The Immigration Challenge: The Role of the Indian Government in the Future of Assam

Vaishnavi Rao,USA, California, Canyon Crest Academy, 12th Grade, 3rd Place Winner.

Drops of blood splattered across the pure terrain. The crimson liquid seeped into the ground, tainting the once pristine earth. A child wailed as he stared at the lifeless body – one he recognized as his father’s – lying in front of him. To this boy and his family, this is the price – the price for a new life, the price for freedom, the price for economic opportunity. It’s much too expensive.

It’s ironic that in India, the heart of Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” or nonviolent protest revolution, a violent conflict has been brewing for decades. “So far, it is estimated that 65persons have lost their lives and around 500 villages have been torched to the ground”(Hussain). The issue’s roots are in Assam – a key state in the eastern part of India. Among the native Assamese are Hindus referred to as the Bodo tribe, the most prominent settlement in the Brahmaputra River Valley, famous for its Darjeeling tea plantations (“Bodo”). To the Bodos, land is both scarce and precious.

As an American of Indian descent, I have been exposed to the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi since childhood. His philosophies of nonviolence, autonomy, selfsufficiency, and democracy effected significant change and enabled India to become an independent, progressive republic. Every time I visit India, I experience first-hand and am awed by the unity in diversity – regional languages, foods, clothing, ethnicities and religions. Yet, when I read about these conflicts, I wonder if they are describing the same India that I know and love.

Decades ago, following India’s partition into the separate nations of Pakistan (which later split into West Pakistan and East Pakistan, aka Bangladesh) and India, the Bodo tribe eagerly employed Bangladeshi immigrants as a source of cheap labor for tea plantations (Bhattacharyya). In the 1980’s, internal political upheaval within Bangladesh contributed to the further influx of illegal immigrants to India (Shamshad). As the years went on, the population of Bangladeshi Muslims within Assam rose, and workers started demanding the same rights that Assamese Muslims reaped under the government of India. The Bodos felt immensely threatened by the presence of these Bangladeshi immigrants. The All Assam Students’ Union’s petitions against the illegal immigration finally bore fruit when the Assam Accord was enacted, thereby restricting the status of citizens to those who immigrated before 1966 (Bhattacharyya).             Although the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam, India had largely subsided for the past few years, recently, beginning roughly in May 2012, conflict escalated once again. The government granted land to the Bodos, and this land was appropriately termed “Bodoland”. The Bodos, who had obtained territorial status from the government of India either refused to share their land with the non-Bodo population or challenged non-Bodos’ citizenship. When the Bodos protested that a mosque set up by illegal immigrants encroached upon their land, tensions erupted into violence (Bhattacharyya).

Ever since this incident, the two religious groups (Hindus and the Muslims) have become hostile towards each other – not just in Assam, but in neighboring Indian states as well. These effects of immigration have sparked hostilities throughout large cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune and New Delhi (Shamshad).

The current Government of India appears to have chosen to assume a sort of “laissez faire” approach to this issue, preferring to not acknowledge the gravity of the immigration problem and refusing to take measures against it. Instead, according to the Chief Minister of Assam, Gogoi, the rise in Muslim populations is explained by the illiteracy issue as opposed to illegal immigration (Singh). He, along with other Indian government officials, Perhaps, by avoiding the real problem, they hope that unity and peace can be preserved. The data is conflicting: the Governor of Assam “secret[ly]…revealed that up to 6000 Bangladeshis enter Assam everyday” (Singh). This number is radically different from the reported “250,000 in 12 years” in 2007 by the Chief Minister of Assam.

Perhaps the government assumes that Indian citizens will come to cope with the illegal immigrants naturally and the issue will resolve itself without any action on the government’s part. After all, the citizens will accommodate and live harmoniously. This approach was reflected in the fact that the 1985 Assam Accord took two decades to implement despite organized protests from citizens (Bhattacharyya).

Such government inaction is only exacerbating the problem. Illegal immigrants are obtaining benefits and subsidies allocated for bona fide citizens without contributing in return through taxes. Without naturalization, they are voting and directly influencing the political outcome of elections in a country they have recently entered. Sadly, many of these minorities are easily swayed by fundamentalist ideologies, proponents of which garner illegitimate votes from illegal immigrants who register to vote. In Assam, the political force behind Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants is so large, that government officials cannot assume office without their backing. Politicians fear that these illegal immigrants will not vote for them if they broach the issue of citizenship. But, whose vote is more important: that of a citizen, or that of a non citizen, that too, an illegal immigrant? It is disappointing that by attempting to preserve unity and escape from conflict, the government is actually only causing further dissent between the Bodos and Bengali-Muslims.

It is understandable that the Bodos feel threatened by the foreigners, especially as they fear minority status in their homeland. A Muslim majority has been established “in 11 out 27 districts in the State and [is] the dominant factor in determining electoral fortunes in 54 out of 126 constituencies in the local assembly” (Singh). The migrants’ personal identity calls for strict adherence to religion, Islam, as migrants are from the Muslim country of Bangladesh. The secular nature of India provides free access to and practice of all religions. Mosques, for one thing, serve as religious and cultural centers, in which immigrants can connect with other Assamese and Bangladeshi Muslims. Protests by the Hindu Bodos have shown that they will not permit Islam to spread throughout Bodoland, territory that the government has bestowed upon the Bodo tribe.

It is high time that the Indian government takes action. But it is too divided in its factions, political parties with differing viewpoints on how to face this problem. How can a constructive democratic outcome be developed and implemented when government officials are putting personal interest above collective interest. This characteristic, while common amongst dictatorships and tyrannies, is truly a tragic outcome for the world’s largest democracy. What happened to the ideals of a democratic government “for the people, by the people and of the people” (Lincoln)? Why can’t the voice of the citizens be heard? It is lamentable that in this grave situation, the ‘voice of the citizens’ has now escalated to ‘the actions of citizens’, yet the Indian government still stubbornly refuses to listen to the cries of its real citizens. Such inaction seems to be plagued with ironies: a democracy that ignores its people, a democracy that tries to bring about national unity by leaving the problem as-is and a democracy crippled by politics. This is helping neitherthe host community nor the immigrants – the former, because they are losing ownershipof land and economic opportunities, and the latter, because of the resulting violence.

The first step is for the government to acknowledge this issue and recognize its seriousness. The immediate next step is to work on behalf of the people to ease the tensions and unify the two groups. For this, the government of both the countries, India and Bangladesh must come together to work out an amicable accord that is strategic in nature and preserves the security and prosperity of both the nations.

For example, a clear border must be identified and clear rules of border crossing consistently enforced. The United States manages tight control of the Mexican-American border and the Canadian-American border by positioning guards. Military patrolling and similar military investments on the Assam-Bangladesh border could provide a means of enforcing the quota of people crossing the border. Bangladesh is surely aware of the migration of its citizens to India, and likely unhappy with the decrease in tax revenue as a result of the efflux. If citizens of Bangladesh petition their government to arrange a deal with India, one that benefits both nations, then undoubtedly hostilities between immigrants and host citizens will be mitigated. On the other hand, if the Indian government clearly negotiated a quota of immigrants who could naturalize and established legitimate citizenship status for them in concert with the Bangladeshi government, and thereupon, adhere tightly to this quota, a critical part of the problem could be solved. India should also promote and encourage naturalized citizenship while discouraging illegal immigration. This may require the naturalization process to be simplified and straightforward.

Regulation of voters and registration must also happen in a non-corrupt manner. In the United States, voting requires legitimate I.D. verification and proof of citizenship. If these immigrants truly want their political opinions to be expressed in daily government, then they will apply for citizenship and obtain suffrage lawfully.

If Bangladesh is keen on retaining its citizens, but lacks the financial resources to do so, it can seek monetary support from India or reach out to the United Nations for aid. The funding can be effectively used to establish manufacturing, enable cottage industries to thrive, improve infrastructure and enable core occupations such as agriculture and mining to grow. This can provide incentives for the natives to stay in the country and contribute to the economic growth and prosperity of Bangladesh. In return, as a good neighbor, India can arrange for strengthened trade relations with Bangladesh, establish import/export trade policies, co-operate for skills training and exchange.

On the cultural end, the host nation, India, must encourage harmonious assimilation and inter-mingling of cultures, between the Indian Muslims and the Bangladeshi Muslims, and the Indian Hindus and the Bangladeshi Muslims. These can take the form of inter-racial marriages, integrated schools, common community parks and a united local government representing each of the communities. When the French settled in North America, they married Native American women and promoted cultural exchanges that had lasting effects. My generation has embraced the culture of the host community. I have performed Indian classical music before an American audience, and American music (western viola) before an Indian audience. Both times, I explained each element of my renditions and connected with the audience over commonalities of tunes, notes and styles. I fused cultures. I’ve even played Indian tunes on my viola. Similarly, my Indian cousin, who settled in Sydney, is married to a native Australian. At their wedding, a Christian priest led the Hindu prayers.

I am optimistic about the prospects of India’s future. The onus is now on the Indian government to realize the problem in Assam, curb tensions, and bring about more accessible citizenship. As the United States grapples with illegal immigration, I draw parallels to Indian politics. India has adopted a democratic form of government, one that strives to emulate the freedom that the United States offers to citizens. As an Indian- American, I hope to see this dream realized, particularly across the Indian-Bangladesh border. A government that aids its people, and potential citizens, is one that any person would be fortunate to be a part of.

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