobbies try to frustrate such enquiries. The detection machinery funded by the Central Government in Assam has miserably failed to achieve results due mainly to political interference by vested interests. It is important that persons suspected of foreign nationality do not get to vote till such time as due enquiry clears their names from the suspects’ list. Given the country’s geo-political complexity, it will be a gigantic task but the process of identifying illegal migrants can no longer be soft-pedaled. The Citizen’s Identity Card should be made tamper-proof by inserting the holder’s biometric records in the card in an electronic chip.

Ironically, in this country, the illegal immigrants manage to enjoy all the public rights but genuine citizens often are deprived of the same. To quote from Sujata Ramachandran’s article ‘Indifference, impotence, intolerance: transnational Bangladeshis in India’, “India lacks a reliable database of citizens and a national identity card scheme that prevents it from distinguishing perfectly between Indians and Bangladeshis. Many poor people in rural India or those who eventually migrated to cities do not own state-issued or other official documents like birth certificates, driver’ licenses, property deeds etc. that generally confirm nationality and citizenship…. On the other hand Bangladeshi migrants, in particular those who have been living in India for some time have been inadvertently issued official documents such as ration cards (for subsidized food rations, and used previously to establish domicile status), voter identity cards and passports. Others have obtained them with the help of local powerbrokers, dalals, and by paying bribes to minor government officials.” (The article was published in ‘Global Migration Perspectives’, no 42 September 2005, found in the internet.)  Italics mine).

Secondly, the next census in 2011 should undertake its exercise by giving a permanent number to all household of the country as on the first day of that year with the householder’s names recorded in a computerized permanent register of the Census authority (if necessary making appropriate legal provision for the purpose) and that should be the referral number of the household when subsequent censuses are undertaken. The Houselist Schedule prepared by the Census authority should be modified accordingly. This number should also be fed into a Central Data Bank which should be transformed into a National Data Bank of Citizens (NDBC) on completion of the census. The householders should be required to provide this permanent household number when applying for any service under the public distribution system. If this is done, any new dwelling house coming up in a village will become readily identifiable during the next census or during mid-term sample surveys. When warranted, it will be easier to undertake enquiry in infiltration-prone areas to trace origins of newcomers in such locality. The National Register of Citizens should be computerized and made available to the jurisdictional police station to facilitate anti-infiltration enquiries.

Third, the BSF Border Outposts on India-Bangladesh border are far apart and cannot prevent infiltration properly. The distance between two outposts should not be more than 3 km as on the India-Pakistan border. In sensitive and infiltration-prone points electronic sensors should be mounted to prevent illegal entry of Bangladesh nationals. It may be examined if laser-based video cameras can be used to check infiltration. Some laser cameras can view up to a distance of 5 km.

Fourth, patrolling on the waterways along India-Bangladesh is very unsatisfactory. River routes are being traditionally used by Bangladesh nationals to cross over to India taking advantage of lax vigilance. The riverine portion of the border needs to be kept under constant patrolling with speedy and mechanized patrol boats. Establishment of floating BOPs on the Brahmaputra River is often talked of in official circle but so far it has not materialized. Such BOPs should be established very urgently. On or near the border there are a number of chars which have turned into infiltration points. Watch posts should be established on such chars. Also, all boats on Indian side should be registered and the registration number displayed on the boat itself.  Unregistered boats should be intercepted and if such boats are from Bangladesh all such boats should be impounded.

Fifth, though the Registration of Birth and Death Act was passed in 1969, the provisions of the Act do not make it obligatory on the parents to register birth and death. It only enjoins on certain categories of people to inform the registering authority about birth and death within a stipulated time (Chapter III, section 8.). Punishment for failure to report is minimal and any registration of case for such negligence needs sanction of the Birth Registration Authority. Implementation of this Act is very tardy. For instance, only 34.7 % births of under-5 children in India have been registered as per a UNICEF report. Since birth is the most important criterion for becoming a citizen, registration of birth should have been made mandatory to eliminate use of doubtful or fraudulently obtained document for availing various public services meant for citizens only. Even now a provision in the Act should be inserted that for certain services (like obtaining ration card, opening bank account, obtaining passport, for entering names in the voters list, enrolment in primary schools etc) birth certificate is mandatory from a prospective date. It should also be stipulated that all such births should be first reported to the nearest government health centre where a register with serial number should be maintained by a designated Birth Registration Officer. It should be legally incumbent on the parts of the parents to furnish information of a newborn to the health centre within a week of the birth of the child. Similarly, the death of a person should also be reported to the registration officer. The particulars of all newborns and all deaths should be entered into the computerized National Data Bank of Citizens (NDBC) thereafter. For this to happen, primary health-care has to be expanded to reach every village under the National Rural Health Mission. It will not be out of place to mention here that proper registration of birth and death will help in economic planning as well.

Sixth, smuggling, cross-border migration etc have affected the psyche of the borderland people in such a way that any concern for national security is visibly absent there. Borderland discourse is at variance with the national discourse. The organized brokerage system that has thrived there should be demolished by strong legal measures. This is an organized anti-national activity that jeopardizes national security and a law should be enacted to appropriately deal with these activities as ‘organized crime’. At the same time, the Government needs to consider promoting border trade in a regulated manner covering the goods that are being smuggled and opening border markets at selected places under the watchful eyes of the BSF. The state should also devise ways to culturally and educationally promote national integration among the borderland people.

In Assam, the migrants from East Bengal, who came before 1971 have received their domiciliary security through the Assam Accord, which recognizes their citizenship rights. These earlier streams of migrants need to play a constructive role in preventing the newer migrants from getting absorbed into them. As long as they (the earlier migrants) seek solace in numbers by absorbing illegal migrants, their assimilation with the greater Assamese community will not take place and this will remain a source of communal friction. Whether actually happening or not, this suspicion is harboured by Assamese sub-nationalists and also by members of other indigenous communities, who have reasons to feel insecure in their homeland. On the other hand, the Assamese sub-nationalist elements need to learn to distinguish the earlier migrants from the later ones and refrain from calling them Bangladeshis (which they are not, since Bangladesh was not born before 1971) so that an atmosphere of trust is created for easier assimilation. The community leaders from both sides perhaps need to meet and have free discussions in a broad-based convention to allay each other’s fears. But to promote such understanding, the Government needs to make sincere efforts to identify the post-1971 illegal immigrants. The perceived neglect of this task by the state government has not allowed mutual suspicion and communal mistrust to evaporate.    


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati