Public memory is short, they say. Still, let’s hope, going back just two years from now – to April 28, 2014 – may not be that hard.
On that day, Narendra Modi – as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – said in an election rally in West Bengal’s Serampore, “Note this down. After May 16 (when he would take over as prime minister), I will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border bag and baggage.”
Although he had made no mention of the ‘Bangladeshi issue’ at any of the three rallies he addressed in Assam on April 19, 2014 – despite it long being a concern among ethnic Assamese voters – with his public declaration in Bengal, many in Assam inferred that he meant business. If chosen, a BJP government at the Centre was promising to deliver something that even the Assam Accord had been unable to.
Clearly that speech had an impact on the ballot box. Seven of Assam’s 14 parliamentary seats went to the BJP, a victory it had never seen before in that region.
This May, Modi and his government will complete two years in office, but we are yet to hear from the Centre on that ‘Bangladeshi’ promise.
Two years since that April day, Assam is in election mode, awaiting the results of the just-concluded assembly polls, to be announced on May 19. Poll observers surely felt a sense of déjà vu, with Modi repeating his intent directly to the state’s electorate. In a rally in Tinsukia on March 26, the prime minister said, “We are working to ensure that there will not be influx in Assam; the new BJP government will ensure that those who are here are sent out.”
Unlike in 2014, finding a ‘solution’ to the ‘Bangladeshi issue’ became the main thread of ‘poriborton’ (change) that the BJP sought to bring in Assam to help save the people their ‘jati, mati aru bhati’ (community, land and base). As campaigning heated up, Modi’s comment was repeated by many senior BJP leaders, including the party’s campaign head in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was once a minister overseeing the implementation of the Assam Accord, which was mandated to identify and deport undocumented immigrants in the state since 1971. The issue also found mention in the party’s Assam vision document for 2016-2025. If brought to power in Assam, the BJP state government promised to “work closely with the Centre for complete sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border.”
If a majority of poll pundits are to be believed, the clever positioning of an emotional issue could bring BJP to power in Assam. But the crucial question lingers. Will the BJP really be able to flush out undocumented immigrants from Assam if it comes to power?
The expert view is one of supreme doubt. Three well-known North East commentators The Wire spoke to easily punched holes in the plan.
Primarily, they pointed out three thorny spots that needed to be cleared before a ‘solution’ emerges. One, how will the state ensure that a bonafide citizen will not be stamped an illegal immigrant; two, what will be the destination of those sieved illegal, as Bangladesh would likely never agree to a discussion on their deportation; three, and importantly, how feasible is the idea of a “complete sealing” of a border with a friendly neighbour.
Guwahati-based rights and resource conflict expert Sanjay Barbora says, “The BJP campaign, ably amplified by a pliant mass media and several regional parties (like the BJP poll ally Asom Gana Parishad), was somewhat successful in creating a ‘seal-the-border-to-sort-the-problem’ discourse but it deflected from lived experiences and realities on the ground. Its campaign was able to put the spotlight on an old problem – immigration – but in the bargain took away the focus from any discussion on issues of resource conflicts (like land, etc.) and autonomy.”
Barbora, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, doesn’t see the promise being fulfilled any time soon. “It is an impossible and dangerous promise. Firstly, deportation requires a destination and there is no way that the government of Bangladesh is going to be party to this. Secondly, this requires making clear, precise political calculations about who is to be deported. Just because Bulgarian and Hungarian vigilantes are doing their bit to behave like frontier guards protecting Europe from non-European ‘barbarians’, any similar process in South Asia will not be possible without more bloodshed and violence,” he says.
Even if divisive politics won’t play out on the ground, there will be teething problems in separating legal citizens from undocumented immigrants unambiguously, says Sanjib Baruah, professor of political studies at New York’s Bard University.
“Even if we leave aside the question of whether Bangladesh would accept any of our unauthorised immigrants as their citizens, there are significant hurdles on our side too. We are not a country where everyone carries firm documentary proof of citizenship. A variety of documents pass as proxy for citizenship papers. In Assam, many people who are indigenous by any definition may have a harder time showing documentary evidence of citizenship than many that some people would label as illegal immigrants,” points out Baruah.
The state government is presently updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), according to the Supreme Court’s directive on December 17, 2014. The situation that Baruah points out is already playing out because of the inability to provide documentary evidence to prove citizenship by many who migrated to Assam from across the border before March 24, 1971, the cut-off date as per the Assam Accord. Baruah says the high turnout (over 80%) in both rounds of the assembly polls was largely a fall out of it. “To a significant extent, the ambiguities of citizenship explain the high voter turnouts in these elections. Many poor people travel from all over the country — and of course, from Guwahati – to their native places to vote hoping that voting would count as proof of citizenship.”
Politics aside, he says, “Assam’s citizenship crisis is real. I admire the SC for trying to do something about it but let’s not expect too much out of judicial activism. No court can magically settle Assam citizenship crisis; it ultimately involves questions about the birth of the republic itself. It is a continuation of the debate on the partition of India. As the American writer William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’”
Even if a section of people is labelled “illegal” after the NRC update, the issue will still be far from over, which the Supreme Court foresaw. In its December 17, 2014 directive, the court asked “the Union of India to enter into necessary discussions to the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the process of deportation”. But getting Bangladesh agree to come to the table on the issue is a near impossibility. So what happens to those declared ‘illegal’?
“We have done this before, putting doubtful citizens in detention camps. But if the numbers rise significantly, there will be issues of food, lodging, etc. It will be extremely difficult to sustain such camps,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for North East Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. He says, “Any party that comes to power in Assam will have to first maintain law and order. There are already complications in the state with so many factors playing out in the political, ethnic and social arenas; I wonder who would want to create more problems for itself?”
Responding to the popular discourse on who ‘belongs to the land’ and who doesn’t, Hazarika points out, “Most young people don’t distinguish between old and new settlers who came from across the border. Anyone who is a Bengali speaking Muslim is a ‘Bangladeshi’ for them. However, there are sub-categories of people like Mymensinghia, Miya, etc. Dialects like Bhatia (similar to Bengali) are spoken on both sides of the border. So how can you uproot someone who has been living in the State for 40-45 years based on this common misnomer?”
While many in Assam regularly believe those living in the chars (sand banks) are illegal Bangladeshis, Hazarika says they are mostly people uprooted by erosion caused by the Brahmaputra.
Hazarika highlights a pertinent point here, “We forget that this lot of Bengali speaking people adopted Assamese as their mother tongue. This has ensured that Assamese is a linguistic majority in the State. If hostility towards them continues, I wonder how many will show Assamese as their mother tongue. It will certainly affect the status of
Assamese as an official language of Assam.” While wondering why migrants would come to a place that is hostile to them, he also cautions any party that comes to power in the state. “In the name of identifying illegal immigrants, if genuine citizens are victimised, it will run the risk of radicalising Muslim youth.”
Work on border fencing began much before the BJP took a stand on it. Although many completion deadlines have been missed by successive central governments, most of the 263-km border that Assam shares with Bangladesh has barbed wire now, except in some patches where the river divides the two.
A ‘complete sealing of the border’ also has many diplomacy problems. “Bangladesh’s relationship with the Modi government is particularly cordial, especially given its ability to seal the land swap deal (to demarcate the Indo-Bangladesh border once and for all). It is also important to note that only because Bangladesh agreed to allow India to use its fibre optic cables, Tripura has been able to get Internet connectivity. Additionally, over the years, Bangladesh has handed over wanted United Liberation Front of Asom militants to India.
By talking of sealing the border entirely, what message is India sending to a friendly neighbor, wonders Hazarika. In 2011, the body of a 15-year old girl, Felani Khatun, remained hanging from the Indo-Bangladesh border fence near Cooch Behar for many hours after the Border Security Force shot her dead. Bangladesh called it “a gross violation of human rights” by India, reminds Hazarika.
Barbora suggests, “It may be possible to have a state-of-the-art border fence but that is hardly the best way to address the issue of border crossings, especially if we are to come to terms with the fact that the porous border is not responsible for the militarization of our society. We need more dialogue instead. We need our student
unions to be able to go and discuss their fears with student unions in Bangladesh. We need Bangladeshi journalists to come and report on the Assamese view of immigration. We need exchanges between lawyers, students, artists and others living in Assam and their counterparts in Bangladesh. But the BJP’s vision document has a
diametrically opposite view. It has made it alright for (mainly) young men in Assam to think of a world where dialogue is not necessary and where it is a virtue to not know anything (or care about) their neighbours.”
Baruah hopes, “In a post-Berlin Wall world, I would like to think that India has the intellectual resources to think of national security in terms of smart border management and not walls. And among beneficiaries of smart borders would be some of our poorest compatriots living in remote border villages. Access to markets across the border provides livelihood opportunities to those people not in very grand terms, but at least in terms of poverty amelioration.”