There is an all-round failure in India to come to grips with the problem of illegal immigration. Facts are well known, opinions are firmed up, and operating system is in position. But the tragedy is that despite this, nothing substantial happens due to catharsis of arriving at a decision in this regard due to sharp division of interest among the political class... We do realize that international borders cannot be totally sealed… Yet, we feel that the massive illegal migration poses a grave danger to our security, social harmony and economic wellbeing’.
These were the observations of the Task Force on Border Management constituted by the government in the wake of Kargil. The task force headed by Madhav Godbole, a former home secretary, submitted its report in 2000. It was very critical of the government for its failure to tackle the problem. The report was, for that reason, not placed in the public domain.
Later, in 2001, the group of ministers, in their recommendations on the national security system, while taking care of Bangladesh’s sensitivity in the matter, highlighted that the massive illegal immigration posed a grave danger to our security and social harmony. The task force estimated the total number of immigrants who had illegally entered into India to be around 1.5 crore. The figure must have, during the last decade, gone up to at least 2 crore.
The Supreme Court of India, in a judgment delivered on July 12, 2005, while declaring the provisions of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 as ultra vires of the Constitution, observed that ‘there can be no manner of doubt that the State of Assam is facing ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ on account of the large scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals’. The apex court went on to say that ‘the Bangladeshi nationals who have illegally crossed the border and have trespassed into Assam or are living in other parts of the country have no legal right of any kind to remain in India and they are liable to be deported’.
The warnings of the task force and the group of ministers were ignored by the government. The directions of the Supreme Court were not complied with.
That was not all. Earlier, Lieutenant General (retd) S K Sinha, then governor of Assam, in a communication to the President of India sent on November 8, 1998, warned that ‘as a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state’ and that ‘this silent invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geostrategically vital districts of Lower Assam’.
The seeds of trouble were thus there. Everyone knew it. The central and the state governments had been warned at every level, but they found it politically convenient to dust the problem under the carpet. The sparks were bound to ignite — and this is what has been happening in Assam repeatedly. Bodos have been clashing now and then with the immigrants who have trespassed and grabbed their land. In 2008, Darrang and Udalguri districts witnessed serious trouble when 55 lives were lost and about 2 lakh people were displaced.
The recent events in Kokrajhar, Dhubri, and the adjoining areas are almost a repeat of the violence witnessed in 2008. The pattern is the same. A small incident, not contained by authorities, escalates resulting in huge loss of lives, internal displacement, disruption of rail and road traffic, and the situation being brought under control only after the Army moves in. The government of Assam is squarely to blame for the loss of 53 lives and the displacement of about four lakh people. There is no point in finding fault with the Army for its alleged delayed response. The resources of the state supplemented by the available paramilitary forces should have been enough to deal with the trouble. The problem is that the state police forces are in a shambles and the paramilitary forces are also losing their punch. The prime minister says that the Assam incidents are a blot on the nation. The kalank for the country, actually, is not the violence but permitting and later regularising the human migration from the neighbouring country at the cost of Assam’s identity and considerations of national security.
Problems not tackled in the initial stages invariably multiply, become more complex and come back to haunt the government in power. We have seen this in other parts of the country also. It happened in Jammu & Kashmir. We are witnessing that in central India. There is an element of poetic justice in the unfortunate events of Assam in the sense that the Congress has been most culpable in adopting an ostrich-like policy in dealing with the problem of illegal migrations.
There are ominous implications for future. The Bodos have an armed wing and they are likely to strengthen it to deal with challenges to their identity and their economic interests. On the other hand, fundamentalist organisations with potential for violence have mushroomed in Assam. Besides, terrorist outfits like HuJI (Bangladesh) are likely to fish in the troubled waters.
There is controversy over the nature of the clashes. It is definitely not ethnic because it is Bodos versus migrants, who are not a tribal group. To an extent, the clashes could be called communal because the adversarial groups belong to different religious denominations. However, it would be more appropriate to describe it as a socio-economic conflict. The Bodos resent being reduced to a minority in their habitat and they are fiercely possessive about their land. The tribals of central India who, as Maoists, have taken up arms against the government are also struggling for their rights over the forest products and against the development projects which seek to displace them. There is similarity in the causative factors.
The possibility of similar clashes happening in other areas of the northeast cannot be ruled out. Tripura is ‘northeast’s nightmare’ where the original inhabitants have already been reduced to a minority. Interestingly, Myanmar has shown far greater firmness in dealing with the similar immigration of Muslims known as Rohingyas from Bangladesh. We claim to be an emerging superpower but our leaders just do not have the grit to take firm decisions in the interest of national security.