The Bodo-Muslim clashes in Kokrajhar in Assam, which left more than 70 dead and about 200,000 refugees divided into Bodo and Muslim camps, is being traced to the illegal immigrants coming across from Bangladesh. It is not being admitted even by the BJP that the immigrants from Bangladesh are not just Muslims and they could be Hindus as well. There is also the realisation even on the part of the nationalist right-wingers that the immigrants into Assam are hard-working and they are earning their livelihood this side of the border through their own efforts. The immigrants are not predators. The Congress of course plays its communal politics. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) was given political recognition by the Indira Gandhi government at the height of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation against foreigners, including Bengalis from the Indian side, in the early 1980s.
The BJP is arguing that no favour is being done to the Bodos, that the central government is bound to protect the Bodo lands because it falls under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which has provided for the Bodoland Terriorial Areas District carved out in 2003 through a Constitutional amendment. This was done by the Vajpayee government. A section of the BJP is of the view that Bangladeshi immigrants have no place in the tribal territorial district of the Bodos because the law is very clear that no one but those belonging to the scheduled tribe can own land. There are others in the party who recognise that the situation is more complicated.
The Bodoland Territorial Council is mandated to have 46 members of which 30 seats are reserved for scheduled tribes, five for non-tribal communities and five open for all communities. The governor can nominate six members. The composition pattern reflects the population mosaic. Here is a scheduled tribe territory with non-tribal elements in it.
Then there is the problem of the illegal immigrants. While the Indian side argues that Assam is being flooded by people from across the border, the Bangladesh side says the problem is exaggerated and that the illegal immigrants do not add up to more than a few thousands, at best a few tens of thousands but never in the range of millions as claimed by the Indians. The proud argument put forward from the Bangladesh front is that their poor people leave for Gulf to seek their fortune and not to India. The bluster on both sides is evident.
The most ardent anti-immigrant advocates in India concede that Bangladeshis are taking advantage of the economic vacuum in Assamese society that allows the illegal immigrants to melt into the local scene. It is an indirect admission that there is no resistance to the immigrants at the local level, except when it erupts into a bloody clash triggered by an act of trivial provocation. In the latest Kokrajhar explosion, it was the murder of two Muslim youth and the assault on another two followed by the killing of four Bodo activists. The BJP team that visited the hot spot has said that the distrust between the two communities is so deep, that the Muslims believed that the Bodos were behind the attacks and the Bodos also concluded that it was the Muslims who did it.
At the moment no one is arguing whether the Muslims were illegal immigrants or part of the local community. A BJP leader said that it is not necessary to indulge in hair-splitting at this stage and that the main issue is to protect the Bodos and their territorial rights as mandated by the Constitution.
It can be seen that everyone is sidestepping the big question: If you cannot control immigration can you at least regulate it? If poor Bangladeshis are to continuously cross the porous border, there should be ways of knowing as to who is entering. One way of doing this is to issue work-permits, though it poses its own set of problems on the ground. This is better than making punitive laws which mandate detection, detainment and deportation of illegal immigrants. This would make sense if there is a policy of legal migration, especially on the eastern front. This should facilitate the inflow of people not just from Bangladesh but also from Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. This will also help call the bluff of Bangaldesh about the numbers entering India from its side.
The immigration laws must be backed by a clearly thought out immigration policy. Many people might think that this is a meaningless question, that an overpopulated India does not need immigrants at all, and therefore there is no need for an immigration policy. It is time to pause and think over the common sense assumptions. India makes claims both at bilateral levels and through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) channels that a free market system should allow for not just free flow of capital but also of free flow of human beings. Indians want to migrate to the developed countries like the US, the UK, Australia and Singapore. There has to be reciprocity and India will have to allow immigrants. It has every right to regulate and control the flow of immigrants but it cannot shut the doors on people from other countries, including those from Bangladesh. This is a hard fact to swallow but this cannot any more be avoided. Assam cannot be left to deal with the issue all on its own. We need a national immigration policy and that there will be immigrants knocking at India’s doors even as Indians knock at others’ doors. If Indians believe that Indian migrants are enriching those countries where they are migrating to, by the same logic they will have to accept that immigrants into India will be of use to this country’s economy.