Migration Induced Strife Looming Large in Assam

Rupakjyoti Borah
May 05, 2005

“Let's take an oath [...] no food, no job, no shelter to Bangladeshis". These are frantic calls to the people of Assam to throw out illegal Bangladeshis from the state. The result, thousands of illegal Bangladeshi migrants have left Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Golaghat and a few other areas in Upper Assam during the last couple of weeks. What triggered this exodus was the deadline imposed by an obscure student body, the Chiring Chapori Yuva Morcha (CCYM), formed on April 12 this year. 

This student group had asked Dibrugarh denizens not to provide the Bangladeshis with jobs, food and shelter. It had set a deadline of May 7 for the Bangladeshis to leave. According to the Morcha members, they had to take recourse to drastic measures as they were fed up of the dilly-dally tactics of the government. With the passing of the deadline, hundreds of these illegal migrants trooped out of Dibrugarh. The Dibrugarh example was also enacted in a few other towns of Assam. The police also could not take any action against the members of this outfit as there was no complaint about physical force being used against anyone. It used the Internet and innocuous mobile messaging to good effect passing the note around. It remains to be seen if this sort of phenomena spreads to other areas of Assam and if possible, neighbouring States. A similar kind of situation was witnessed recently in coastal Orissa, for the record.

Assam for long has been facing the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh due to its physical proximity. India has fenced parts of the 4,000-km (2,500-mile) border with Bangladesh, but officials say this has done little to deter migrants bent on leaving one of the world's poorest countries. Assam shares a 272 km (169 miles) porous border with Bangladesh, a vast stretch of which is unfenced. Assam’s border with Bangladesh is largely porous and even in the fenced areas, it is alleged that the BSF personnel on duty allow the illegal migrants to enter Assam in lieu of money. The tragedy of Assam is that the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, IMDT is prevalent whereas in all other parts of the country the Foreigners Act is applicable to deal with these illegal migrants. Over two years ago, the government estimated there could be up to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India, and labelled some of them a security risk.

One of the ludicrous provisions of the IMDT Act is that the onus of proving that a suspect is an illegal migrant lies on the complainant. Little wonder that there has been very little detection under this Act. It was the illegal migrant issue that led to the Assam Agitation in which hundreds of Assamese were martyred. The agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord on 15th August 1985 between the AASU (All Assam Students’ Union), the AAGSP (All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad) and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The hopes from the Accord soon went up in smoke. The ground realities did not change. The vote bank politics have ensured that the Bangladeshis have a free run in Assam. 

The exodus of Bangladeshis from Assam had already taken near international dimension with Bangladesh threatening to seek United Nations Human Commission for Refugee’s (UNHCR) intervention. While urging New Delhi to stop this mass exodus, country’s Foreign Minister, Morshed Khan has summoned Indian High Commission officials for a dress down. 

Always in a denial, Indian Agencies refuted claims of mass exodus and observers suspected that this development could be exploited by Bangladesh to neutralize the adverse fallout of the recent border skirmishes. The State government has deputed some ministers to assess the situation and has asked the Home Department to prepare a report. The Government has decided not to take any action against the persons involved in the anti-Bangladeshi campaign. 

Undoubtedly, Assam is sitting on a powder-keg waiting to explode anytime. Whether this "save the nation, save identity” cry help the already fragile Assam or not, the issue has become a political hot-potato nobody wants to touch. The various parties are skirting the issue so as not to be seen taking sides. But the signs are ominous. Something has to done to address the issue of illegal migrants in Assam which is all set to alter the demography of Assam. In November 2003, it was between students of Bihar and Assamese and now, the grudge against Bangladeshis. The issue has been shoved under the carpet for too long by ostrich-like governments. The problem calls for an urgent solution before the situation goes berserk.

Author Note
Rupakjyoti Borah, Research Scholar, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi.