It is not for nothing that India is a collection of disparate states. Each state of the Union has its own enduring disorder. Bihar was, for long, the exemplar of societal anomie; Uttar Pradesh is home to caste combination and permutations that can only be called kaleidoscopic—its political results are debilitating. Jammu and Kashmir is in the grip of a senseless ideology of secession. These examples can be multiplied 28 times.
The one case that stands out as a tragedy is Assam. If there is one state that can be called the home of unpredictable political violence, it has to be Assam. In recent weeks, at least 57 persons have been killed in the three districts of the state due to clashes between the Bodo community and Muslims. Those forced to flee their homes number much higher. The lost livelihoods, fear and bitterness are beyond numbers.
Why do such benumbing episodes occur in the state with such regularity? Assam is one of the least urbanized states of the country. Its economy is rudimentary and the pressure on land is inexorable. But that is only a part of the story—and these pressures are not unique to it. The other element that make it combustible are the waves of illegal migration from Bangladesh without let or hindrance. All this is well known.
A man carries his belongings to a safe place in Kokrajhar, Assam. Tens of thousands of villagers have fled their homes in fear of riots between Bodos and the Bangladeshi migrants. Photo: AP
Assam’s curse is that a large number of its residents are complicit in the demographic wrecking of their state. The state is in a strange situation: the availability or non-availability of specific laws to detect and expel illegal migrants has not made the slightest difference. It has, however, not prevented this from turning into a volatile issue. Some examples are in order here.
Consider, first the intuitive explanation for illegal migration. Assam, at one point, was covered by the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983. Under this law, the burden of proving someone to be an illegal migrant lay on the person who made such an accusation. The optimal amount of enforcement of a law depends on, among other things, the cost of catching and convicting offenders, the nature of punishments—fines or prison terms—and the responses of offenders to changes in enforcement. Call this the Becker vision of the law (after the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker who explored the economics of crime).
From the Becker perspective, successive governments have invested virtually no resources in nabbing illegal migrants. And this includes both the Congress and Asom Gana Parishad?(AGP)?governments. The Congress’ complicity in this is very clear: the IMDT Act was designed to prevent any foreigners from being caught and deported in the first place. But what about the AGP? Surely, it could have taken some steps or at least kept this important political issue alive. It did not.
For the Congress—even today—the cost of enforcing laws that deports foreigners from Assam is too high: it stands to lose a substantial fraction of its vote and even political power there if it takes any such steps. Secularism and protection of minorities are convenient foils.
But consider a counter-intuitive argument. Suppose, instead of the IMDT Act (which, in any case, has been struck down by the Supreme Court), the more stringent Foreigners Act, 1946, were to be applied. Will this change matters? Not for a moment should you think it will.
Here is an example. Imagine you are a potential illegal migrant from Bangladesh, say in the Sylhet district of that country. As many before you, you decide to enter Assam from one of the many possible routes in the Barak Valley. You slip in at night and a friendly country cousin—who arrived in an earlier round of migration—living in a border village, takes you in. The next day, the local police officer, tasked to keep an eye on intruders, visits your cousin. A cordial “exchange” occurs and he is off to make his report to the local superintendent of police who, in turn, informs the district magistrate (DM)—the authority under The Foreigners Act to determine citizenship. And the DM, in turn, makes his report to his superior all the way up to the Union ministry of home affairs.
What has gone wrong here? In this interpretation of law, it is assumed that the policeman, the magistrate and virtually the entire chain of officials act as “prescribed by the law” in a robotic fashion. It ignores the reality that these officials will have incentives that differ from those in the law. Call this the Basu vision of the law (after Kaushik Basu who modelled the economics of law in a very different vein from Becker). To put it in the language of game theory, such laws are unable to create “focal points”, which ensure that all participants narrow down to a particular—“good”—equilibrium in this game of law. In laws such as The Foreigners Act and the IMDT Act, the divergence between incentives of those breaking the law and those implementing them is simply too large for them to be anything more than ink on a piece of paper.
It is this neither world of law—the law being there, its being unimplemented and being beyond implementation at the same time—that translates into ethnic and religious violence in Assam, again and again. Unless there is a political solution to the problem—and there seems to be none—Assam will remain home to unpredictable eruptions of violence.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
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