More than a month has passed since the violent clashes in Kokrajhar, Dhubri and other parts of Assam began resulting in the death of over 70 persons and displacement of lakhs of villagers in that region. Though the intensity of the clashes have significantly gone down, the situation on the ground still remains far from normal. Reports [1] of bomb blasts, communal clashes and attack on armed personnel continue to trickle from the troubled state at regular intervals. Despite the seriousness of the situation and it’s ramifications for the region and the nation, the public discourse in the last month has quiet predictably stayed clear of analysing the root causes of conflict. The issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been highlighted time and again by people like the ex-governor of Assam – Shri S.K.Sinha,[2] more than a decade back, by the present Election Commissioner – Shri H.S.Bramha [3] in the past few weeks and many other persons in positions of power and responsibility. However, the mainstream media and the intellectual elites of India have a proven track record in suppressing this issue for decades and stubbornly refusing to stare the problem in the face and address it.

The latest round of suppression is no different from what we have witnessed earlier on countless occasions. We can see a quiet a pattern in how efficiently the discourse was derailed and one of the principal underpinnings of the violence, i.e, illegal immigration was always denied the space it deserved. On the 6th of August, along with some of the first reports of violence, Farah Naqvi – member of the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC), used the then still unfolding tragedy to further the cause of the blatantly biased Communal Violence Bill in her oped[4], she concludes by saying

The tragic failure of policy is compounded by the fact that much of this was recognised and addressed in the Draft Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, which has been languishing with the government for the past year.

On 16th August, another left-leaning website published another long post[5] which challenged the very existence of illegal immigration on the basis of statistical jugglery, straw man arguments (focus of the next section) and propounded that there exists no evidence to make a case for large scale illegal immigration. The post claimed

The concentration of Muslims in the areas where the Bengali Muslim immigrants have traditionally settled, underscores the reality that they are mostly likely to be the descendants of those immigrants, and hence legitimate Indian citizens, and not illegal immigrants who have allegedly continued to arrive till now.

Writing in the OPEN magazine on 24th August, Shri Rahul Pandita (author of “Hello Bastar”) replayed the gruesome massacre of Muslims at Nellie 1983 in front of his readers and asked them the question- Has anything changed three decades after the infamous massacre ? Despite the blatant one-sided narrative[6] of the post (in the light of the recent violence), Pandita is honest enough to admit the following

The heavy influx of immigrants suited the ruling Congress party, which encouraged it to extend its electoral domination. Assembly elections were held in February that year, against the advice of many who knew the situation on the ground. The AASU demanded that elections be postponed till all illegal immigrants in the state had been identified and their names struck off electoral rolls. But the Congress government was keen to go ahead, assured as it was of immigrant votes. On 15 February, the people of Nellie voted in large numbers for the local Congress candidate, Prashant Dalai

Another article [7] by a blogger was featured in the opinion papges of The Hindu on the issue of Violence in Assam claimed

It is time we looked at the history once more. Immigration — illegal or not — is a universal phenomenon and it is here to stay. We have to find ways to control and harmonise it; but we cannot let ourselves fall headlong into the tumultuous 1980s-1990s once more. It will take our State 20 years back.

Could it be that that the votaries of such humane approach are oblivious and innocently naive about the underlying faultlines and the risk to national security and integrity associated with large scale illegal immigration of foreigners ? Evidence suggests – no. Writing in the same paper on a different topic of Israel and the conflict in the middle-east, A. Faizur Rehman writes

It would appear that the aim of the mandate was to facilitate the immigration of the Jews into Palestine in violation of the rights of the original inhabitants, the Palestinian Arabs, who at the time of the mandate constituted 92 per cent of the population. Official records (cited in Henry Cattan’s The Palestine Question) show that in 1946, the Jewish population increased to 6,08,230 (out of a total population of 19,72,560) from 83,794 in 1922 when the mandate was approved by the League of Nations.

Given our own national experience for the last century, shouldn’t we also evaluate the issue of illegal immigration in the light of the previous example ? Now we will try to address each of the propoganda items, myths, half-truths and statistical dishonesty being peddled as reality and experty opinion.

The violence is Assam, led to a mass demonstrations and a temporary collapse of law and order in many Indian cities. This coupled with tagetted threatening of the entire North East community by motivated groups caused many North-Eastern Indians to flee many Indian metros. Astonishing as it might sound, the latest edition of Frontline tries to lay the blame for this exodus at the door of neo-liberal policies !!. It’s cover story opens with these lines

The phenomenon of Inter-State migration of labour comes to fore in the wake of the incidents that followed the Assam violence. Neoliberal policies mandate low or no investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure leading to mass movement of people across long distances in search of livelihood and employment.

Who is an illegal immigrant ?

The term illegal immigrant can be and has been used in a very generic sense in many contexts. However, for the case in hand, this term will have to be defined in accordance with the history and politics of the sub-continent and the Indian law. Shared colonial history, partition at the time of independence and the role played by India in creation of Bangladesh are all factors that have to be accommodated in this definition. Under the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace signed in 1972 ( known as Indira-Mujib treaty and not renewed since it’s expiry in 1997) India had agreed to take responsibility of all migrants who entered India on or before March 24, 1971. Thus according to this treaty anyone who entered India before the cutoff date is not a de facto illegal immigrant. More importantly the Assam Accord signed in 1985 between the representatives of the Government Of India and the leaders of the Assam agitation too underscored and accepted the cutoff date of 24th March, 1971 for identification and deportation of illegal immigrants. The citizenship status of the children of those illegal migrants would however be decided by the provisions stated in section 3 of the Citizenship Act of 1955, which reads

(i) A person born in India on or after 26th January, 1950, but before 1st July, 1987, is a citizen of India by birth irrespective of the nationality of his/her parents.
(ii) A person born in India on or after 1st July,1987, but before 3rd December, 2004, is considered a citizen of India by birth if either of his/her parents is a citizen of India at the time of his/her birth.
(iii) A person born in India on or after 3rd December, 2004, is considered citizen of India by birth if both the parents are citizens of India or one of the parents is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his/her birth.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that even those migrants who came to India befoe the cutoff date of 24th March, 1971 would become fully legal citizens of India only upon going through the process of naturalization.

Illegal immigration not migration is responsible for demographic transformation

At the very outset we would like to clarify that it is nobodies case that all Muslims or all Bengali speakers in the state of Assam are illegal immigrants. This is the straw man many columnists / bloggers start with and soon arrive at the conclusion – “Illegal immigration is a myth”. Having said that one must remember that the direct census data based on answers of the respondents to questions on place of birth, place of last residence etc would prove to be useless in estimating the scale of illegal immigrants. An illegal immigrant cannot be expected to reveal his own illegal status voluntarily. Hence, one must rely on indirect measures – with the aid of markers like religion and language to estimate the quantum of illegal immigration. One of the principal underpinnings of this architecture of denial is the claim that the cause of disproportionate increase in Muslim population in Assam is not due to illegal immigration but a disproportionate growth rate of those legal Muslim immigrants who had migrated into the state prior to 1971.

The claim of natural growth of resident population can be thrown away based on evidence presented by Bhupen Kumar Nath et all in the research article[8] titled “Undocumented Migration in the State Of Assam in North East India Since 1971 to 2001”. The state of Assam has experienced an average annual exponential growth of 2.11% from 1901-2001, during the same time the population of India grew at an 1.47%. The main reasons for the sharp increase in India’ population has been the steep fall in death rates and relatively slow decline in birth rates. As per the Sample Registration System (SRS) data the crude birth rate (CBR) of Assam has fallen from 38.5 to 26.95 and the crude death rate (CDR) has fallen from 17.8 to 9.55 in the 1971-2001 time frame. As a result the natural growth rate of Assam has remained relatively stable. The natural growth rate changed from 20.7 in 1971 to 17.4 in 2001. This natural growth rate fails way short of the actual growth rate measured from the Census data (Table 1).

Year Crude Birth Rate Crude Death Rate Actual Growth Rate Unnatural Growth Rate
1951 49 31.8 19.9 +2.7
1961 49 26.9 35.1 +13
1971 38.5 17.8 35.0 +14.3
1981 33 11.9 N.A N.A
1991 30.9 11.5 52.441 +11.941
2001 26.8 9.5 18.85 +1.55

( Since 1981 Census wasn’t carried out in Assam, entries under year 1991 are calculated for the period 1971-91 )
Source : Pg No 89, Report[9]

This must put all claims of natural or organic growth of population to rest. During the same 1971-91 time frame the proportion of Muslim population in Assam has risen from 24.56% to 30.91%. Now which region in the vicinity could be in surplus of a population matching the above description ? The answer categorically is Bangladesh. Those who don’t know the answer to 2 + 2 must either keep quiet or make an intelligent guess like – “Any rational number between 0 and 100”; but when they say -“It can be any rational number between 0 and 100 but certainly not 4″ it should be clear to everyone that there are motives, compulsions and extraneous calculations at play.

The Chief Minister of Assam Shri Tarun Gogoi has recently alluded to a similar argument, dressed it up with a make believe reason but also inadverdently(?) hi-lited an important concern and a point of great consequence. He said,

It is because of low literacy…Illiteracy among the Muslims. Most of them are illiterate. Every family…six, seven, eight, nine, ten…It is because of illiteracy

If you look at the 2001 census, the growth of Muslim population in Assam is less than the national average, almost three per cent. In 2011 census also growth of population in Assam is less than the national average. It is a clear indication that illegal immigration is on decline

Firstly, let us fix this argument of literacy introduced by the Chief Minister. The literacy among Muslims in 2001 was 59.1% as opposed to the national average of 65.1%. Despite this marginal difference of 6% the Sacchar Committe report [10] predicted that the Muslim population would rise to just below 19% by the year 2041. So, contrary to what the Shri Tarun Gogoi would have us believe, the argument of literacy falls way short of explaining these observations. However, this brings into focus another all important question of those who are descendents of illegal immigrants and their status. Even if illegal immigration were to come to a halt tomorrow, the burden of illegal immigrants and their descendents on the limited resource of land is bound to grow in the coming decades. So the crucial point to remember is this – It is not illegal immigration OR high fertility, it is illegal immigration AND high fertlity. The dominant contributor in the gone decades has been illegal immigration while in the coming decades it can be high fertility among these illegal immigrants.

Statistical dishonesty, blatant misrepresentation of facts and outright falsehoods

The overall population growth rate of Assam has been close to that of India since 1971, infact since 1991 the population growth rate of Assam has been less than the population growth rate of India. Would any serious commentator offer this and claim to have categorically refuted and debunked assumptions of illegal immigration from Bangladesh ? Some have done exactly that and managed to get it past their readers as a piece of scholarly work !! There is absolutely no reason why one must expect populations of all regions of a diverse country like India to grow at the national average; the fertility rates[11] in many states of India ( all southern states included) have fallen quiet below the replacement level of fertility and a lot below the average fertility rate in India of 2.5. This clearly indicates that illegal immigration can (and does) contribute to the overall population growth of Assam independent of it’s relation to the population growth rate of India.

Another cunning attempt has been made to pass of percentage figures without any context and relation to the absolute quantities of those figures. This is not a new trick -our ministers tell us that India is growing at 6% whereas the U.S s growing at just 2%, Nitish Kumar’s sympathisers tell us that Bihar is growing at 14% whereas Gujarat grows at comparitavely low 10%. The success of such ministers and glib talkers in selling fabricated narratives seems to have inspired many others across the board to use this trick (I must admit that it’s success seriously calls into question the intelligence of the reader). Blogger Arindam Baruah has clinically exposed the hypocrisy of this narrative in his post. Nilim Dutta in his post at Kafila does the unthinkable when he compares the percentage growth rates in districts of Dhubri on the one hand with the districts of Dhemaji and Kabri Anglong. Dhubri is one of the most densely populated districts of Assam and Kabri Anglong the lowest. If one looks at another metric of population growth, one observes that the growth in population density rose in Karbi Anglong from a lowly 78 in 2001 to an estimated 93 in 2011, and that in Dhemaji rose from a comparatively low 177 in 2001 to 213 in 2011. The same data for Dhubri shows a rise in population density from a high of 941 in 2001 to 1171 in 2011, and that in Barpeta from 521 to a staggering 632. I hope our readers will be aware of this percentage gimmick and will see through this trick in every other instance as well.

Contrast with Bangladesh

It has been asserted that with staggering growth in population of districs bordering Bangladesh and the associated clamor for resources there is little incebtive left for anyone to illegally migrate into India. This, again turns out to be a pure fabrication. According to Census 2001 the most dense border district of Assam is Dhubri with a population density of 941/SqKm, other border districts like Goalpara have a density of 451/SqKm. On the other hand many districts in Bangladesh on the India border like Mymensingh, Nilphamari etc have population densities[12] much greater that 1000. Also, working conditions and other minimum wage laws in India seem to be vastly superior to that in Bangladesh. This NYT India report says that the national minimum wage in Bangladesh is $37 a month, the minimum wage in India were recently increased to around $90.

Though I don’t entirely deny the economic rational of illegal immigation, we cannot ignore the social and political ramifications of such large scale and sustained illegal immigration. Loyalty of the population inhabiting border areas is especially crucial to the integrity of our nation and the safety of our borders. Though aleady it might be quiet late in the day, concerned citizens and influential sections of the Indian society must reflect on this problem seriously. We must also question our poliy makers on their various schemes like say Prime Minister’s 15 Point Programme For Welfare Of Minorities, which apart from being fundamentally opposed to the secular nature of our constitution might also be aiding illegal immigration by diverting Indian tax payer’s money to minority concentrated border districts on a priority basis. Other policy measures implemented by bodies like the Char Area Development Authority, with their specific focus on minorities might also be directly benefitting illegal immigrants at the Indian tax payer’s expense. This issue will have to be handled politically at the highest level and with a lot of resolve, otherwise social uphevels and unrest might continue to grow and expand.

( The author acknowledges the efforts of Pulakesh Upadhyaya in providing valuable inputs for this post )

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