Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bangladeshi Illegal Migration into Assam: Issues and Concerns from the Field

Assamese political and social discourses fear that this unchecked migration from across the border will subvert their way of life and change the demographic profile of the state in the near future. The lack of authentic data on illegal migrant flows only adds to the discomfort. This Issue Brief traces the political, social, economic and security discourses within Assam in response to the migrant issue. Based on insights from the field, the author offers certain policy recommendations to deal with the
illegal Bangladeshi migrant issue in a cost effective and timely manner.

Illegal migration from Bangladesh into Assam has been a major political, economic, social and security issue for Assamese society, so much so that it evoked the non-violent, highly visible, Assam Agitation (1979-1985) spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). That agitation resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985 which stated that anybody settled in Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 is not a citizen, but an illegal immigrant. This provision of the Accord has not been implemented and has therefore failed to change the nature of Bangladeshi immigration into Assam, now termed as a “silent invasion” with the majority of the infiltration taking place through the Dhubri district in lower Assam bordering West Bengal, the districts of Cachar and Karimganj in Assam bordering Bangladesh and the 443 km Bangladesh-Meghalaya border. Assam shares a highly porous 262 kilometre border with Bangladesh with portions of it left completely unchecked due to the difficult nature of the terrain.

Though there is no documented data on the number of illegal migration, it is assumed that out of the 26 million people residing in Assam, around six million are illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Influential Assamese intellectuals like Dhiren Bezboruah, who is also the editor of The Sentinel warns that Assam could become a part of “Greater Bangladesh” with districts like Dhubri and Goalpara witnessing a change in their demographic profile by becoming migrant-dominated while other districts like Barpeta, Nalbari, Nagaon and Darrang are also heading in that direction.

Local politicians in Assam are mostly blamed by Assamese society for not doing enough about illegal migration influenced as they are by “vote bank” politics. Consequently, the first voter list discrepancy in Assam was noticed way back in 1979 when 45,000 illegal migrant names were found in the Mangaldoi Assembly election voters’ list. From 1994 to 1997, 57 out of 126 constituencies in Assam showed an increase of 20 per cent in the number of voters whereas the all India average was 7.4 per cent for the same period. This rather unnatural increase in the number of voters in Assam is perhaps due to the addition of names to the voters’ list through dubious means. Consequently, the illegal Bangladeshi migrants issue tends to dominate the political, economic, social, and security discourses in Assam with residents of the state expressing concern of being taken over demographically by this silent invasion. The lack of data on migration adds to a sense of being ‘under siege’ by outsiders as no one is sure as to the number of migrants visibly infiltrating all walks of life in Assam. In a visit to Sibsagar and Dibrugarh districts in December 2009, this author observed that most local people, while worried about the issue of illegal migration, were also desperate for an effective resolution of the issue at the earliest.

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