Like the United States and Western Europe, India faces enormous pressures from illegal immigration – and this has become a contentious issue in national elections due in a few months. The subject of illegal immigration is particularly pronounced in the states that surround Bangladesh – namely, West Bengal to the west, Meghalaya and Assam to the north, and Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur to the east. Over the past few decades, millions of Bangladeshis have poured into India – to escape war, to escape poverty or, as in the case of Bangladeshi Hindus, to flee religious bigotry and persecution in an overwhelmingly Islamic nation.
Now, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's pro-Hindu, right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has stepped into the fray. During a campaign rally in Assam, Modi – the chief minister of Gujarat who was widely condemned for standing by idly when deadly communal riots scarred his native state in 2002 and killed some 1,200 people – drew a sharp distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Press Trust of India reported that Modi declared that Hindu migrants must be “accommodated” and that detention camps currently holding them must be shut down.
"As soon as we come to power... detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with," Modi told a huge and raucous crowd at Ramnagar. “What was the fault of the [Hindu Bangladeshi] people whose wives and daughters were raped? The Hindus have been displaced from their land because of harassment. India is the land for Hindus across the globe and they are welcome to stay here. ... We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here.”
But Modi assured Assamese officials that they would not solely bear the burden of taking care of Hindu migrants. "It [would] be unfair [to Assam], and they will be settled across the country with facilities to begin a new life," he added. Modi also cited that when Atal Behari Vajpayee served as India's BJP prime minister, he enabled programs to allow Hindu migrants and refugees from Pakistan who arrived in Gujarat and Rajasthan to be settled across the country. "Bangladesh is next to Assam, while Pakistan is next to Gujarat. Assam is harassed by Bangladesh whereas Pakistan is bothered by me," the Gujarat chief minister crowed. "You have to decide whether you will continue to tolerate Bangladeshi harassment or put an end to it. I have come to you for your answer. Trust me, and as soon as we come to power we will take immediate steps to redress these problems and ensure that justice prevails.”
Not surprisingly, Modi also took a shot at the rival Congress Party, alleging that they were “violating” the human rights of Bangladeshi Hindus in detention camps by denying them right to vote in India, among other infractions. Modi also suggested that Congress was encouraging Bangladeshi Muslims to come to India in order to illegally create a “vote bank” for Congress by supplying them with ID cards, which is tantamount to providing them with citizenship. As such, he has called for the expulsion of Bangladeshi Muslims, smugglers and criminals, and, in sharp contrast, for the embrace of Bangladeshi Hindus. According to a report in Niti Central, Modi also charged that the wages of laborers in Assam's world-famous tea plantations were artificially depressed by illegal Bangladeshi laborers who are willing to toil for meager wages.
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Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies in Bloomington, said Modi’s remarks confirm that “a leopard cannot change its spots.” “He cannot shake the toxic legacy of his hatred of Muslims,” Ganguly said. Modi, Ganguly noted, is pandering to his constituency because he knows they agree with him.
The phenomenon of illegal immigration to India, particularly to West Bengal, from Bangladesh, is rooted in historical events. During the 1971 war of independence that created the state of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan, at least 10 million Bangladeshis poured into West Bengal. The majority of those initial migrants were Hindus fleeing persecution (rape, murder, loss of property, forced conversion, etc.) from Muslims. In subsequent years, however, the bulk of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have been Muslims seeking to escape poverty.
The flow of people from one nation the other has continued over the decades, partially facilitated by porous borders between Bangladesh and India. In 2011, India's Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran said that almost 1.4 million illegal Bangladeshis had migrated to India over the past decade alone. Concern Universal, an international NGO, estimates that 50 Bangladeshis cross illegally into India every day. Other sources claim that at least 20 million Bangladeshis live in India illegally, although exact figures are impossible to determine.
The rhetoric against illegal Bangladeshi immigration in India is strikingly similar to what right-wing American politicians say about illegal Mexican immigrants or Conservative British lawmakers warn about asylum-seekers -- claiming that they pose a threat to both the economy and the very identity of the country. Similarly, some Indian lawmakers allege that many Bangladeshi immigrants also pose a danger to India through criminal activity and terrorism. Ravishankar Prasad of the BJP has long warned that illegal immigration from Bangladesh should be halted immediately. Prasad’s words are virtually a mirror image of the anti-immigrant sentiments of many Republican politicians in the Western U.S. The majority of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have migrated to West Bengal, although many others have settled in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Delhi and Mumbai and even as far away as Pakistan and the Middle East.
Some Indian scholars have also expressed their outrage over unrestricted immigration from Bangladesh. Indian historian Amalendu De noted: “There is a virtual East Bengal in West Bengal. Immigrants, both Hindus and Muslims, have come from across the border and settled in districts which share borders with Bangladesh and have slowly penetrated into other districts.”
Immigration from Bangladesh has reportedly increased the Muslim population in West Bengal, although Hindus remain the majority at about 75 percent of the total population. The influx of illegal immigrants has prompted opposition from certain West Bengali groups. The opposition to illegal immigration has taken on a distinctly anti-Muslim tinge – and their words mirror Modi’s almost perfectly. The West Bengal-based radical political organization Amra Bangali (meaning "We Are Bengalis") said it calls for the “reorganization of the territory of Bengal with all like-minded people having respect for Bengali language and culture, and name this new geographical area as Bangalistan.” Part of Amra Bangali's premise is that non-Bengalis (as well as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) are exploiting West Bengal economically at the expense of the native population.
In 2007, a blogger on the WhatisIndia.com site put the problem in starker terms: “The illegal immigration from Bangladesh into India's northeast... is a time-bomb that will explode sooner or later.” The blog added: “The steady flow of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has significantly altered the region's demographic complexion, particularly in the border districts of West Bengal and Assam, and with important political implications. In Assam, illegal migrants affect state politics in a major way, having acquired a critical say in an estimated 50 of the state's 126 assembly constituencies. At the same time, the steady growth of radical and militant extremists spewing Islamic jargon in Bangladesh since Sept. 11, 2001, and Dhaka's inability, or unwillingness, to tackle the same has raised the stakes further for India.”
Another Indian blogger and historian named Kanchan Gupta described the illegal immigration of Bangladeshis as a “silent invasion of India” and a “grim reality.” Gupta alleged that Indian politicians and media are ignoring the issue of illegal immigration. “Those who stand to gain from the votes of India’s bogus citizens as well as those who believe that there is nothing sacred about nationality, [let] alone the nation; have successfully struck the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh off the agenda of public discourse,” Gupta wrote.
Gupta specifically accused left-wing politicians in West Bengal of encouraging illegal immigration to gain more (illegal) support in elections. “Their names are entered on voters’ lists, thus creating a vast vote-bank of aliens who legally have no right to vote in India.” he wrote. “This fraud has been perpetrated over the decades and the Congress has been its beneficiary in Assam, while in West Bengal the Left has used Bangladeshis to inflate its vote share significantly.”
Gupta focused on Assam, in India's extreme northeast, as a particular battleground. “Assam is facing external aggression and internal disturbance on account of large-scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals and it becomes the duty of the Union of India to take all measures for protection of the State of Assam because it poses a threat to the integrity and security of the North-Eastern region," he declared.
Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, commented that if Modi is making a distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants, it would present a “big political gamble.” “Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a very sensitive and controversial issue in India, and particularly in Assam, a region prone to xenophobic tendencies fueled in great part by the significant number of refugees entering that state from Bangladesh in recent years,” he said. “In effect, by supporting illegal Hindu immigrants, Modi would explicitly be showcasing his Hindu nationalist bonafides. Yet by taking a position that supports illegal immigration, he could also lose the votes of many conservative voters who categorically oppose it.”
Indeed, in West Bengal, where Muslims account for nearly 30 percent of voters, the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has been criticized by some Hindus for her pandering to Muslims. Their support played a crucial role in her victory in 2011 – a triumph that ended 30 years of Communist rule in the state. NDTV, an Indian television network, reported that by wooing the Muslim public of West Bengal, she has alienated many Hindus who will likely vote BJP to defy her. As for Banerjee, who is the leader of Trinamool Congress party, she has expressed her rejection of Modi and declared she will not support him in the national election. "I will not. We cannot support communal forces," she said of Modi, referring to the riots in Gujarat of 2002. "We cannot because India is a country with so many languages, caste and creed. We respect all religions."
Of course, some other voices in India also took grave exception to Modi’s rhetoric. Sikh24.com reported that the Dal Khalsa, a Sikh political organization based in Amritsar, Punjab, condemned Modi for again whipping up anti-Muslim propaganda. “India can’t have [an] immigrant policy based on religion. Either immigrants are acceptable, or unacceptable, irrespective of their religion, caste and creed,” said the party’s secretary for political affairs, Kanwar Pal Singh.
Jonah Blank, an analyst and senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., noted that Modi sentiments on Hindu immigrants “don't fit with a rebranded, economically-focused BJP. They're straight from the old Shiv Sena playbook of the 1990s," referring to an extremist Hindu fundamentalist group.
While criticizing Modi’s inflammatory language, Ganguly conceded that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a very serious issue for India, one that most politicians are unwilling to tackle. “In areas of West Bengal and other border states, where communal tensions are already high, the influx of Muslims from Bangladesh only exacerbates such conflicts,” he noted.