What did the Assam blasts point to? Let’s at least ask the right questions.
Walter Fernandes writes in Tehelka.
THE BOMB blasts that shook Assam on October 30 reopened the debate on the immigration issue. Intelligence agencies that could not foresee such a well-organised attack jumped to the conclusion, within hours, that it was planned in Bangladesh, and immigrants were involved. Later, they changed it to say that a Bodo outfit had joined Muslim groups. We were asked to believe that these two groups, who were killing each other on the North Bank of the Brahmaputra just four weeks earlier, had come together for this operation.
These accusations have revived the demand for the expulsion of Bangladeshi immigrants. That immigration is a serious issue is beyond doubt, but it cannot be identified with Bangladeshi Muslims alone. A comparison between the 1971 and 2001 census shows an excess of 40 lakh persons over the natural growth rate in Assam alone. Around 17 lakh of these are Bengali-speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin. The remaining 23 lakh are predominantly Hindi-speaking Hindus, and a few Nepalis.
However, the debate is limited to Bangladeshi Muslims in the Northeast. The remaining communities are ignored. For example, Hindu Bangladeshi immigration reduced the tribal population of Tripura from 58 percent in 1951 to 31 percent in 2001, but they are considered to be Indians.
It is forgotten that the major issue is land and not religion. The immigrants encroach on tribal and non-tribal common land that sustain these communities. Most immigrants were landless agricultural labourers. Most land in Assam and parts of the Northeast is community-owned. But colonial land laws that continue to be in force recognise only individual ownership, and consider community-owned land to be state property. That makes it possible for migrants to take over such land.
That is what happened in Tripura and Assam. In Tripura, Bangladeshi Hindus encroached over 60 percent of tribal land. The tribal insurgency there began as a way of defending the land. Most other conflicts in the Northeast centre around land. The ethnic groups of the region fight for control of the little land that is left. Besides, most immigrants who were agricultural labourers in their region of origin know cultivation techniques. They prosper by growing three crops on the land that they occupy. The original owners of that land are unable to do this. They resent the fact that outsiders thrive on the land alienated from them. Conflict follows from this.
Expelling immigrants is not the solution. Nor is a border fence. The border cannot be fenced because 40 percent of it is riverine. Nor can a fence prevent corruption. Persons of Bangladeshi origin indicate that they have to pay the BSF and BDR at least Rs 400 every time they enter or leave India.
Immigration cannot be treated in isolation or given a communal colour. Immigration from present-day Bangladesh began in the 19th century. Thus, Bangladesh’s economy is well-integrated with that of the Northeast. That is why twothirds of the trade here is illegal, because it is a continuation of the traditional exchange of goods. Both such exchange and immigration, considered illegal by the state, are intrinsic to the integrated economy of the region. That, too, continues because of corruption among the protectors of the border.
Ways have, therefore, to be found of dealing with these. One must treat immigration as an economic issue. Corruption must end. Also, legalise trade considered to be illegal. Work permits and identity cards for immigrants are other possibilities. The land issue cannot be ignored, but must not be communalised either. Moreover, the law must be applied equally to all immigrants, whatever their origin or religion.
(Fernandes is Director, North East Social Research Centre, Guwahati)