Gen Rawat Dons A Neta’s Hat: Facts Haywire on Illegal Immigration

Bipin Rawat hinted at a link between the expansion of AIUDF in Assam to a ‘planned immigration’ fuelled by Pakistan.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s comments on illegal immigration from Bangladesh, specifically in the context of Assam on 21 February in Delhi, sparked a row. 
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Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s comments on illegal immigration from Bangladesh, specifically in the context of Assam, while speaking at a seminar in Delhi on Friday, is nothing short of political, besides being based on erroneous understanding of the problem that has afflicted in India over the last 40 years, if not more.

When Gen Rawat sought to compare the “growth” of the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front of Assam (AIUDF) and the BJP, he was, in effect, making a comparison between the population growth of Muslims and Hindus in the multi-ethnic north-eastern state, which has had a terrible record on inter-ethnic and inter-communal relations that have often degenerated into violence.

Assam’s Brush With Illegal Immigration

Gen Rawat should be aware of the violent clashes between ethnic Assamese, and the so-called illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh in Nellie and Gohpur, in the early 1980s.

These massacres, in hundreds, buffeted anti-immigration political outfits such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), besides parties such as Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and not to speak of the militant organisation, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

Indeed, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, Assam experienced a sub-nationalism, which was based almost entirely over the fraught issue of illegal immigration.

This is not to say that Assam did not suffer the problems posed by illegal immigration from Bangladesh. It affected, or so Assam’s then champions of sub-nationalism would have us believe, the state’s culture and certainly politics, leading in subsequent years to the birth of the AIUDF, whose leader, an MP, is also one of the largest manufacturers of itr, a perfume popular among Muslims across many parts of the country.

Rawat spoke at the seminar in the backdrop of the massive – and controversial – National Register of Citizens exercise, which concluded on 31 December 2017.

We will have more trouble in segregating people, identifying people. Yes, some people have to identified who are creating trouble for us, who are illegal immigrants.
General Bipin Rawat, at the conference

He, of course, went on to admit that for centuries, Assam has had its share of indigenous Muslims.

Rawat’s Ahistorical Statements

What Gen Rawat did not factor in – perhaps out of ignorance – is that more than Assam, it has been West Bengal which has historically faced the brunt of the inflow of illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Although years ago, when Assam was still an immigrant-receiving state and the demographic balance of districts such as Dhubri had changed for the worst, an honest, comparative study today would be helpful in more ways than one.

  • First, it helps quantify to some extent – data on illegal immigrants is notoriously unreliable – the phenomenon.
  • Second, based on such numbers, howsoever unreliable they might be, the central and state governments could take positive, corrective steps to stem the tide, if any.
  • Third, governments could prevail over neighbouring countries – in this case Bangladesh – to check the outflow, and this could be done by investing in those countries’ economies and enhancing the volume of trade.
  • Fourth, governments could take to restrictive measures by tightening border controls which, certainly in the case of West Bengal, has been found wanting.

Over the last 15 years or so, the inflow of immigrants from Bangladesh to Indian states such as West Bengal and Assam, has certainly reduced considerably. However, political-electoral exigencies of ruling dispensations, the CPM earlier and now the Trinamool Congress, have ensured that there is a steady immigration from across the borders into Bengal.

While illegal immigration from Bangladesh to West Bengal is a stark reality, it is undeniable that the ebb of flow into Assam is practically nil.

There are reasons for this: Being rational actors, prospective immigrants take into account various factors such as political conditions in immigrant-receiving states, economic prospects, and how easily they would be able to blend into the local population. These factors certainly favour Bangladeshis, both Hindus and Muslims, to settle for West Bengal over Assam.

Army Chief’s Contentions on Illegal Influx

What General Rawat chose not to comment on was the loss of border control, at least as far as the BSF’s presence along the boundary on the West Bengal-Bangladesh stretch is concerned.

He ought to be questioning the government, especially the Union Home Ministry why, despite crores having been spent, border control measures such fencing and installation of electronic devices to detect illegal crossings, are still not in place.

Large tracts of the porous border, especially in West Bengal, not only remain unfenced, but are freely used by cattle smugglers to push out milch animals to Bangladesh where the demand is very high.

The BSF does make seizures from time to time, but such records are essential to continue with the façade that all is well on the India-Bangladesh border.

1. Demographic Pressure Triggering Migration

General Rawat’s second contention that “migration from Bangladesh” is, first, because “they are running out of space” is grossly inaccurate.

It is true that in the mid-1980s, a few Bangladeshi intellectuals did propound the theory of lebensraum – the need for living space to the west – but it was as hare-brained then as it is today to continue to believe that there is a grand conspiracy of political actors across India’s eastern borders to push their unwanted population to this side of the border.

Bangladesh is often described as a poor country where a large measure of the population is impoverished and they, like all immigrants across the globe, step out beyond their national boundary in search of better livelihood opportunities.

While it is true that India was a favoured destination in the past, the new El Dorado for Bangladeshis is further west – to West Asia and even Europe.

But migration involves a cost and, therefore, people with some financial means do emigrate much beyond their national boundaries, while the less fortunate make do with stepping across contiguous borders into neighbouring countries.

Secondly, over the past 15-20 years, Bangladesh has taken big steps in the social sector and a relatively stable political environment ensuring the flow of investments. This has led to job creation not just in heavily populated Dhaka and other large towns, but also to some degree in the largely agricultural hinterland. All these have contributed to slowing emigration.

2. Pak Behind Planned Immigration

In his speech, Gen Rawat referred to what he called “planned immigration”. His target is Pakistan, since he refers to what he believes is a long-term, diabolical operation of “our western neighbour”.

The army chief does not explain how Pakistan has set about destablising India by pushing in hordes of Bangladeshis, which he likens to “the proxy dimension of warfare”.

If Pakistan has such great influence over the Bangladesh government, then he must admit that Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Dhaka has been an unmitigated failure.

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