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Eviction of Bangladeshis from India could backfire

Nationalist leader Modi needs to tread very carefully

Swati Deb, New Delhi

Swati Deb, New Delhi

Updated: April 30, 2014 04:07 PM GMT
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Eviction of Bangladeshis from India could backfire

Bangladeshis in India

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Deporting "illegal immigrants" from India has always been on the agenda of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party. So it was no surprise when party leader Narendra Modi, front runner to be prime minister after the current general election, said candidly that after May 16, which is when the election results will be declared, “these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed".

He was addressing a rally at Srirampur in West Bengal province, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh. It has been suggested that his comments are an indication of things to come if Modi, the Gujarat chief minister who is still suspected of complicity in a 2002 anti-Muslim massacre, takes charge in New Delhi.

The BJP and other hardline Hindu organizations believe one of the worst fallouts from the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 has been the mass migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. This has altered the demographic of these states where Hindus were once the vast majority, they believe.

These Hindu groups claim the migration has not only destabilized the Hindu majority in these areas, but also boosts the political fortunes of non-BJP parties, whom Bangladeshi voters tend to favor; parties like the Indian National Congress, the Communists and the All India Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress, which currently rules West Bengal.

The BJP additionally accuses Bangladeshi Muslims of being a drain on the nation's income and resources. For good measure, it also claims that many of the immigrants have procured illegal documents such as ration and voting identity cards.

No reliable data is available to prove or disprove the extent of the migration. The BJP claims that, from 1971 to 2002, the Hindu population has diminished from 72 to 65 percent while the Muslim population has risen from 14 to 38 percent, although these figures are disputed. But it is generally estimated that about 20 million Bangladeshis have settled in India, mainly in West Bengal and Assam. 

BJP president Rajnath Singh recently said that if the party comes to power, it will investigate "how so many people of a particular religious community could enter the country illegally and settle down".

K Purkayastha, a BJP lawmaker, told ucanews.com that the party wants to identify all those who came to India after 1971 and deport them.

But that will hardly be easy. Two generations of migrants have been born and lived in India since then. It would be virtually impossible to identify them as migrants as many will have all the necessary documents and land possession records.

Besides, they integrate with the local population very well, speaking the same language and sharing the same culture. After all, they were part of the same British Indian province until 1947 when India and Pakistan were segregated on religious lines. 

The BJP are not the only ones who want to send the Bangladeshis back across the border. Tribal groups such as the Bodos, who are indigenous to east India, say Bangladeshis encroach upon their land and offer unwanted competition for education and job opportunities.

"The outsiders are ready to work for lower wages. This makes it difficult for the locals to get employment,” says one analyst.

While deportation would probably prove popular in West Bengal, Assam and other tribal/Christian stronghold states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, it is highly unlikely to provide any kind of solution.

Indo-Bangladesh relations can be hailed as a diplomatic success story, with immense progress in recent years. India got great assistance from Dhaka in dealing with the militants operating from that country. The nations also maintain friendly borders, trade relations and cooperation in almost all fields.

Any extreme political move could imperil this equilibrium. It also offers the danger of extreme reactions from religious fanatic groups active in the region, thus creating a violent and even more complicated scenario, even farther from resolution, besides creating an angry neighbor.  

So deportation would be highly likely to fail and it could possibly even boomerang. If Modi takes over the reins of India, he will need to tread carefully on this sensitive issue.

Swati Deb is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ucanews.com, based in New Delhi.

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