Sanjay Chetia
Assam Riots: How Should India Deal with Illegal Migrants?
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Like any other region of India, Assam too has seen large scale migration throughout history. Migrants from both the sub-continent and the east were accommodated and assimilated in the larger Assamese society. For instance, Ahoms who ruled Assam for over 600 years were descendants of ethnic Tai people from Burma. Assamiya identity crystallized during the latter part of Ahom rule in response to Islamic incursions from neighboring Bengal. Ahoms, in fact, scored a decisive victory against the marauding Mughal army in 1671. Thanks to the patronage provided to Hinduism by later-day Ahom Kings, many tribes dotting the complex ethnic landscape of Assam were subsumed into the larger Hindu framework which concomitantly and comfortably co-existed with an emerging Assamiya identity. Linguistic conception of Assamese nationhood too played a decisive role in strengthening the identity.

By the time India secured independence in 1947, Assam was a region with a divergent demographic composition.  As a complex cauldron of polyethinicities, the state had Ahoms, various hill tribes of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, indigenous tribes like Bodos and Mising, migrants from peninsular India brought by the British to work in tea industries, Sikhs living in villages near Nowgaon since pre-colonial era and other migrants from the rest of India who came for trade and mainly inhabited cities. That was the time when Indian nationhood as we know it came into being, and we became a republic a couple of years later. Not that it’s not common knowledge, but it’s central to the debate as we seek to demonstrate.

The first wave of large-scale migration post-independence was in 1971 – about 10 million Bengalis took refuge in India during the liberation war of Bangladesh as they were persecuted by the erstwhile West Pakistan Army. About 100,000 Chakmas (a minority Buddhist tribe) from the Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh fled East Pakistan as communal violence was unleashed on them. Chakmas faced oppression on grounds of religion and ethnicity at the hands of the East Pakistan government. Over and above the migration caused by such cataclysmic events, extraordinary population density and pressure on land in East Bengal also contributed to the migration. Many of them never returned and started competing with the native Assamese for land and resources.

Not surprisingly thanks to the radical reshaping of religious, ethnic, linguistic composition of the state, due to the what now is called in popular narrative as ‘Illegal’ immigration’, Assamese started to agitate for deportation of Bangladeshi refugee turned immigrants and the agitation reached its peak during early 80s. It’s common knowledge that the ruling Congress struck gold in terms of huge number of assured votes in the form of grateful Bangladeshis. That was one of the first instances of Congress’s perhaps hugely successful experiment with vote bank politics that entire India is familiar with today.

 Ruling Cong tried it’s best to maintain status quo as it suited them. It tried to divide Assam by driving a wedge between Bodos and Ahoms – it was the  time when demand for a separate “Bodoland” started to emerge. The highly controversial IMDT Act of 1983 was enacted that made it near impossible for a Bangladeshi migrant to be deported from Assam. Under the Act, the onus of establishing nationality rests not on the illegal migrant, not on the government,but on an individual who had to pay a fee to lodge a complaint to a stipulated jurisdiction. It took 22 years for the Supreme Court to repeal IMDT Act as un-constitutional in 2005. The economic disparity between Bangladesh and India coupled with a government friendly to illegal immigrants and a corrupt security force manning borders ensured that large scale immigration continue unabated.

Assam agitation culminated in “Assam Accord” signed by the central government and representatives of All Assam Students Union. This was largely an economic package and along with Illegal Migration Determination by Tribunal (
IMDT) Act, enacted two years before the accord, virtually regularized illegal migrants from Bangladeshis who migrated into India up to March, 1971 and even beyond. Peace was bought through a financial package on one hand, and status-quo prevailed in terms of accepting Bangladeshis who migrated before March, 1971 as Indian citizens on the other. The vote bank was saved. Constitutionality of such an accord between a students union and central govt was never questioned.

What followed was the rise of armed rebellion by the United Liberation Front of Assam demanding independence from India. ULFA became yet another outfit from the North East asking for freedom from India, after the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the Mizo National Front. President’s rule ensued and AFSPA was applied to quell the “militancy”. ULFA militancy was controlled by sustained military action on one hand and rival militancy of outfits like National Democratic Front of Bodoland and Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam etc. on the other. If rumors are to be believed the other outfits were created and sponsored by the state as a counterweight to ULFA. How far that is true is anybody’s guess.

The other consequence of Assam agitation and accord was All Assam Students Union (AASU) developing into a full-fledged political party – Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), first credible opposition to Congress in Assam, it had two, including a partial tenure, clueless, lacking in vision, and largely unremarkable tenures as govt in the state. In the last elections Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) representing the now substantial Muslim population of Assam overtook AGP to become the second largest party after Congress in state assembly.

 The Bangladeshi migrants who came as refugees initially struggled to make a living and gradually started competing for land and resources with villages in hinterland leading to violent clashes with the natives the worst of which we are witnessing in Kokrajhar that saw more than 40 people killed and close to 200000 people mostly Bodos displaced from their home and rendered refugees.

 Predictably, Congress is in the same denial mode refusing to accept that Illegal Bangladeshi Migrants are the source of problem and taking refuge behind Assam Accord which they signed with AASU to legitimize Bangladeshi migrants. They tend to be ably supported by the mainstream national media that has over the years become an appendage of the state. The rest of Assam is helplessly watching from the sidelines as the state is still under AFSPA marked by heavy presence of security forces. They nurture a hope that Army/SFs will take care of the situation and restore their rights as citizens, as they ought to have in normal circumstances. Or maybe they have reconciled to vote bank politics which they know is a reality they have to live with.

 Assam accord which I consider dubious (it legitimized millions of Bangladeshi immigrants who came in before 1971 instead of taking 1947, the year of independence as the only acceptable point of time as it ought to have since India became Republic) is at the heart of the debate. The matter was too important to be have been left it to an inexperienced students union and the ruling party to decide that it was merely an economic package that was needed for the state. The matter should have been decided at least by the parliament after a thorough national level debate. If the issue of Citizenship and the Citizen’s rights over Foreign Migrants is a regional issue then by that stretch even the issue of Territorial Integrity should also be a regional one.

 Having said that, Bangladeshi migrants are a reality that we as a nation must acknowledge. The economic disparity we have with Bangladesh that drives migration cannot be overlooked. We have to deal with them and decide the approach we want to take, should we confine them to refugee camps – the approach many countries take, or allow them to legitimately earn a living as non citizens – like in Dubai for e.g. is a call the Nation has to take collectively through parliament.

Certain amount of labor migration from various countries comprising South Asia is to be expected for economic reason considering the disparity in the economies of various countries. So the first approach that involves confining all illegal migrants to camps and treating them as convicts, even though it’s the most popular method being used by the western world including US to deal with the issue of illegal migration, may not be practical or desirable in India’s case. Hence the second approach of allowing them to legitimately stay, with limited rights, and earn a living, knowing fully well that they will compete with Indian labours, increasing supply in the labor market, seems to be the best available alternative.

 Having infiltrated into India, illegal migrants would either head for cities for jobs, or look for pieces of fertile land to own. Our Villages are ill equipped to handle more than handful of migrants to help them as farm hands or at odd jobs, least of all share their agricultural lands with them. Cities on the other hand have a voracious appetite for labors, and they are better equipped than the villages in terms of availability of sufficient police force to take care of law & order situations, utilities, and job opportunities to make it possible for the migrants to make a living without land ownership, the downside of which is driving down of wages in the labor market.

 If we “must” have migrants from other countries, we must have them in cities which are better equipped to handle them and their cosmopolitan nature reduces friction between communities and provide a support base for various communities, which can not be expected from villages anywhere, and any attempt at forcing villages to accept and share resources with foreign migrants will lead to bloody clashes the kind of which we are seeing in Assam.

 IMDT Act, enacted by the ruling Cong in 1983 that replaced the Foreigner’s Act of 1946, was clearly driven by political agenda of vote bank. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in 2005, but 22 years were enough to change the demographic along with electoral landscape of Assam. The rights of Scheduled Tribes like Bodos etc. and also that of non-tribal villagers need to protected at all cost. And rights of foreign migrants cannot be put on the same pedestal as those of citizens.

There is no dearth of practical solutions and ideas as expressed by the opinion leaders, well-informed and good intentioned people (see here and here), which thanks to a democratic social media have made it possible for people to express and spread. Thanks to them a renewed and much needed debate on a national level on the crucial issue of how to deal with Illegal Migration has been set rolling which till now was sadly absent in the mainstream media. Whatever be the solution that emerges from the debate, it can only be better than dubious accords and flawed legislations like the IMDT. 

 (Image Courtesy-Samvada)