Bangladesh, India & migration: An Assamese curveball

| Updated: March 25, 2018 20:46:47

Bangladesh, India & migration: An Assamese curveball

India and the United States have more than mere bondage between Narendra Modi and Donald J. Trump to keep the bilateral relations in synch. In fact, there may be even more than Donald J. Trump, Jr., declaring to a well-heeled Mumbai crowd that he was there for "delivering true luxury," a reference to the high-end (in fact, too-high-end) Trump-brand apartments being exported to India. Pakistan has finally been made the common enemy, and the way both Modi and Trump have been elevating Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel so propitiously and simultaneously have also juiced up India-US relations. Rarely since the Gorbachev-Reagan parleys that ended the Cold War in the late-1980s have leaders of such veto-wielding countries parleyed as seriously to deepen extant relations as India and the United States are currently doing.

Bonds may be a mild term for guttural instincts, which have also been re-aligning. In the United States, one set of those instincts were unleashed against ostensibly illegal immigrants from as far back as the 2016 election campaign. In the one year since Trump's inauguration, his wild and indiscriminate shot at immigrants is now acquiring a policy face. Though Mexican immigrants were branded as 'rapists' in that campaign, the current enactment to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is beginning to hound out even legal migrants, some with now-adult children born in the United States. The focal point has shifted from illegal immigrants to US residents of a different stripe, that is, not Anglo-Saxons. It is a call more in tune with Christian Evangelicals than Main Street US residents/citizens, such as skilled blue-collar and increasingly white-collar workers.

Something similar is happening in India, precisely and most particularly in Assam, the mountainous province of 32 million people, with only 10-odd million of Assamese descent. Among the remainders are flocks of Jharkand tea-workers, Hindus from West Bengal, Indian Muslims, and Bangladeshis. It has become fashionable to blame Bangladeshis for making the state assembly increasingly Muslim, though how even long-term immigrants in a country super sensitive to its ethnic, linguistic, and nationalistic identities can become legislators befuddles the brain. This is not a Modi or BJP (Bharatia Janata party) type of a call, for instance, but no one seeks to benefit more from this than Modi and his BJP diehards in a collection of variegated passions. It is precisely what he and the party are practising all across mainland India.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this. Last New Year's Eve the Assam government released a partial list of 19 million Assamese residents, as if a preview of what is forthcoming by May 31, 2018, when the full list will be released. Since 2016 every person living in Assam has been asked to demonstrate proof of roots anteceding Bangladesh's independence, that is, March 1971, to be treated as citizens. Simultaneously, detention camps were opened up, but expected to spiral in the months ahead. Anecdotal estimates of 15 million Bangladeshis ring the air in Dispur, the state's capital, based on the belief, if they are Muslims, they must be Bangladeshis.

In fact, from the early 1980s, Bangladeshis have been the targets of indigenous revolts and security forces, with thousands perishing in sporadic outburst. The charge that Assam's vast Hindu majority (three-quarters of the population at the time of Bangladesh's birth) has been supplanted steadily by Muslim majority constituencies flies in the face of at least one statistic: not all are Bangladeshis, indeed by a long shot. Many Indian Muslims migrating to the remote, albeit backward, states preferred the security available against Hindu fundamentalists, only to become rootless in their own country.

This is where Modi's BJP steps in. It is not the core BJP per se, but the fundamentalist wings that have drummed up a Hindutva India mandate, cornering other religiously inclined Indians and vehemently uprooting Muslim claims to Indian property (after the 1992 destruction of Babri Mosque, even Taj Mahal history is being rewritten, with a Hindutva propaganda that it was built by a Hindu ruler, rather than Emperor Shahjahan, in 1653). This has spread noisily to Assam, as the last election exposed.

Against these nativist movements, as in the United States, centralised loyalties have begun to waver. After all, migration is not on any Bangladesh-India agenda unless this is related to the Rohingyas. Even Modi, like Trump, campaigned against illegal immigrants from a neighbouring country. With Modi as prime minister, Bangla-India relations have had several moments in the sun, too many for embracing an Assam-like posture over migration.

Assam will need central support to evict any illegal migrants, especially if they are Bangladeshis and add up to as many as the anecdotal figures suggest. Yet, that is not a current consideration, with the result that when the entire list is published by the end of May, social groups and Assamese security forces, as well as India's Border Security Forces stationed in the 4,00-odd kilometres of border between Bangladesh and Assam,  may run rampant against whom they believe not to be Assamese. If the recent past is any guide, that would produce true anarchy, whose consequence may be to place Assam under direct central rule.

With over 3,000 km of the Bangla-India border already fenced and skirmishes between border security soldiers not at all uncommon, both Bangladesh and India will shift in the wrong direction given their impressive global economic growth-rate performances. Bangladesh's warmer societal linkages with residents/citizens of Tripura and West Bengal could easily convert the confrontation into one between Assam and Bangladesh directly. After all, West Bengal has not been too happy with India's central government, for example, over the Teesta agreement with Bangladesh, Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee influxes, and China out-doing India in Dhaka, may make lashing out at Assam extra heated. On the other hand, Bangladesh is not only not happy with too many one-sided border clashes, but it is also tearing at the seams accounting for India, Indian products, and Indian citizens working in Bangladesh and remitting foreign exchange homeward.

With central intervention, societal backlash against Bangladeshis in Assam would open a can of worms for both Bangladesh and India. We would face a new migrant influx, much like the Rohingyas, but up in the north; and India could see Assamese populism even tear the India Union fabric in a way that could spread to other Northeast States, which have been equally downsized politically, discriminated against socially, and dominated economically. Bangla-India relations, the worst victim, will then have to square off with even more stringent border-controls. With China overviewing Bhutan's Doklam Pass in the north and establishing reconnaissance points in the south (as in Payra, Sittwe in Myanmar, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka), one Trump-like or Modi-like spark/twitter could light an entire fire.

Responsible leadership is due, no less in Delhi as in Dispur.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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