Hindu migrants from Bangladesh: Assam’s souhaitable guests
by Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray, Director www.mantraya.org
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India and Director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM)’s Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the South Asia programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore between 2010 and 2012.
Routray specialises in decision-making, governance, counter-terrorism, force modernisation, intelligence reforms, foreign policy and dissent articulation issues in South and South East Asia. His writings, based on his projects and extensive field based research in Indian conflict theatres of the Northeastern states and the left-wing extremism affected areas, have appeared in a wide range of academic as well policy journals, websites and magazines.
Article reprinted by special permission of www.mantraya.org
Assam’s demography could be changing again with a new trend of influx of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in charge of the state government and New Delhi, insist that Assam is duty bound to host to these subjects of persecution. It is unclear, however, how these Hindu migrants, unlike their Muslim counterparts, would not be a source of outrage and social tension in states where they are settled.
Assam Tribune in its 12 February 2017 issue refers to a “new phenomenon of infiltration of Hindu people from Bangladesh” into Assam and the deposit of “substantial amount of Indian currency” in banks of districts bordering with Bangladesh following the demonetisation move. The front page report without citing its sources refers to a “common feeling among the minority Hindus in Bangladesh” that “they would be safe in India if they manage to sneak in”.
Since the police and security forces do not have “clear-cut instruction from the government”, the report points, the detention of “suspected Hindu migrants” at the border has led to “instances of tension in some parts of the Barak Valley”. It does not elaborate on the details and nature of tension in this predominantly Muslim majority area. What, however, it does mention that overall illegal movement of people into Assam from Bangladesh has come down because of an increase “in the deployment of Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and economic development in the neighbouring areas of Bangladesh”. It cites the instance of a decline in the number of the daily wage labourers and rickshaw pullers from Bangladesh who used to come over to towns of Karimganj in search of work. A new trend of migration has replaced such population movement taking advantage of the fact that 75 kilometres of the international border abutting the Barak Valley is riverine without any physical barrier. In the dry season, some parts of the Kushiyara river, which forms the international border between India and Bangladesh, can be crossed on foot. Boats of both the countries ply on the river allowing riders to shift from one boat to another to enter India. On 7 February 2016, the Supreme Court had expressed its ‘strongest displeasure’ over the manner in which fencing work along the Indo-Bangladesh has been progressing, by describing the affidavit by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in this regard as an “exercise in vagueness with no specific detail”.
The state government in Assam headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, feels that such migration of Hindus is far less than that of the Muslim migrants. In a statement, in November 2016, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma pointed at the 5.5 million illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who he claimed have altered the demography in 11 districts. Although there has never been an official estimate of illegal migrants in Assam, the 5.5 million figure is widely quoted by political entities in Assam. According to the 2011 census, moreover, nine districts are Muslim majority, a rise from six districts which were Muslim majority in 2001. Minister Sarma claimed that Hindu migrants in Assam in comparison number only 0.1 to 0.15 million.
He went on to exert the people of the state to choose their enemies between the Muslim and Hindu migrants while asserting that he does not “feel good” in Muslim majority districts.
Assam government’s moves complements New Delhi’s declaration of intent of welcoming all non-Muslim minorities from Muslim majority countries, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan with open arms by proposing an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 in the form of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill is under the scrutiny of a parliamentary committee. The dwindling Hindu population and their religious persecution in countries like Bangladesh has also become a cause of concern for India. According to the 2011 census, the Hindu population in Bangladesh has come down to only 8.2 percent. A series of incidents of hacking of Hindus to death have surfaced in Bangladesh in 2016. Some of these killings have been owned by the Islamic State. Hindu organisations see a new pattern in the killings. While earlier the pattern of violence was directed at “mostly about grabbing Hindu land and property”, the recent violence has been all about “slaughtering ordinary landless poor Hindus with no social or economic standing”, claimed the Dhaka based Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, Christian Unity Council (HBCUC). Such narratives form the core of the BJP’s moves. Narendra Modi, during his election campaign in 2014 promised to throw out all illegal Bangladeshis after BJP came to power. He, as prime minister, repeated the same promise in September 2015. While the government is yet to act upon that promise, Mr. Modi has further affirmed said that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh would get Indian citizenship as they ‘should not suffer in other countries’.
“We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here”, he said on 22 September 2015.
On 7 September 2015, the MHA issued a notification allowing persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered into India on or before 31 December 2014 to stay on without any valid documents. At the same time, the MHA opposed the move by Ministry of External Affairs in April 2016 to liberalise the visa regime with Bangladesh citing security threats. The fact that Bangladesh is the biggest source of foreign tourists to India – over 1.13 million came in 2015 and 0.55 million came in 2016 – was not taken into consideration. While factors like health care facilities in India and trade opportunities appear to have pushed Bangladesh to the top spot, suspicion lingered on the threats posed by the Bangladeshis to India’s security.
The Telegraph in its 5 April 2016 issue succinctly commented, ‘electronic visa facility has been offered to the citizens of the island of Niue, with a total population of 1,100, but not Bangladesh which sends three times the number of tourists each day on average.’
Significant opposition to any form of migration, irrespective of religion, from Bangladesh exists in Assam, especially among the community based groups. The influential All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) announced that it will resist any such move by the government to grant citizenship to foreigners, whether Hindu or Muslim. Other activists claim that such moves are communally motivated and are attempts to “bring Hindu Rashtra into the legal framework through the backdoor.” The Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), a youth organisation with large mass base all over the state, claims that MHA’s September 2015 notification is an abrogation of the 1985 Assam Accord. The Accord clearly states that foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 will be expelled. Assam’s present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal himself has been a long time crusader against illegal Muslim migration from Bangladesh. Taking the growing anger of Assam’s population into account, New Delhi in 2015 even considered a plan to distribute the non-Muslim Bangladeshi population to several states as Assam alone cannot bear such an enormous load of population. There was apprehension among the BJP leadership in Assam that such a move of settling the Hindu migrants in Assam alone would affect the party’s prospects in the May 2016 Assembly polls. However, a rousing victory for the party appears to have emboldened it to implement the plan. This was apparent in the November 2016 statement of Minister Sarma.
Asked to clarify if BJP indeed has a policy of differentiation between Hindu and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Sarma said, “Yes, we do. We clearly do. After all, the country was divided in the name of religion. Thus it is not a new thing.”
For long, the BJP has refused to acknowledge the economic nature of migration from Bangladesh and termed movement of Muslim migrants as a concerted demographic invasion. The explanation that migration is critically connected to a ‘demand and supply’-phenomenon and continued in response to a rising demand in Assam for a wide range of activities has been dismissed. As a result, opinions favouring a system of work permits for the migrants which will allow Bangladeshis legally work within India and disincentivize illegal ingress into India has fallen in deaf ears. The concern that Hindus are being persecuted in Bangladesh and hence must be allowed a safe haven in India, somehow, misses the most obvious outcome- this policy will not do anything to stop the depletion of Hindu population within Bangladesh. Instead of exerting diplomatic pressure on the India-friendly Awami League government and strengthening its hand to stop the attacks on the Hindu population, New Delhi seems to embarking on a dangerous path that will embolden the anti-Hindu radical groups within Bangladesh. Worse still, it may further lead to fresh tensions within the fragile northeast. If Muslim migrants are perceived to have exerted pressure on the scarce resources within Assam, how will the Hindu migrants be any different needs some honest introspection.
- Alok Tikoo Singh, “Migration fears as Bangla zealots go after Hindus”, Times of India, 16 June 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/Migration-fears-as-Bangla-zealots-go-after-Hindus/articleshow/52772620.cms
- Anita Joshua, ” Trump order ‘parallel’ in Modi bill: Citizenship bill before House panel criticised for religious discrimination”, Telegraph, 31 January 2017, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170131/jsp/nation/story_133255.jsp#.WKKLr2997IV
- Bibhu Prasad Routray. “Illegal Bangladeshi Migration into the Northeast: Policy Making, Politics, and Hurdles”, Eastern Quarterly, Vol.7, Issues III & IV, Autumn & Winter 2011, pp. 90-103, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2325783
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- Daulat Rahman, “Centre warned against bill”, Telegraph, 29 September 2016, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1160929/jsp/frontpage/story_110863.jsp#.WKFJOlN97IU
- Deepshikha Ghosh, “Come May 16, Bangladeshi immigrants must pack up: Narendra Modi”, NDTV, 22 September 2015, http://www.ndtv.com/elections-news/come-may-16-bangladeshi-immigrants-must-pack-up-narendra-modi-559164
- Kalyan Barooah, “SC slams Centre over Indo-Bangla fencing work”, Assam Tribune, 8 February 2017, http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=feb0817/at055
- Manan Kumar, “Taking cue from Europe, India to distribute ‘illegal Hindu migrants’ from Assam across states”, DNA, 24 September 2015, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-taking-cue-from-europe-india-to-distribute-illegal-hindu-migrants-from-assam-across-states-2128086
- R Dutta Choudhury, “Spurt in infiltration of Hindus from Bangladesh”, Assam Tribune, 13 February 2017, http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=feb1317/at052.
- Samudra Gupta Kashyap, “Choose your enemy, Hindu or Muslim migrants: Assam BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma”, Indian Express, 2 November 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/choose-your-enemy-hindu-or-muslim-migrants-bjp-assam-minister-himanta-biswa-sarma-3733080/.
© Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray