‘Illegal’ migrants yes, but unfair to assume they are evil 

An estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, who fled persecution in Myanmar have entered India since 2011 seeking safety. Photo: iStock

August 31 will be a “dread”-letter day for lakhs of people who will see if their names figure on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. For those who will not be on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) overnight their status will be open for questioning — creating uncertainty, tension and fear for their future in India.

The government says those not on the list will not be immediately declared foreigners. That is up to a foreigners’ tribunal to decide. And that they will not necessarily be detained in camps. The large numbers running into lakhs and the unprecedented nature of the exercise leaves several grey areas to be figured out. But the moot point is the mental trauma that the families left out will have to endure if their names don’t figure in the NRC.

Since the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and again in 2019 the term “illegal migrants” has acquired notoriety of a kind seldom seen in independent India. Home Minister Amit Shah even called them “termites” that needed to be removed.

The central government made it clear in 2017 that an estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, who fled persecution in Myanmar and entered India since 2011 seeking safety and protection from persecution by the majority Buddhists in their country are not welcome and will eventually have to return to their country on the grounds that they pose a security risk for India.

For a country that has historically sheltered Tibetans fleeing Chinese persecution and Sri Lankan Tamils escaping Colombo’s rule the treatment meted to Rohingya Muslims shocked those who still believed India was a safe refuge for those seeking safety and security.

Migration, for economic reasons and to escape political victimisation, is a historic truth around the world that cannot be wished away. The United States, for instance, wouldn’t be what it is if not for migrants. Even now thousands are trying to cross over from various African countries to Europe; from South America to the US, and fleeing conflict in Syria and Yemen to safer countries braving innumerable difficulties and heart-rending situations.

In the case of India, migrants have streamed into the North-East and Bengal with a spike in 1971 during the conflict between former East Pakistan and West Pakistan which resulted in the independent nation of Bangladesh.

A largely porous border and lax security along with the fact that many were refugees fleeing from a violent conflict enabled them to arrive and settle on the Indian side of the region. But the issue is why the demonisation? And secondly has migration harmed the country?  While it is understandable that locals in the North-East, as in Assam, were resentful of foreigners competing for jobs, land and local resources the migrants too over time have in many ways contributed to the region and country’s economy in ways that may not be immediately quantifiable.

Under the Assam accord of 1985 to resolve the anti-foreigner agitation, the cut-off point was 1971 meaning those who arrived in India after that are the “outsiders”. A family that arrived in Assam without visa, say in 1975, is even today being treated as “illegal migrants”. While technically it may be true, in reality the family has lived in India for over four decades, with descendants who are India-born.

In any country, staying for so long entitles one to seek permanent residency and citizenship since for all practical purposes they are Indians. And, the families in most cases have worked, contributed to the growth of the country’s economy in many different ways. There is nothing to show that the migrants have worked against the country’s interests.

Instead of better regulating the entry of people into the country so that uncontrolled entry of people from across the border doesn’t happen, attempting to unsettle those who arrived decades ago beats logic.

In the absence of reliable data on the actual number of migrants who crossed over to India, the issue has resulted in victimisation of people who may have been in the country all along. The problem lies in differentiating Bengalis in India and those who crossed over from Bangladesh. Culturally and in every which way they are the same.

Since 2014, when the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power given the pro-Hindutva agenda of the party, the issue has worked to its electoral advantage. The party successfully used the grouse of “outsiders” (meaning migrants from Bangladesh) that has long existed in the north-east to capture power in the region.

But, the narrative hasn’t exactly gone the BJP’s way. The party expected the NRC to throw up large numbers of foreigners from the Muslim community. Instead, reports say the NRC has left out larger numbers of Bengali Hindus than Muslims.

While this has sent the party into a tizzy, in the rest of India other BJP politicians have started clamouring for similar NRC exercises to mainly “weed” out Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. This has the potential to turn into a witch hunt against a community across the country. To justify the setting up of NRCs in other states, the pro-BJP media and their social media allies have over time attempted to paint the picture of migrants as sinister and out to harm the country, something that history and current reality have shown is not true.

Many of the migrants are reportedly in jobs like housekeeping, construction and other low-paying activities that are invaluable but never recognised by the middle class and the elite. These privileged sections make full use of migrant labour in their homes and offices even while publicly mouthing criticism and demanding that they be sent back.

The NRC exercise in Assam has shown up a few truths that need to be accepted. One, in a country like India it is not possible to easily detect so-called outsiders.  Second, the negative assumptions about migrants can lead to unfair targeting of people and communities who pose no danger to anyone and third, the lived reality on the ground does not always match the ideological leanings or suit the agenda of any political party.