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Security Threat or Boogeyman?


The presence of illegal immigrants in India, in particular Bangladeshis, has led to deep polarisation among the lawmakers and intelligence community. Sanjay Srivastava tries to revisit the debate
SANJAY SRIVASTAVA | Issue Dated: December 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Homo Sapiens | Justice Markandey Katju | Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra | United Nations Convention on Refugee |

India is made up of immigrants. It has always been. The original inhabitants, Kols and Bheels, are so less in numbers that they are classified as Scheduled Tribes. Even a Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra had attested to the fact that they were the original inhabitants of the land, way before the arrival of Dravidians and Aryans.

Immigration is a global phenomenon that goes back to the very advent of Homo Sapiens. The human race has been migrating all over the world in search of greener pastures, water and better living conditions. Later, economic opportunity also became one of the factors.

However, in the modern context of the Nation State, this poses several challenges. Illegal immigration and encroachment are already raging issues in the recently ended US elections, and India is facing a very similar reality. There is hardly a definite number with the government with regards to illegal immigrants and intruders. However, different assessments put the number of those who are not “Indians” at around 1.5 crores. The corresponding figure in the year 1990 was 75 lakh. The number dwindled to 64 lakh in the year 2000. There is no clear explanation behind the fall. Around 90 percent of the current immigrant population are illegal. Of these, 60 lakh are believed to be from Nepal, 30 lakh from Bangladesh, 10 lakh from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a lakh each from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet each.

A section of experts attribute several problems related with security, social cohesion, distribution of resources, rise in crime and terrorism to this phenomenon.

Liberal democracy, availability of resources, access to civic amenities and administrative loopholes are some of the factors that attract illegal immigrants to India. The absence of a National Refugee Policy also contributes to the problem. The general perception among the right-wing analysts is that while immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan are also detrimental to India’s wellbeing, it is the refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan who are harming the country. According to their logic, while refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar are not posing any problem as of now, they might prove to be a security risk in the future.

It is also easier for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankan refugees to go off the radar and assimilate with the general population. While Bangladeshis mostly assimilate in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Bihar, Tamils from Sri Lanka prefer Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala for assimilation.

One of the latest assessments maintains that there were as many as 53,38,486 illegal immigrants in India. But it is also believed that the real figure could be double of this government assessment. This number forms 2.3 per cent of the National Immigration Ratio and 0.4 percent of the total population. In terms of total number of immigrants, India now stands 11th in the world, three places down from the pre-Syrian conflict years.

While India has been giving refuge and asylum to foreigners since independence, there’s no National Refugee Policy or law in place. India, interestingly, is also a non-signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status, 1951. In absence of clear guidelines, the police has been dealing with such issues under the archaic pre-Independence Foreigners Act of 1946. According to this Act, anyone who is not Indian is a “foreigner”. However there are no criteria separating refugees from immigrants or asylum-seekers. While India offers direct refuge to Tibetans and Sri Lankans, it seeks the help of United Nations while dealing with those from Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In 1994, an Eminent Persons Group under the leadership of PN Bhagwati was constituted to come up with a draft Refugee Act. The five member group consisted of members from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well. A model named South Asia Declaration of Refugees came into being in the 1997. Some amendments and improvements were made in January 2004. In 2015, this was introduced as The Asylum Bill through a private member bill by Shashi Tharoor. There has been no word on this since then.

Looking at the individual circumstances, the most interesting is the case of Bangladesh. Refugees, by definition, are those who leave their country for another country because of reasons related to religious persecution, political hounding or any other social, economic or ethnic reason. Bangladeshis don’t make a cut in any of these. And their numbers have swelled up since the 1971 war.

The areas most affected are Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Bihar. However, Bangladeshis are spread throughout India. According to a 2001 census, as many as 30,84,826 Bangladeshis were staying in India illegally. Such a huge number has been made possible by a conducive environment.

Other right-wing assessments, which focus more on the ‘Muslim’ part than on the ‘Bangladeshi’ part, give a figure of around three crores. Other estimates put their numbers to 54 lakh in West Bengal, 50 lakh in Assam, five lakh each in Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and as many as three lakh in Delhi. How these organisation reached a cumulative figure of three crores is unexplained.

The numbers in Assam are however mind-boggling even by the government’s census report. While the population growth rate among Muslims in India is 0.8 per cent, the corresponding figure in Assam was 3.3 per cent between 2001 and 2011. This is higher than even Jammu and Kashmir – 2.3 per cent – which has a Muslim majority.

Muslims formed 10.7 per cent of the total population in Assam in the year 1961, which increased to 11.20 per cent in 1971. It saw a sharp rise to 18.70 per cent in 2011.

The present figure is close to 20 per cent. The corresponding increase in West Bengal was 26 per cent in 2011 from 14.4 percent in the year 1951. In Nagaland, the Muslim population has seen a rise of 350 per cent on a lower base and has reached around 75,000. Several assessments say that this has been made possible by the assimilation of Bangladeshis.

In Assam, while the ratio of the growth of Hindus between 1971 and 1991 has been 42.89 per cent; the corresponding figure or Muslims is around 77.42 per cent. This is 35 per cent more than the Hindus in the state.  Between 1991 and 2001, while Hindus grew by 14.95 per cent, the corresponding growth figure for Muslims was 14.35 higher at 29.3 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the growth has been seen the most in the districts bordering Bangladesh. The Muslim population in Dhubri for example, was 64.46 per cent in 1971. It has increased to 75 per cent in the 2001 census.

In the past few years, especially in 2012, attempts were made to deport Bangladeshis. In 2012 and 2013, as many as 6537 and 5234 Bangladeshis respectively were sent back from Assam. 6440 Bangladeshis from West Bengal, 5166 from Tripura, 2480 from Assam, 1588 from Deli, 1388 from Maharashtra, 417 from Meghalaya, 297 from Haryana, 176 from Rajasthan, 99 from Andaman and Nicobar and 98 from Orissa were sent back during this period. However, experts believe that focusing on how to stop them from getting in is more productive than rounding them up and sending them back once they are in.

But that’s easier said than done. Bangladesh’s long border with India is posing a hindrance. Bangladesh shares a 2216.7 kilometres border with West Bengal, 856 kilometres with Tripura, 483 with Meghalaya, 318 with Mizoram and 263 kilometres with Assam. While there’s barbed wire on 3326 kilometres of the border, it is in various states of decay.   

If Bangladesh was not enough, Myanmar has come up as a new challenge for India. Since the advent of democracy in Myanmar, there have been increased attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by Buddhist extremists. Experts believe that an ethnic cleansing is in place and this has driven many Rohingyas towards bordering India. 

An assessment by non-government sources puts the figure of Rohingyas living illegally in India at around 1,75,000. The corresponding figure for last year was 1,34,000. There is a clear and sharp increase in their numbers. The government figure is slightly above 10,000. A separate report suggests that while 6684 Rohingya families are settled in Jammu and Kashmir, as many as 1755 families are settled in Andhra Pradesh.   

Most of the Rohingyas use the Indo-Bangladesh border to infiltrate India. Since many of them possess identity cards issues by UNHRC, they can’t be deported immediately. While their numbers are piffling compared to those from Bangladesh, they can be a problem in the future. Since most of them have been hounded in ethnic cleansing, they are susceptible to religious fundamentalism.

It is among such wronged community groups that Islamic State finds its recruits. Low standard of education, genuine or perceived grievances and economic misery are some of the factors that pushed several youngsters towards the Islamic State movement. The Indian intelligence is careful not to let India become such a recruitment centre. A section of Indian Intelligence – a slightly paranoid one – also links them with Maoists and Kashmiri separatists.

The Indian Intelligence has also flagged their relationship with Pakistan and Bangladesh based terror outfits such as LeT and HUJI. While a few individuals might have been linked with such organisations, there has been no concrete evidence suggesting it to be a phenomenon.

Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom fled the civil war there, easily assimilate among the locals in Tamil Nadu and are very difficult to weed out. While LTTE is a spent force now, there is no guarantee that such a group will not emerge in the future ,considering continued propaganda against the Sri Lankan government by sympathizers of the former LTTE movement.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017