The final draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) released on Monday has found 40-41 lakh people in Assam as technically not Indian. With this, the BJP’s long-standing demand of identifying illegal immigrants has been met at least in regard to this eastern state thanks to an initiative by the Supreme Court, but the problem now arises of how to deal with them.
Opposition parties in Parliament and outside are up in arms but they seem to have no clear-cut solution to the problem. The government on its part has promised a review mechanism to those who can produce genuine documents to prove their citizenship before the cut-off date of December 24, 1971.
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That these migrants came in to escape persecution and extreme poverty in erstwhile East Pakistan that later became Bangladesh and became vote banks and thus a convenient tool for some political parties, especially the Congress and the CPI (M), to use for their own ends is a hard reality. In the process, they created problems for the indigenous people in parts of Northeast in terms of social and economic tensions.
They came without any documents and therefore as illegal migrants and through touts and political agents acquired documents that allowed them to pass off as Indian citizens. That the NRC has completed a colossal job of identifying them is a tribute to the work that was put in.
Of the 3.29 crore who applied for citizenship authentication, 2.89 crore were accepted as genuine citizens with the cut-off date being December 24, 1971.
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An estimate made in the year 2000 placed the total number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India at 1.5 crore, with around three lakh entering every year. The rule of thumb for such illegal immigrants is that for each illegal person caught, four get through.
During the UPA regime, Sriprakash Jaiswal, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, had made a statement in Parliament on July 14, 2004, that there were 12 million illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators living in India, and West Bengal topped the list with 5.7 million Bangladeshis. More recently, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs in the NDA government, put the figure at around 20 million.
The trip to India from Bangladesh is one of the cheapest in the world, at about Rs.2000 (around $30), which includes the fee for the “Tour Operator”. As Bangladeshis are culturally similar to the Bengalis in India, they are able to pass off as Indian citizens and settle down in any part of India to establish a far better future than they could in Bangladesh.
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Since the illegal migrants, predominantly Muslims, are deeply beholden to parties that help them settle in India they vote for them in election after election. It is the BJP’s effort now to disenfranchise them so that they no longer form the backbone of these parties’ voters.
It is in that light that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s offer to these migrants to settle down in that state must be seen. What Banerjee is not foreseeing is the plethora of problems that these refugees would create for the Bengalis, sharing their jobs and disturbing the law and order in the state. The rate at which these people multiply is also a cause for concern.
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Illegal immigrants in Assam pose a serious threat both to the identity of the Assamese people and to national security. They threaten to reduce the Assamese people to a minority in their own state, as happened in Tripura and Sikkim.
Politically, the Bangladeshi migrants are in a position to influence the results of the elections in a large number of constituencies in the Northeast (about 32 per cent of the constituencies in Assam). Economically, increased pressure on land, resulting in depletion of forest wealth, undercutting of wages of unskilled jobs, forcible occupation of government land by the migrants and a host of other such issues, generate a ripple effect in the entire Northeast which the Modi government in New Delhi is worried about.
Mere identification of illegal migrants would solve no problem. The government must now move beyond to finding alternative rehab means for them.