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Competitive politics over illegal migration from Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 08, 2014

    The issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to India has been the most vexing issue in the bilateral relations of the two countries. This issue has been around for a long time but no solution was found because it gets communalised the moment it is raised. Thereon the two leading political parties in India – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – indulge in blame game which stops any rational debate from taking place over the issue. This important issue was raised to the great electoral effect by the BJP in the run up to the parliamentary elections. It helped them to show their best ever performance in Assam, in particular, and the northeast India in general. Realising the electoral significance of the issue, the Congress has now changed its stand and seems to be engaging in a competitive politics with its rival BJP. It is now talking of giving citizenship to even those migrants who came to India after 1971 but were persecuted in Bangladesh.

    It is quite interesting to see the Congress take a stand similar to the BJP. In fact, the Congress has now tried to outdo the BJP over the issue of illegal migration. When Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj sometime back visited Bangladesh on her first standalone foreign visit, the government was contemplating giving visa on arrival to those Bangladeshis who are less than 10 years of age and older than 65 years. But this was criticised by the Tarun Gogoi government in Assam who stated that it would further encourage illegal migration from Bangladesh.

    The Assam government also tried to create confusion by saying that the new central government was considering ‘visa free’ entry of Bangladeshis. The fact of the matter is that the visa free entry of Bangladeshis was never under consideration. What government ever considered was visa on arrival for certain sections of Bangladeshi population. Even this decision was probably taken by the earlier government which could not be implemented because of the elections. Gogoi was also critical of government’s decision to give this section multiple entry visa. Gogoi accused BJP of having a dual approach over the issue. He blamed them for following one policy while in opposition and quite another when in power. Actually duality was visible within Congress itself where Gogoi was criticising centre for giving travel facilities to Bangladeshis, on the other hand, at the Central level Congress leader Anand Sharma was critical of the BJP government for having no consensus over the issue.

    Gogoi has now turned sympathetic to the migrant Hindu population who have come to the state after facing religious persecution in Bangladesh. The state cabinet has approved the proposal that refugees who have fled religious persecution and discrimination in Bangladeshi and entered Assam post March 25, 1971, the cutoff date for determining an illegal migrant in the Assam Accord, will not be treated as foreigners. Through this policy he now hopes to recover lost ground. It is estimated that the Hindu population which has come after March 1971 is 85 lakhs. This is a huge constituency. Their support could prove crucial for any political party hoping to form government in Assam. Meanwhile Gogoi is also now facing dissidence within his own party in Assam. The voice of dissent has grown stronger with the dipping of electoral fortunes of Congress in Assam. Gogoi also hopes to revive his political fortunes with this new approach.

    Besides Assam the issue of illegal migration also directly impacts West Bengal in a major way. But here the chief minister Mamata Banerjee has done a u-turn and is trying to present herself as the saviour of illegal migrants. The dramatic change in her views can be attributed to the role played by illegal migrants in the electoral politics of West Bengal. She challenged Narendra Modi to touch even one illegal migrant from her state. Her party Trinamool Congress had put up candidates in Assam hoping to capitalise on this issue.

    The continuous exodus of minorities from Bangladesh would make the country lose its pluralistic character and thereby give more space to Islamist extremists who want to dismantle democracy in the country some day. In this situation, a better policy for India would be to stop creating a situation, where Hindus of Bangladesh would feel encouraged to flee to India. The Indian state can consider giving citizenship to the persecuted people but at the same time, in the interest of pluralism in a neighbouring country, it should also put pressure on Bangladesh government to create an environment where minorities in that country feel safe and are not forced to flee.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India