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BELLING THE ILLEGAL CAT

The Nowhere People

By Poonam I Kaushish

How would you feel if one fine morning you are persecuted and thrown out of your country, take shelter in another only to be deported back? This innocuous question came up during arguments to stop deportation of seven Rohingya immigrants back to Myanmar in the Supreme Court last week. But to no avail as the illegal migrants detained since 2012 in Assam’s jail for violating the Foreigners Act were shipped back. Their tragedy is they are seven of a three million minority Muslim community which is the largest Stateless population in the world. The nowhere people.

Predictably, with elections to five Assemblies round the corner and thanks to identity politics, the issue of illegal migrants is a hot potato for all Parties. Already, BJP’s Amit Shah sounded the bugle asserting “each illegal immigrant will be taken out of voters list and the process of sending them back has already started,” at a public meeting in Rajasthan recently.

Last September over 164,000 Rohingyas (Muslims) fled violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State in fishing boats and sought asylum in India and Bangladesh. Today, there are over 40,000 Rohingyas living here and are all over the place: Jammu, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mewat.

Kudos to the Modi Sarkar for taking the first step towards identifying and throwing the Royingyas out, as they were a time bomb waiting to explode. The Government made plain they are a national security threat and must be deported to Myanmar, notwithstanding criticism by human rights activists and UN which argued they were the most victimized ethnic group in the world.

More so, against the backdrop of the ugly reality that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have completely changed North East’s demographic landscape, threatened the livelihood and identity of indigenous people. Thanks to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which has sifted through 3.29 crore people who had applied for recognition as Indian citizens, of these 2.89 crores made it to the second and final draft of the NRC while the fate of 40 lakhs hangs in the balance.

Shockingly, already, 9 of Assam’s 27 districts have a Muslim majority population and hold the key for 60 of its 126 Assembly constituencies. Over 85% of the total encroached forest land is with the Bangladeshis. According to intelligence reports, “In the last 70 years Assam’s population increased from 3.29 million to 14.6 million – a 343.77 % increase” over a period when the population of India went up by only about 150%!

Seven districts of Bihar, Bangla, North East and Rajasthan have been affected as a result of large-scale illegal migration. Even the Union Capital has over 10 lakhs and Maharashtra over 100,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants. In Mizoram the anti-outsider feeling vents itself in frequent volatile student’s stir. In Nagaland, the population of illegal migrants from Bangladesh has more than trebled in the past two decades — rising from 20,000 in 1991 to over 75,000 in 2001. Tripura is a tragic example of the obliteration of the local identity.

In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh too, illegal Bangladeshis have taken full advantage of lax laws to secure ration cards. From rag pickers to domestic help, agriculture workers to rickshaw-pullers et al are mostly illegal migrants and are taking jobs away from legitimate citizens.

Where do we go from here?  Pander to rabid rabble rousers? Pander to the politics of vote banks? Allow the Push and Pull theory of illegality to continue. The Push back to poverty vs the Pull of India’s rich pastures.  The option is narrow. The solution must be clearly dictated by India’s primary interest: its integrity and stability.

With human rights activists and Opposition Parties trying their damnedest to ensure the Government to take a humane and holistic view it’s not going to be a cake walk. The UN Special Rapporteur on racism said India risked breaching its international legal obligations by returning the men to possible harm. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is witnessing the highest level of displacement on record with 22.5 million refugees, over half of them under 18, languishing in different parts of the world in search of a normal life.

Yet, security experts are unanimous that Rohingya refugees are adding to the security threat to the region. The Chittagong area, bordering Myanmar, where the Rohingyas refugees are camped has been a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and provide shelter to the secessionist forces in the North East.

With the Bangladesh Government failing to keep up with the pressure, Islamists are enjoying a free run under the garb of NGO activities. “Almost all the NGOs working in Rohingya camps have strong terror links,” opined a North East security expert. This is bad news for all. Bangladesh is afraid that disturbance in Chittagong might impact its growth potential as it is the country’s only sea port and a major destination of investments from India, Japan and China.

Given China’s influence in Bangladesh and Myanmar; the stakes are high for India. While China is keen to keep international forces out of the Rakhine dispute; India is trying to walk the tightrope of taking along both Bangladesh and Myanmar Governments towards a viable solution for the Rohingya crisis.

Alongside, New Delhi in conjunction with its “Act East” policy to grow its influence in South East Asian countries and counter China’s increasing presence in the region is actively pursuing good relations with Myanmar’s army officials in the hope that it can enlist their help in acting against militants in the North East, many of whom are based in Myanmar’s Sagaing jungles. In a further sign of warming ties, India is building a port and waterways project at Sittwe in Rakhine State. Work will also soon start on connecting Sittwe to Mizoram’s Zirinpui by road.

Human rights activist decry New Delhi’s action as India has a fair reputation on the refugee issue having taken in Sri Lankans, Tamils, Afghans, Tibetans and Myanmaris. This is why its reaction on the Rohingya issue doesn’t add up. Apart from being wrong on law, it creates an impossible situation and tarnishes India’s image abroad, they argue.

In practical terms, strict policing and border management is needed. Local people need to be recruited for policing. Certainly, if one cannot stop infiltrators at the border then there is no way one can push them back. Given that the issue is no longer a humanitarian issue dictated by the theory of needs or economy driven. It is a grave demographic, economic and national security problem. To keep a strict vigil against the Rohingyas’ influx, the Indian Government has specially stationed 6,000 soldiers on the India-Bangladesh border.

India also needs a humane approach now because the problem is only likely to get bigger in future. Half of South Asia’s population lives in areas that are projected to become moderate to severe climate hotspots by 2050. If a large chunk of people in vulnerable areas are displaced, this will lead to further waves of emigration. In Bangladesh alone, 15 million people alone are expected to displaced due to environmental degradation.

Clearly, history has come a full circle for the illegal immigrants from Myanmar. The NDA Government has cast the first stone, the need of the hour is to continue dealing assertively with  illegal migrants issue and set up time-bound measures. It needs to remember, disasters of history are the result of a Government’s folly and perverse persistence in pursuing the policies contrary to national interests. —- INFA

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