External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee admitted recently that a large-scale influx from Bangladesh posed a threat to India, especially to Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. His statement offers nothing new, for the Centre has known this since a long time; it only shows that he has renounced his denial mode.
The large-scale influx of Bangladeshis into Assam has been continuing since pre-independence days. It gave rise to a historic movement, the Assam Agitation (sometimes called the Assam Movement) between 1979 and 1985 to force the government to identify and expel the illegal migrants. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power after the Assam Agitation riding on a popularity wave but failed to take steps to expel the Bangladeshis.
The problem has now reached epidemic proportions with the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups in many parts of Assam, especially those parts dominated by the migrants. It has led to a demographic upheaval with an estimated 11 out of 27 districts in Assam becoming Muslim majority districts in contrast to only one Muslim majority district at the time of India's independence. This massive influx consists of Muslims of Bangladeshi origin.
On the other hand, Assamese Muslims share a common culture with the Assamese Hindus and have been very vocal against this influx. A few Bangladeshi Hindus have settled down in Assam post 1971 and have been accepted into the society on compassionate grounds.
The large-scale migration of illegal Bangladeshis has led to an acute unemployment problem with almost 20 lakh unemployed youths in Assam, many of whom have taken to the gun. Besides, it has had a disastrous effect on the environment with the denudation of forests and killing of wildlife.
The State and the Central government have been ignoring this problem out of concern for their vote-banks. Very few of the illegal migrants are caught and even fewer deported due to various loopholes in the law. Migrants, after entering India through Assam, have moved to various North-eastern states and other parts of the country, creating a security problem. Illegal migrants now have a decisive say in some 50 of the state's 126 assembly constituencies.
The indigenous people in the state are in danger of becoming a minority in their own land. The former governor of Assam, Lieutenant-General (retd.) S K Sinha, in a report had warned that, if the demographic invasion of Assam was not tackled on a priority basis, the survival of the Assamese people would be at stake and their employment opportunities would be reduced. Several Islamic fundamentalist outfits operate in Assam.
The presence of lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam has provided a fertile recruiting and breeding ground for these terror outfits. The growth of radical Islam in neighboring Bangladesh has also helped these outfits. In 2005, the Supreme Court had struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act.
However, the amended Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order 2006 contains the same provisions as the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, which makes the detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshis from Assam very difficult. The attitude of the Central government has also alienated the mainstream Assamese who feel that the Centre is paying little attention to an issue which concerns their survival, which has stoked their separatist tendencies.
Unlike many of the North-eastern states, Assam does not have an Inner-Line Permit System, which makes it easy for anyone to settle in Assam. The border fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam is proceeding at a tardy pace.
It does not need a soothsayer to predict what lies ahead for Assam and the Northeast if the jehadists succeed. Bangladesh has been providing sanctuary to many of the militant outfits in the Northeast and the Indian government seems to be helpless in this matter. Often the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) have attacked the BSF (Border Security Force) outposts, as in 2001 at Pyrdiwah in Megalaya, where 16 BSF men were killed, many of them were brutally tortured to death.
The time is ripe for India to learn from its past mistakes and take urgent steps to tackle this threat. As they say, a stitch in time saves nine.
The writer is Research Scholar, JNU. Courtesy IPCS