Dialogue  January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3


Illegal Migration from Bangladesh—A Case Study of West Bengal

Bimal Pramanik


A new dimension in the political and social arena has emerged in this eastern and north-eastern region of India after independence of Bangladesh in 1971. A novel phenomenon of demographic pressure started looming larger and larger on the border region centering around Bangladesh. During the last three decades illegal migration from Bangladesh to India are going on unabated. In Bangladesh era, Hindus are coming as usual like in the days of Pakistan due to religious persecution and political pressure but a new feature also started emerging as people from majority segment (Muslim) for different reasons and purposes started coming to West Bengal. Both the Centre and West Bengal governments were generally aware of this development yet no notable concern was visible before November 2002. Of late, Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister of NDA Government and Chief Minister of West Bengal and even the President of India have expressed their grave concern and agony on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and its implications regarding internal security issues.

The secular state of India promised to protect all religions equally having no religion for itself—but Bangladesh Republic assures for arbitrating the process of peace and harmony under the shadow of  state religion Islam. Under such codified and arbitrated policies, practised by any government of Bangladesh, the features of silent Muslim migration to neighboring states of India shall largely depend upon how agreeably they are committed to respond to the incumbent situation. Our experience will show that states of West Bengal and Assam have been considerably shy and indifferent to the consequences of such socio-religious process. But little deeper, it may be observed that certain states surrounding Bangladesh, very calculatedly derive political benefits when their main thrust of the political existence are basically against the power of central government and out and out against the political party of the Center.

Bangladeshi rulers, whosoever, with essential Islamic orientation possibly shall not rely or depend on Assam because of its more or less nationalist moorings of the government, but they would not be hesitant to keep their confidence and faith on the Marxist dominated Bengal to fight against Delhi. Ideologically, Pakistan was conceived on two-nation theory shaped out of the Marxist understanding of Stalinist thesis on right to self determination. It means that basically a religious approach got a blessings of ideological goodwill when the idea of Pakistan was considered to be a powerful instrument first to divide the country on the unreal sense of total freedom.

A fall out of a shift in the paradigm out of 11 September 2001 event, the new elements to influence a new world order have started working more as a deterrent to Islamic forces than to consolidating a further aggressive expansion. It is altogether a new experience in the world of Islam when they rally under a flag of fighting against USA with so many splits in their own international forum and without a Soviet Union beside them. The possible outcome of this emerging situation might be a multiple with many loose ends. For example, one such outcome might be shaping under highly stringent changing pressure from the donor countries upon Bangladesh to re-fix their political outlooks for management of their economy with regard to India particularly. There can be a second probable outcome by stalling and discouraging export of poverty-nourished cheap labour to adjoining Indian states by depressing the wage earned by the Indian counterpart. Sequentially, there might come up additional pressure of Bangladeshi redundant labour on Bangladeshi economy itself thereby generating new kind of resentment, disillusionment and anger of the rural and urban masses of Bangladesh.

Demographic, socio-economic and political problems in West Bengal due to illegal migration and its consequences:

Reports have also been received about the purchase of lands in the border districts by infiltrators as well as Bangladeshi nationals. Till some years ago reports used to be received about the buying of land by Hindu migrants, primarily for providing a roof over their heads. But from eighties onwards, reports are being received about the large-scale purchase of agricultural lands in the border districts of West Bengal by rich Muslim Bangladeshi agriculturists with the connivance of local influential Muslims. In this context a memorandum on the subject was submitted to the former Chief Minister, Shri Jyoti Basu, and Land and Land Revenue Minister, the Late Benoy Chowdhury, on behalf of the State Committee of the CPI. It was stated in the memorandum :

“As the Chief Minister is possibly aware through his Home Secretary, the entry of hordes of infiltrators from across the border has been constantly creating problems of law and order in this State. By taking advantage of the loopholes in the laws governing the purchase of lands in this State, the rich people from across the border are buying up lands in the bordering areas of this State by paying two to three times the normal price, and by depriving the Indian agricultural labourers of their work, they are bringing over people from the other side of the border to cultivate those lands. This incident took place last year at Khanpur in the Balurghat Police Station of West Dinajpur District. A problem of law and order arose when local agricultural labourers wanted to harvest the paddy crop in the land which had been bought by the Bangladeshis.”

“Last year, a settlement was reached through the intervention of the District administration. This year, again, there are apprehensions about discord and clashes over the cultivation of that land. Such incidents are on the increase. The buying of lands by foreigners in this State should be stopped by enacting a legislation and also by declaring all such purchases as illegal. There should be a law for the detention of all those Bangladeshis who have been living in the border areas for quite some time. We hope you will take a serious view of the matter.”1 

In this paper an attempt has been made to explain the emerging picture consequent upon the internal demographic changes in the state as well as districts of West Bengal. During 1951—2001 period, the contrast between a decline in Hindu population and an extra-ordinary upswing in Muslim population is indeed remarkable in every district of the state. In a number of districts, the rate of growth of Muslim population is double or more than double than that of Hindu population during the last five decades. Growth rate of Hindus and Muslims are 198.54% and 310.93% respectively during 1951—2001. Population share of Hindu and Muslim in 1951 was 78.45% and 19.85% respectively, but during the last fifty years, share of Hindu in West Bengal has come down to 72.47% decreasing by 6% whereas the share of Muslim has increased to 25.25% an enhancement of 5.40%. (See Chart No.1).

On account of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Hindu refugees moved from East Pakistan, without much interruption, to various parts of India, especially to West Bengal, till 1971, when political boundaries in South Asia were redrawn. Even after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, the march of refugees to West Bengal appeared to be ceaseless. In the days of Pakistan, most of the refugees coming to West Bengal were members of the minority communities in East Bengal (East Pakistan), viz. Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. But after Nehru—Liaquat Agreement on 8th April, 1950 in the context of displaced migrants from East Bengal, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, where communal disturbances occurred, most of the Muslim migrants who crossed over to East Bengal came back again and settled in their ancestral places in the above mentioned Indian states during the entire period of undivided Pakistan i.e. 1950—1971. According to Agreement, “Indian government ensured to the minorities throughout its territory, complete equality of citizenship, irrespective of religion, a full sense of security in respect of life, culture, property and personal honour, freedom of movement within each country and freedom of occupation, speech and worship, subject to law and morality.” India also assured minorities `equal opportunity with members of the majority community to participate in the public life of their country, to hold political or other offices and to serve in their country’s civil and armed forces.’

On the other hand, Pakistan government neglected to implement the agreement or failed to enforce the fundamental rights of minorities in their country, mentioned in the agreement. As a result, no Hindu migrants returned back to East Pakistan/East Bengal after Nehru—Liaquat Agreement. As a consequence, during 1951—1961, Hindu share of population in East Pakistan came down to 3.5% with growth rate of only 1.53%. [ i.e. from 22.0% in 1951 to 18.5% in 1961]. Even during 1961—1974 period Hindu population share further declined by 5% to 13.5% in 1974. A large number of Hindu families who crossed over to India during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971 did not return.

The Hindu community in Bangladesh participated in the War of Liberation with the expectation that in the newly liberated country they would enjoy equal status and rights along with the Muslim community. But in practice, the persecution of the minorities continues even after independence. The forms of oppression of the religious minorities in Bangladesh are manifold. Constitutionally they have been downgraded; economically they have been crippled through different discriminatory laws; politically they have been segregated and alienated from the main stream, culturally they have been made non-entity in different government and non-government services and socially they are insecured. They are totally deprived of the privileges of participation in top positions of government and nationally they are used as subjects tortured through communal riots organized by government for subsiding political unrest against the ruling party. … As a consequence of the discriminatory policies combined with land grabbing, looting, arson, rape, murder and attack on religious institutions of the religious minorities under the protection of the government or government agencies, there has been continuous exodus of the minorities from Bangladesh.

After the emergence of sovereign Bangladesh in 1971 the Muslims in West Bengal did not feel any urge to migrate to Bangladesh because of diminished Islamic fervour in comparison with Pakistan. On the contrary, many Muslim families who had migrated to the then East Pakistan came back and started living in the several districts of West Bengal with the help of a section of influential local Muslims in all possible ways and ultimately settled in these areas since they could not fit in with Bengali Nationalism emerged from the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in place of Islamic fervour. Side by side hordes of Muslim infiltrators found a new haven in this region. Consequently, the Muslim population in the border districts as well as in other interior districts of West Bengal increased in geometric progression. In the eighties, Muslims in the border areas were further encouraged for community consolidation by the ruling parties of West Bengal. Demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, came as a great plea in committing organized crimes/dacoities by local Muslims and in some cases assaults on the Hindu families in connivance with Bangladeshi Muslims particularly in the bordering districts with Bangladesh.

It is observed from the Bangladesh Population Census 2001, Hindu population share has come down to 9.2% only. During the last 50 years since 1951, very lower growth rate indicates massive migration of Hindu population from Bangladesh to India, particularly in the state of West Bengal. On the other hand, a steady growth of Muslim population since 1951 has enhanced their population share to 89.7% in 2001 from 76.9% in 1951. During the last five decades (1951—2001) growth of Muslim population in Bangladesh is 244.68% as against 23.16% growth of Hindu population. Side by side, growth of Muslim population in West Bengal during the same period is 310.93%, i.e. much higher growth rate than Bangladesh. When growth rate of Hindu in West Bengal in the same period is 198.54% in spite of massive migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. How it can be possible? It clearly indicates massive Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh to West Bengal.

                                            Table 1

            Hindu-Muslim proportion in the border village
                    significantly changed due to migration2.

Period                 Gunarajpur    Keutsa   Mathurapur   Hogolbaria   Routbati

(1)                              (2)              (3)              (4)                  (5)              (6)

1950s & 1960s           2:3              2:3              4:6                  7:3              4:6

1970s & 1980s           2:3              2:3              5:5                  6:4              5:5

1990s & 2000            1:4              1:2              3:7                  5:5              3:7   

The above 5 border villages have taken from P.S. Swarupnagar, Baduria (district 24-Parganas), Karimpur, Hogolbaria and Muturia (District Nadia).

Out of all the 59 incidents as referred to in Table 2, 49 cases are related to the worst form of crime like murder, rape, dacoity, etc. but necessary administrative measures by the concerned authorities are very bleak by any standard.

Incidents of organized crimes in connivance with Bangladeshi Muslim and other criminals, coupled with non-cooperation of the local administration (the police, the Panchayets, etc.) and the party in power to keep intact the Muslim vote-bank forced many Hindu families to move to other interior Hindu dominated areas rendering these areas densely Muslim populated mainly by Bangladeshi infiltrators. For the

Table 2

Nature of Administrative Management3 

No. of Incidents

Total                   Dacoity              Rape                Murder/               Other              Complaint        Police        Action of         Remarks

No. of                                                                   wounded            atrocities              lodged           action       Panchayet

case                        etc.



(1)                          (2)                   (3)                      (4)                      (5)                      (6)                 (7)               (8)                  (9)

30                           28                     3                      15/3                     10                  Each and       Partially           Nil           No punish-

                                                                                                                                 every case       in three                               ment in

                                                                                                                                                      cases only                            any case

*All the 30 families who have migrated during the last two decades are from following police stations :

Karimpur, Hogolbaria, Murutia, Thanerpara and Swarupnagar under Nadia and 24-Pargans districts.


                                                        Table 3

                            Population of West Bengal and districts, 1981 & 1991.
                            (Religion-wise break-up) Illegal Migration and its
                            Impact on Demography of District of West Bengal

                                            1981                    1991                     Net

                                                                                                     Increase (%)

West          Total                 54580647            68077965            

Bengal        Population

                   Hindu               42007159            50850000             8842841

                                            (76.96)                (74.69)                  (21.05)

                   Muslim             11743209            16050000             4306791

                                            (21.51)                (23.57)                  (36.67)

District                                   Rise in the number           Rise in the number of

                                           of Hindus 1981-91 (%)      Muslims 1981-91 (%)

 (1)                                                     (2)                                     (3)

Cooch Behar                                     18.51                                 37.43

Jalpaiguri                                          22.54                                 44.58

Darjeeling                                        24.50                                 58.18

Midnapore                                       19.74                                 53.08

Bankura                                            14.33                                 38.71

24-Parganas(North& South)           16.49                                 35.15

West Dinajpur                                  28.49                                 33.48

Maldah                                             24.36                                 36.09

Murshidabad                                    19.55                                 34.15

Nadia                                                28.43                                 34.49

Howrah                                            22.30                                 38.35

Hooghly                                           20.90                                 29.11

Purulia                                              18.93                                 31.62

Burdwan                                           22.38                                 38.67

Birbhum                                           18.36                                 30.00

Source: Census Report, Government of India, 1981 & 1991 & Satchidananda Dutta Roy, Paschimbangabashi, K.P. Bagchi & Company, Calcutta, 1994.

same reasons many of the one-time Hindu majority border villages have now turned into Muslim majority villages. It needs mentioning  that the incidents of dacoity, cattle lifting, rape and murder are more or less non-existent in the Muslim inhabited border villages of West Bengal. On the contrary where the population is mixed, Hindu families are specially subjected to coercion and dacoities by the Muslim criminals and in some cases in connivance with a section of the Bangladeshi Muslims. In most of the Hindu majority villages the entire cattle population are left to the care of the Border Security Forces (BSF) or under the protection of local police before it is dusk and taken away by the owners at dawn.

Regrettably it may be mentioned that entire management of rural society run on the ground rule of law, more or less replaced by spasmodic arbitrary and also authoritarian local decisions of the party-administration nexus — the local self government remaining on the surface as such. Now almost both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border region are inhabited by a population, which is ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously identical4. Already it has taken the shape of a demographic expansion. This changed demographic scenario is quite capable of disrupting social harmony of this region.

Secondly, the process of Islamic fundamentalist orientation through madrassah education, Islamic Jalsa ( fundamentalist preaching for Islamic consolidation), anti-Indian propaganda by speeches and literatures mostly from Bangladesh, etc. not only alienated other religious sects and ethnic groups but is also strengthening the Islamic militancy and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) network in the region which is further weakening our national security and integrity by widening the communal division as well as weakening moderate Muslim ideals. The entire process is weakening the secular fabric of our civil society leading to further erosion of social harmony.

Policy Options:

Policy solutions regarding illegal Bangladeshi migration depend on a set of existing conditions. It may change if existing condition change. But the existing conditions always depend upon some factors of social, political and economic developments and also bilateral relations and international understandings between the countries. The present scenario demands :

Land purchasing by the illegal migrants must be stopped by enacting a legislation and also by declaring all such purchases as illegal. There should be a law for the detention of all those Bangladeshis specially those who have been living in the border areas for quite some time; to check vigorously the further settlement of alien population in the border region, and to take measures to shift the existing settlement; to safeguard against easy access to certain unintended benefits such as ration cards, inclusion in voter’s list, admission to educational institutions, etc.

           l   A public awareness campaign at home and abroad explaining the gravity of the problems and its adverse political, economic and security implications for the region.

           l   To complete and strengthen barbed wire fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border without further delay and to include area within 15-20 km stretch from border under the effective higher administrative control( it may be jointly with state governments ) and the procedure (law system) of push-back for alien people/infiltrators/illegal migrants must be simplified for immediate action by the law enforcing authorities.

           l   Immediately to prepare a list of the illegal migrants. They should be treated according to the established norms and rules of UNHCR. Commissioning the services of the UNHCR and other credible international agencies in repatriating the illegal migrants. The problem has reached such a magnitude that the other options will be more complicated.

           l   To grant citizenship to the Hindus coming from Bangladesh since 1971 because they are victim of partition and religious persecution . It is very important for the Government of India to chalk out a plan for safeguarding the existing Hindus in Bangladesh for resisting further migration.



            Source: Distribution of Population by Religion, Census of India 2001, West Bengal.  

Notes and References :

     1. Kalantar, West Bengal CPI Bengali daily, August 26, 1991. The aforesaid memorandum was written by Gobin Kanrar on behalf of the CPI State Committee to the Chief Minister Mr. Jyoti Basu after visiting Khanpur (West Dinajpur).

     2.  A recent survey (October, 2002 ) conducted by Mihir Sinha Ray in the border districts of West Bengal on ‘Cross border migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal’ sponsored by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.

     3.   Ibid.

    4.  A statement was given by Minister of State for Home Affairs Mr. P. M. Syeed on Unstarred Question No.2365, 17th August, 1995, Lok Sabha, Government of India.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati