Described as India’s Mexican problem, ‘illegal migrants from Bangladesh’ have long been cast as villains. One of them, Kalimuddin, deported thrice, is part of the folklore in Assam. 600 Bangladeshis held in Indian prisons have been repatriated in the last three years while a thousand more are still behind bars. Human Rights groups in Bangladesh claim at least 20,000 Bangladeshi women have been forced into prostitution in India. And a report in The Guardian last year put the figure of Bangladeshi intruders shot dead by the Border Security Force (BSF) at a staggering 1,000 between 2001 and 2011.
While the Indian security establishment believes illegal migration from Bangladesh poses a serious threat to internal security, there has been no serious dialogue between the two countries and when Assam Rifles made a presentation on “The demographic invasion of the North-East”, chief minister Tarun Gogoi shot down the hypothesis and questioned the terminology.
AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), which came to power by campaigning against foreigners, failed to deport a single foreigner during the 10 years it was in office. A little over 10,000 people were, however, identified as Bangladeshis under the IMDT (Illegal Migrants’ Detection by Tribunals) Act in a period of 20 years till it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Only about one-fifth of them could be physically deported from the country.
Bangladeshi officials claim some migrants are victims of immigration fraud. “They are promised jobs in Dubai but are dumped after they enter India.” Some, they concede, could also be criminals seeking to evade the law.
Indrajit Gupta, the then union home minister, informed Parliament in 1997 there were 10 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Successive governments have been more circumspect and figures are hard to come by. A pilot project of the home ministry also discovered that ‘suspected foreigners’ often had ration cards and land to establish their Indian citizenship.
The demand for Bangladeshi labour queers the pitch. They are skilled agriculturists and, like all migrants, are hard working and come cheap. That explains why many are engaged as sharecroppers and why their employers are more than willing to help them settle down.
Many, like Bilal Mondal, end up as construction workers in Mumbai. Mondal, an inmate in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, claims to have been lured by prospects of a better life. As a rickshaw puller in Bangladesh, he earned Taka 50 a day. In Mumbai, he was promised Rs 10,000 a month.
The problem, says a former Director of Intelligence Bureau, is that India does not have an immigration policy. “Regulations we have but a policy would include a road map for integration, work permits, refugee status, a legal framework and bilateral treaties,” he told Outlook.