.....................8th Jan 2005
In July 2004, Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal, informed Parliament (OF "EUNUCHS", "WOLVES" AND "MONKEYS") that there were an estimated 12 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, and that some five million of these were located in Assam and another 5.7 million in West Bengal.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi protested that these figures Were "inflated", and Mr Jaiswal quickly ate his own words, claiming that the estimates placed before Parliament were "based on hearsay".
He went on to record a ludicrously low "official" figure of 26,669 foreigners staying illegally in Assam, and a total of 46,587 in India, with just 14,131 in West Bengal.
Mr Jaiswal's flip-flop and the wild swings in the numbers under different regimes is symptomatic of the dishonesty that has chronically afflicted the issue of illegal immigrants in India - and particularly in the sensitive and violence-wrecked Northeast, where local communities are driven to the knife-edge of violence because of their confrontation with the illegal interlopers.
Various political parties, including, at different times, the Congress in Assam and the CPI(M) in West Bengal, have deliberately sought to play down the numbers, to cultivate and exploit illegal migrants as vote-bank. On the other extreme, "Right wing" arties have inclined to overstate the numbers and to exploit the hysteria they generate through doomsday scenarios without any serious efforts to address the issue during their terms in office.
That the situation is serious, however, is abundantly clear from the fact that various Government reports have, from time to time, placed the number of illegal Bangladeshis in the country at between 12 and 15 million - estimates that most commentators who have no political axe to grind regard as credible. These numbers are backed up by the corroborative evidence of successive census reports. The 2001 Census, for instance, placed the Muslim population in Assam at 30.9 per cent of the State's 26.6 million people, up from 28.43 per cent in 1991. Similarly, in West Bengal the Muslim population has increased from 23.61 per cent in 1991 to 25.24 per cent in 2001.
Significantly, six of Assam's 27 districts had Muslim majorities by 2001, with Barpeta's 977,943 Muslims outnumbering the 662,066 Hindus by the widest margin in the State. The other Muslim majority districts in the State included Dhubri, Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi. The Muslim population in Assam grew by an estimated 77.42 per cent between 1971 and 1991.
Muslim majorities or growth rates are, in themselves, not an issue within the Indian context. What is crucial is that the rates of growth of these Muslim populations have been the highest essentially in the districts that share borders with, or lie close to, Bangladesh. Thus, for instance, the Muslim population of Dhubri grew from 64.46 per cent in 1971 to 70.45 per cent in 1991 and to 74.29 per cent in 2001. In contrast, areas with significant concentrations of indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims reflected much lower rates of growth. In Jorhat, the primarily indigenous Muslim population grew from 3.89 per cent in 1971 to 4.32 per cent in 1991.
In Sivasagar, similarly, Muslims grew from 6.65 per cent in 1971 to 7.63 per cent in 1991. These growth rates are comparable to the general rates of growth of the Muslim population for the rest of the country, as well as to the rates of growth for Hindus in many parts of Assam. It is safe to conclude, consequently, that the bulk of the addition in the populations of the border districts comes from illegal migration from Bangladesh - a reality that both the State and Central Governments find politically expedient to suppress or misrepresent.
The presence of large numbers of foreign nationals on Indian soil is not necessarily a security problem. There are, for instance, an estimated eight to 10 million Nepali citizens on Indian soil, but this is not regarded as a cause for concern. Nevertheless, any specific demographic can become a problem if it is exploited, as was evident when Nepali settlers in North Bengal were mobilised on the basis of their ethnic identity during the violent Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling district in the late 1980s.
The problem with Bangladeshi migrants - who are overwhelmingly driven across the border by economic push-pull factors - is that their movement coincides with clearly articulated political and ideological presuppositions that are inimical to Indian interests, and makes this group particularly vulnerable to extremist mobilisation by hostile forces, both in Bangladesh and in Pakistan. The idea of "Lebensraum" or an extended "living space" projected into India's Northeast has long dominated segments of the political spectrum in Bangladesh. Moreover, extremist Islamist mobilisation and terrorism have long been integral elements of state policy in both Bangladesh and Pakistan. These factors lend a peculiar urgency to the issue of the growth of the illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India.
(The writer is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi)