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Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh: Will the illegal migration issue be resolved?

POSTED ON 26 AUGUST 2011

ARUNAV GOSWAMI
SENIOR FELLOW, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES








Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be visiting Bangladesh on September 6 and 7, 2011, a trip that is expected to mark a new beginning in bilateral ties between the two countries. There are a lot of expectations from this visit as quite a few issues concerning the two nations like border demarcation and exchange of enclaves are likely to be addressed during this trip. Another important issue which people in states like Assam would like to be discussed between the two neighbours is that of illegal migration from Bangladesh to India.

Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been a live issue in Assam and the Northeast, even 26 years after New Delhi signed a historic accord with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1985, an agreement that brought the curtains down to a six-year-long uprising against the illegal influx. Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, in reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on August 24, 2011 said, “As far as illegal immigration from Bangladesh is concerned, yes, that is a problem. People from Bangladesh cross over and enter into India.” Union Minister of State for Home, Mullappally Ramachandran also said in the Rajya Sabha on August 19, 2011 that illegal immigrant from Bangladesh is a “big problem” and government is taking steps to deal with the issue. He further said that delay in identification of nationality of illegal immigrants by Bangladesh High Commission is causing delay in deportation of illegal immigrants. The government has taken up the issue with the Bangladesh government and the issue is expected to be resolved during the visit of the Prime Minister to Bangladesh.

Though the exact number of illegal immigrants is not known, generally it is estimated that about 20 million Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India. Of this number, about 6 million are supposed to be staying in Assam. Union Minister of State for Home, Mullappally Ramachandran said in the Lok Sabha on August 23, 2011 that 32,644 Bangladeshi nationals, who entered the country on valid documents, have been found to be overstaying as on December 2009. Home Minister Chidambaram on August 24, 2011 informed in the Rajya Sabha about the number of illegal migrants apprehended during the last few years: 3,175 in 2008, 2,460 in 2009, 1,600 in 2010, and 453 up to July 2011. He however added that a large number of people have come across the border and they have not been apprehended.

Illegal migrations have had a considerable impact on the socio-economic dynamics in the northeastern states of India, especially Assam. The issue had led to the six-year agitation in Assam spearheaded by the AASU from 1979 to 1985 leading to the signing of the Assam Accord. The Accord fixed March 25, 1971 at the cut off date for the detection and expulsion of illegal migrants from India. But, more than two and a half decades later, the issue of illegal migration is as serious as it was earlier. The steps taken by the central and state governments have not been enough to stop the influx of illegal migrants. The AASU has been constantly bringing up the matter about non-implementation of the clause of the Assam Accord of detecting and expelling illegal migrants. The AASU even sat on a state-wide hunger strike from 6 am on August 14, 2011 till the hoisting of the National Flag at 9 am on August 15, 2011 in protest against the failure of the governments at the Centre and in the State to implement the Assam Accord.

The issue of illegal migration has assumed newer dimensions, one of them being the emergence of a new category of people who go by the name of ‘D’ voters. The issue of ‘D’ voters came to the fore in 1998 when the Election Commission of India issued an order saying that a person who is unable to provide proof of his citizenship during the enumeration for the electoral rolls shall be marked as doubtful voters (‘D’ voters). They are barred from voting in elections. As of July 2011, there were 57,465 ‘D’ voters in Assam. The 36 foreigner’s tribunals set up by the state government to resolve the issue of ‘D voters’ have so far disposed of 83,471 cases. Only in 6.7 % of the cases, the accused have been declared as illegal immigrants.

The issue of ‘D’ voters has had an impact on political situation in the state. All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a major political party in the state, has been accusing the state government of harassing the genuine citizens who have been dubbed as ‘D’ voters. AIUDF also alleges that the Congress has been exploiting the ‘D’ voters for political gains. Allegations and counter allegations have kept the issue alive.

The question arise will migration stop if the border fence along Bangladesh comes up and gets completed? The Indo-Bangladesh Border extends to a total length of 4095 km. Of this, West Bengal has a border length of 2216 km, Tripura 856 km, Meghalaya 443 km, Mizoram 318 km and Assam 263 km. The Indian government had sanctioned the Indo-Bangladesh Border Roads & Fence project in 1986 in order to control the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Under the project, the entire stretch of Indo-Bangladesh border was to be fenced. But this project is yet to be completed. The central government has now set March 2012 as the target to complete the fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border. This was informed in the Assam state legislative assembly by Assam Accord Implementation Minister, Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma on July 14, 2011. He further informed that the Assam PWD has constructed around 153 km of fencing of the total 263 km Indo-Bangladesh border in the state. The National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) and the National Project Construction Corporation (NPCC) are fencing the remaining stretch and they have so far completed nearly 70 per cent of the work.

There are lots of hopes from the trip of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi would also accompany the Prime Minister in this visit. The people of Assam would expect that this visit brings out some concrete measures to resolve the problem of illegal migration which has been plaguing the state for decades.