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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Issues that make CAB, NRC look like tame fireworks

India would be powerless to stem migration forced by livelihood needs

Resentment and violence after celebrations of majoritarian political victory—that might be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s legacy to endure in the coming year—indeed, for several years. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, may soon be the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, after a blistering campaign by the BJP.

Even as religious and political majoritarianism drives nationalistic agendas, this column will, over the course of several weeks, examine specific aspects of security and insecurity beyond electoral politics.

And, specific concerns in specific geographies that form ground zero of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, popularly known as CAB: Eastern and north-eastern India, that vast, bewilderingly multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious arc around Bangladesh.

Take migration, or illegal migration, which lies at the heart of both NRC and CAB. Let’s go beyond the contradictions and constitutional complications with NRC and CAB. And, let’s go beyond the immediate political corollaries—groundwork for assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal, due in 2021, and the larger goal of parliamentary elections, due in 2024.

As this column has pointed out for years, we need to keep in mind that almost without exception across north-eastern India, people are resentful about migration from what is often called Mainland India, leave alone Bangladesh. Forced migration caused by the nineteenth-century colonial practice of bringing plantation workers into Assam from eastern India, besides the millions that arrived on account of Partition and religious persecution, also causes local heartburn, and fuels rhetoric and violence.

The concern is real. Let me share just one of numerous examples. I was part of a gathering in New Delhi in late 2014 for what was described as the diaspora from India’s eight north-eastern states to share ideas for conflict resolution and development. Minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju and India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval attended the event.

When talk came to acting upon India’s policy seeking better relations with South-East Asia using the conduit of north-eastern India to integrate the Asian highway system for moving goods and people; and opening up of road, rail and waterway links between India and Bangladesh to enable the movement of goods, services and people between that region of India and the Indian “Mainland", tempers ran high. Even talk of ambitious projects (like a localized version of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, billed as the “Seven Sisters Corridor") was distilled to one major concern. Would it lead to the greater “movement"—migration—of people from Bangladesh into North-East India? If so, forget it.

But migration is not going to stop. Livelihood needs will push it. The fact is that, without rapid and sustained socioeconomic development of Bangladesh, both India and Bangladesh will be powerless to stem it. The ongoing, sometimes patchy exercise to fence India’s 4,000km-plus border with Bangladesh will hardly be a barrier.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to speculate about the future of this region in a position paper for the Kesroli Group, a think tank of top professionals—some of whom are now in government—for a presentation to policymakers and CEOs. The matrices of China and India, Bangladesh and India, and the violent ethno-political dynamics of North-East India make for an incendiary historical and geopolitical mix even without adding inputs by nature.

What would happen if Bangladesh were to suffer a series of cataclysmic storms and inundation of its coastline on account of global warming? Unlike the relatively gentler inward migration forced by a similar inundation of the Indian coastline along the Bay of Bengal, the population pressure of Bangladesh, expected to be more acute than India’s for several decades into the twenty-first century, would lead to its citizens literally forcing their way to every other point of the compass to escape the country’s vulnerable south.

India would be powerless to stem this migration, another sort of flood. In this migration, livelihood needs—the brutal matter of survival—will precede any push of religion. There might even be the somewhat ironical instance of Bengali Muslim migrants to Bengali-majority and Muslim-majority districts of India bordering Bangladesh—Goalpara, Dhubri, Karimganj and Hailakandi in Assam, for instance, and nearly the entire strip along West Bengal’s border—having to compete with ever newer arrivals.

The east and North-East could implode in a way that would make even the effects of CAB and NRC look like tame fireworks. More shortly.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.

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