The focus of India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA; the ‘bill’ became law or ‘Act’ after it was cleared by both houses of Parliament and signed by the President of India) is directed towards the persecution faced by minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. But why these three specifically? Well, first, a disproportionate amount of persecution faced by minorities in the Indian subcontinent happens in these countries, and India already is home to many such persecuted people living in a fragile status who would benefit from gaining citizenship. For instance, the western Indian state of Rajasthan, which shares a border with Pakistan, alone has around 400 refugee camps of Pakistani Hindus.
Researchers have correctly pointed out that any fear-mongering about India being inundated by illegal refugees is rather hyped. Numbers show that, in fact, residents of India who were born outside the country actually shrunk from 6.2 million to 5.3 million between 2001 and 2011. Thus, the immigration rate fell in those years from 0.6% to 0.4%. The Indian immigration researcher Chinmay Tumbe has written, “In the U.S. and major countries of Western Europe, the immigration rate, or share of the population that is immigrant (foreign-born), tends to range between 10-15%. In India, the immigration rate has tended to be less than 1%.”
A closer look at the data also shows where some of the problems might be. Even though in more than 500 of India’s 640 districts, the immigration rate is less than 0.5%, it is in the border areas of the east and the northeast (along the border of the Indian state of West Bengal and the northeastern states) that the immigration rate is at the highest level (5%-10%). Five Indian states—Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram—share a more than 4,000-km long border with Bangladesh. Of this, West Bengal shares a 2216-km border and a shared language, Bengali, with Bangladesh.
Now this is where the links between what is happening on the ground and demographic change has crept in over the years, and fears among the people, start to emerge. Fears about demographic change are most acute in these eastern borders areas and have persisted for decades. In the northeastern state of Assam, protests to evict Bangladeshi immigrants—both Muslim and Hindu—have been going on since the late 1970s. In 2005, the demographic change in West Bengal’s border areas due to migration from Bangladesh was being described as ‘the Bangla bomb’. Newspaper reports from that year (2005) suggest that the incumbent chief ministers in these five states were already worried at this demographic transformation.
A report in The Times of India in June 2005 quoted Bimal Pramanik, director of the Centre for Research in Indo-Bangladesh Relations, explaining that relentless inflow from Bangladesh was demographically transforming the border areas of Bengal and other northeastern states. In Murshidabad, for instance, in 1951, 55% of its population were Muslims and 45% Hindu. By 2001, the gap had grown, Muslims 64%, and Hindus 36%. Nearby Malda has followed a similar trajectory, with the Muslim population rising from about 37% to 50% between 1951 and 2001, as have North Dinajpur and adjoining areas.
What reasons have propelled this migration, often illegal, since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971? As the researcher Ranabir Samaddar noted in his seminal book The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (1999), people have, and do, move across these borders not just for economic opportunity or propelled by religious persecution (though those are very strong motivators) but also because of ‘historical continuity’. This means that the boundaries of India drawn by the British cut through many areas which had been seamlessly associated with one another for several millennia—most notably Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east—which has nearly identical language and cultural traits even though in religious terms it is quite different (both the Punjab in Pakistan and Bangladesh are almost wholly Muslim). So, the border separating West Bengal in India from Bangladesh, has been crossed by countless travellers from time immemorial, these are contiguous lands today, but for most of history, they were one and the same.
This story is further made complex by the fact that not only do India and Bangladesh share the fifth-longest international border in the world, it was only in 2015 that they concluded a long-pending formalisation of the border which involved the exchange of several chitmahals or no man’s land enclaves (India gave Bangladesh 111 enclaves and received 51, thus giving more territory than it received). Before the agreement, 30% of the border had been unfenced; also, chitmahals were notorious for being hubs of gun-and-human trafficking, and a haven for terrorists: it cost barely Rs 3,000 (around $40) in bribes to cross this border. That these enclaves contained several groups that were a grave threat to India had been no secret. In an India Today magazine report from 2011, the deputy superintendent of police (crime) of Coochbehar (a border region) Rana Mukherjee was quoted as saying, “You see, we are working in a helpless situation. The enclaves do not come under our jurisdiction, but we very well know what’s happening where. We cannot arrest criminals hiding in enclaves. But these criminals are actually disturbing the law and order situation in India.”
The finalisation of the border settlement in 2015 improved the situation but significant issues remained. These border regions had been used by groups like the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), to sneak in operatives for their terror operations within India. The JMB operates under the umbrella of the global jihadi Isis network and is banned in India. In March 2019, intelligence agencies in India and Bangladesh discovered that a Bengali magazine called Lone Wolf published by one ‘Balakot Media’ was being distributed in both countries which taught jihadis to attack sites in both countries and detailed routes and methods to avoid border security and enter India through Bangladesh.
A brief history of the JMB is worth noting to understand why, from a security perspective, a detailed check and enumeration of citizens especially on India’s eastern border is so critical. The JMB was born in 1998 in Bangladesh but its notorious breakout moment, as it were, came in 2005 when it carried out a lethal series of near-simultaneous 500 bomb blasts across almost every district in Bangladesh. When the Bangladeshi government retaliated, JMB was nearly wiped out. Though, bits and pieces lived on and regrouped hydra-headedly to form not one but three splinter groups. Two of those factions directly targeted India—the leaders of one group even managed to operate from India, and at least one of those two groups was directly influenced by Isis.
As the Bangladeshi government poured more resources into hunting down and eliminating the group, many members of these terrorist groups and their network affiliates slipped into India through an infamously porous border, especially before 2015.
According to reports sent from Bangladeshi intelligence to India, between 2014 and 2017, more than 3,000 terrorists affiliated to JMB entered India through the border in West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam. Indian intelligence investigations showed that it was JMB terrorists who were behind the bomb blast in West Bengal’s Burdwan district in 2014, and in Bodh Gaya in Patna in 2018.
The Indian government has no choice but to bring in regulation that can identify and weed out such elements who have entered the country and are living as terrorist sleeper cells within India. It is important to note that a large part of the problem is confined to the five border states in India that share a border with Bangladesh, and therefore it is pertinent to ask if there could be a more focussed approach in investigating this rather than any countrywide measure.
The crisis in such illicit cross-border transit also has an economic aspect. The problem is simple—there is tremendous demand for beef in Bangladesh but simply not enough cattle. India has the largest cattle population in the world—more than 280 million of them, by some counts. The researcher Bimal Pramanik has calculated that the illegal, and extremely murderous, smuggling of cattle from India to Bangladesh is worth nearly $1 billion. It is a trade where one haul of around 10 heads of stolen cattle from India could bring in about a $1,000 in the bazaars of Bangladesh.
From gun racketeering to human trafficking to illicit cattle smuggling, the volume of illegal business conducted across the India-Bangladesh border has been estimated at approximately the same amount (for instance, by the Bangladesh envoy to India in 2009) as the formal trade between the two countries ($9.5 billion in 2017-18).
So, from jihadis to cattle smugglers, there are a wide variety of reasons why who is crossing the border and who is staying back in India—especially in the border areas—is a vital question for Indian authorities to ask.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.