Illegal immigration — which implies foreigners over-staying their visas or entering a country illegally without proper documents — is causing irreconcilable angst in people of North-east India. The unabated influx from Bangladesh threatens to upset the demographic balance, especially of the smaller tribal states. These fears cannot be discounted since Tripura stands out as a classic case of tribals being reduced to a minority in their homeland.
The Tripura case is enough to ignite anger, fear, a sense of betrayal and of livelihoods being taken away. The natural reaction since the early 1970s has been to subject anyone who has the appearance of a Bangladeshi (he/she could be a Bengali of Indian origin or someone who looks like a Bengali) to violence in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. It is easy to take a sympathetic view of the immigrants who cross borders illegally and plead that they are doing so under grave economic compulsions. But there is such a thing as the first right of a citizen to the benefits of a welfare state.
There are complaints, for instance, that in the char (riverine) areas of Assam, which are allegedly populated largely by immigrants, much of the benefits accruing from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the National Rural Health Mission are being availed of by illegal immigrants.
Now whether these residents are today Indian citizens by birth, their parents having arrived in India prior to 1971, or whether they are recent immigrants, is difficult to tell in the absence of authentic data since the National Register of Citizens in Assam is yet to be updated. This is a highly problematic situation.
The conflagration in Bodoland in July 2011 was due largely to a fear of demographic aggression from across the Bangladesh border. Kokrajhar, the capital of Bodoland, adjoins Bangladesh.
Illegal immigration over long periods of time has reduced the Bodos to a minority in their homeland marked as the Bodoland Territorial Council. Assam on the whole is losing its diversity and this is evident from the number of Muslim representatives in its legislature and the changing demography of the population. Yet it is a fact that without the Bangladeshi immigrant Assam would find it difficult to produce crops that feed its population. Construction works, from roadways to buildings, etc, would be incomplete if there was no migrant labour. Every home in Assam or any other North-eastern state has a Bangladeshi domestic help. And this is true even of Mumbai and Delhi. This is a paradox!
Building contractors in the entire region and coalmine owners in Meghalaya would be hard put to find labour that can be paid a pittance but be made to work in back-breaking conditions. The migrant does it to meet his/her basic needs. Hard economics define the labour market.
Bangladeshis cross over because there is work to do. If there wasn’t any work, why would they risk their lives here?
In recent times, the clamour for sealing the borders with Bangladesh is growing louder. Further, civil society groups in Manipur and Meghalaya are demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit to check the influx. Normally every visitor (Indian or foreigner) to Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh has to have an ILP to gain entry into the states. This is like getting a visa to enter your own country. Now whether this can check cross-border migration, where people enter surreptitiously, is a question mark. But somehow the populist demand seems to defy reason and logic.
Even with the ILP, Nagaland still complains of illegal migrants gaining entry into the state and occupying prime space in commercial areas of Dimapur. Earlier this year I had accompanied a group of journalism students from Mumbai along with their mentors to Nagaland. We had proper ILPs to enter the state, but after getting off the train at Dimapur we searched high and low for some policeman from the infiltration wing to show him our permits and could not find any. Hundreds of our co-passengers also merged with the crowd and vanished into the night. So what use was the ILP here? Nothing at all!
The Inner Line Permit, or the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873, was designed to stop the belligerent hill tribal from raids into the plains. But the restriction on the movement of the hill tribes was soon removed within a few years of the British occupation of these hills. The tribes were allowed to fish, hunt and attend markets freely on both sides of the line. But the plainsmen were never allowed to enter the hills without a pass. The hill tribals, whose activities had prompted the creation of the Inner Line Regulation, were thus exempted from the application of its provisions.
Interestingly, the restrictions applied from then on only to the people of the neighbouring plains districts of Bengal and Assam, for whose protection the line was initially defined. Hence the Inner Line failed to serve its original purpose. Then what purpose did it serve? If the Lushai and Naga raids had ceased by 1897, why was the Inner Line continued as long as British rule lasted in India?
The only reason, perhaps, was because the British saw how, in terms of race, culture and worldview, the hill tribes were very different from mainland India. They were also aware that the spiritual and cultural identity of India was not manifest in its political unity. But they were far-sighted enough to recognise that the “Indian” culture was dominant and might permeate into the tribal culture and milieu, which was, until then, without a written script. The British in their wisdom felt that the tribes should be insulated from this dominant “Indian” culture and religion. Hence the Inner Line Regulation kept the Indian culture and religion effectively on the other side of the fence while the Christian missionaries were inducted for proselytisation of the hill tribes.
As to whether the British rulers empathised with the less civilised tribes or whether they were only planting the imperialist statecraft of “divide and rule,” it is not easy to decipher, but any which way we look at it, the ILP appears to have succeeded, at least partially, in allowing the tribes to retain their cultural traits, although in terms of religion many have given up their indigenous faith. It would take much space to debate the other pernicious aspects of imposing a Western faith on a people who were not in a position yet to reason on equal terms with the British and also how the Christian inculturation of the tribes has undervalued much of their indigenous wisdom and value systems. It would take another article to do so.
But at this juncture in history, the demand for an ILP is regressive and unlikely to solve the problems of influx from Bangladesh since the ILP presupposes that every traveller will come in via the officially designated entry points. Illegal migrants don’t do that and it is ridiculous to think of curtailing the mobility of fellow Indians only because we wish to oust them out of a highly competitive and dwindling economic space in our own backyards.
Many from the North-east are seeking livelihoods outside the region. What happens if each state decides to give employment only to its own people and start a reverse Outer Line Permit? These are issues that cannot be solved through knee-jerk reactions.
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at [email protected]