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Stopping Illegal Migration from Bangladesh: Need for a Comprehensive Approach

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 24, 2016

    The electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in Assam has brought the focus back on the issue of illegal immigration. After all, this was one major issue on which the party has come to power. Now that the BJP is in power at both the state and the central level, people will demand its resolution once and for all. Failure to provide a viable solution to this long pending issue will make people sceptical about the commitment of the party over the issue. In any case, it will be difficult for the BJP to sell the same issue again and again.

    The party seems to be alive to this reality as the issue of illegal migration was prominently highlighted at its National Executive meeting held recently in Allahabad on June 12-13, 2016. Members of the National Executive acknowledged the fact that Assam has faced an unchecked infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh for decades on. It was further stated that the problem has now reached Himalayan proportions and could mean a “death-knell to Assam's identity, culture and traditions besides severely affecting state's economy and people's livelihood.”1 The resolution at the National Executive also blamed successive governments for turning a blind eye to the problem and indulging in vote bank politics.

    The sealing of India’s border with Bangladesh has always been a problem. It is particularly notorious for its porosity. A large part of this border is riverine and rivers keep changing their course. What is worse, in the rainy season the flood water often uproots border pillars. Moreover, people living right up to the border do not make border management any easier.

    The government however seems determined to seal the Indo-Bangladesh border or at least that part of the border that Assam shares with Bangladesh. The new Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has already stated that sealing the border with Bangladesh in the next two years is one of his two top priorities. A decision to this effect was taken by Home Minister Rajnath Singh in a review meeting on border management held on June 02, 2016. Bangladesh shares 4096 km of international border with India of which 284 km is with Assam. It was stated during the meeting that about 224 km of the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam has already been fenced. It was also pointed out that “there are 122 locations (60.7 km) in Assam where physical barrier is not present”. The government has now decided that “100 locations covering 11.9 km will have physical barrier i.e. fence and 22 locations covering 48.8 km of riverine areas will have non-physical barriers including technological barriers which will be achieved by June 2017.”2

    To secure sensitive areas, the government now wants to make “full use of technological solutions”. This will be achieved by “networking of equipments like high resolution cameras, radars, unattended ground sensors, optical fibres, infra-red sensors, aerostats, hand-held thermal imagers, etc. and integration of these with command and control architecture.”3 The use of high-tech gadgets to keep watch over riverine areas or those areas which are difficult to seal could prove to be useful. However, at the end of the day, any technology is only as effective as the man sitting behind it or operating it.

    Interestingly, the BJP looks at the favourable outcome of the assembly election in Assam as a major ideological victory for the party, and not just as another electoral victory. The party thinks that its stand against illegal immigration has been endorsed by the Assamese people. The party now also appears keen to fulfill the promises made on the issue. But the problem is approach taken by the party may not effectively solve the problem. First of all there is a need to realise the border shared by Assam is only a small part of the total border shared by India with Bangladesh. As a result, even if this border is completely sealed other parts of the border remain porous. The illegal immigrants can still pour in from other areas. No doubt, in Assam there is a growing sentiment against illegal immigration, but the same can’t be said about the state of West Bengal or even Tripura. In fact, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had challenged then BJP’s prime ministerial-candidate Narendra Modi to touch even one such person in her state. In the past, it has been seen that people who were supposed to check infiltration actually encouraged it as part of their narrow vote bank politics.

    The state government is also planning to update National Register of Citizens (NRC). Actually, the first visit of the new chief minister of Assam was to the headquarters of the state agency that is involved in the process of updating NRC. Even in this area the government is going to face major problem as migrants have been pouring into Assam for over a century now. Though the Assam Accord had set March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date, there are other clauses which entitle people of Bangladeshi origin to claim citizenship.

    In the absence of commitment from other states, it would be difficult for the new state government to even check the problem of illegal immigrants. Assam has long been the gateway for illegal immigrants, but now the gateway has shifted to other areas. These illegal immigrants can very well come through states like West Bengal and then move on to the other parts of the country including Assam. This phenomenon is already in progress. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh know well that if they stay in one place it would be easier for state agencies to identify and deport them. Hence they disperse once they cross the border. Today one can find them from Kashmir to Kerala.

    However, this is not to suggest that illegal migration is insurmountable and no solution can be found. But an effective solution would require a comprehensive approach where all the affected states - especially those that border Bangladesh - would have to adopt a uniform policy against illegal migration. This means that steps taken in Assam have to be replicated in other Indian states bordering Bangladesh. The very approach of institutions responsible for checking illegal migration also needs to change, in the absence of which any amount of effort is bound to deliver only partial results.

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