Sunday, May 16, 2010

The silent Bangladeshi invasion of Assam

The following article was penned by Mr. Subir Ghosh on

A week ago, an unsettling incident occurred in Assam that went largely unnoticed in the Indian media.Over a thousand suspected illegal migrants crossed the Dhansiri river and, with impunity, took over parts of Orang National Park in Darrang district in the early hours of May 6. came from the innumerable chars (riverine islands) that dot the Brahmaputra river. They did not come empty-handed - they brought along building materials and cattle. They apparently had come to stay. For good. By the time forest guards spotted the invaders that afternoon, the migrants had already erected a hundred makeshift houses or more. The unnerved forest personnel called back for more hands and resources; they did not dare take on the illegal migrants who were armed with sharp weapons. The latter had not only come here to stay, but seemed inordinately determined to do so.The forest department, in turn, sought the Army's help. Sometime in the evening, the eviction drive began. As the dismantling of the houses got under way, the settlers predictably began attacking the forest personnel. This they did after lining up women and children in front of them. The Armymen present had to fire in the air to ward them off. The expulsion operation went on for three gruelling hours, with the forest department having to even use elephants to chase away the recalcitrant encroachers. Finally, at the end of the day, the national park had been cleared. Even in a state where the issue of illegal migrants has dominated the political landscape for the last 30 years or so, this came as exceptionally alarming. Unprecedented, arguably, is the word. Illegal migrants can tilt the electoral scales in close to half of the state's 126 Assembly constituencies. If that is not enough, this was the first sign of Bangladeshi migrants asserting themselves – over land.The buzz in forest circles is that this was the first such try; they fear more intrepid and brazen attempts from these illegal migrants in the days to come. The riverine islands and reserved forests of Assam have been falling bit by bit to Bangladeshis for years now. But all this while, the encroachment of the state's reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries/national parks had been a silent and ghostly invasion. That is why the incident of May 6 needs to be taken more seriously. It is the first ominous indication of the illegal migrants from Bangladesh asserting themselves physically. They need more land, you see.Let's look prima facie just at the issue of reserved forests and protected areas in the state. Settlers in the char areas on the Brahmaputra near the national parks, especially Kaziranga and Orang, are known to be involved in rhino poaching. Most of these people, not surprisingly, are Bangladeshi migrants.

'Zero tolerance to illegal immigrants'

During a raid conducted by security personnel at a few villages on the fringe areas of Orang in March, weapons and traps used in poaching were recovered along with body parts of animals. All those arrested were suspected Bangladeshi nationals. But then, you can never prove that they are Bangladeshis.Protected areas in Assam, like elsewhere in the country, are in a precarious state. The problems they face are the same – that of rampant encroachment, illegal logging, stone mining, and burgeoning human settlements in contiguous areas, among others. Illegal migrants compound these already existing headaches. The state government has time and again made half-hearted attempts to jettison encroachers from forest areas; each time these had to be withdrawn after a few days of the launch. The hue and cry raised by vested interests was too much for the government of the day to handle. Most of these encroachers were projected as Muslims and not as Bangladeshis. In these days of political correctness, no political dispensation, least of all the Congress, wants to be seen as anti-minority. Then there were those who talk of people and forest rights. For them too, these settlers were not foreigners. They never are.The result was inevitable. The encroachers, most of them illegal Bangladeshi migrants, stayed on. How far-reaching the result was, is now there for us to see. It is no more a question of people's rights over forest resources. It has degenerated into a sinister issue of illegal migrants asserting their "unfettered" right to take over Indian forests and sanctuaries. Incidentally, Assam has the largest amount of forest land under encroachment – 485,674 hectares. Andhra Pradesh, which is much larger, comes next with 268,853 hectares. Statistics always denote something, unless you are as blind as a bat.What has been distressing is the scant coverage the May 6 incident received in the media. Do a search on Google News and you will get the tally. No media coverage means no one knows about it. No one knows means that no one is scared of this disconcerting episode. That's what makes it so scary.As it is, according to official Indian records there are hardly any illegal migrants in Assam. Bangladesh denies the existence of its nationals in the state, or even elsewhere in India. Most political parties in the state – from the Congress to the Left parties – too don't believe there are any. Neither the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) or the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been able to do anything about the issue when they were in power either in the state or at the Centre. There are only two kinds of people in Assam. The first lot sees no evil, the second has no idea how to tackle this evil.Add to this unconfirmed reports that the takeover attempt of Orang was done at the behest of a Congress leader of the area. Even while they were being pushed out of the national park, the encroachers were heard issuing threats and making references to this Congress leader. The All-Assam Students Union (AASU), that had led the Assam Agitation in the Eighties, has taken umbrage, and made its anger known after the incident. But that is all that it can probably do in today's Assam.The invidious invasion of Assam has been taking place for several decades and successive governments have failed to arrest this demographic onslaught. One need not delve too much into history or figures that are not authentic to make one's point; even recent official figures will suffice. India has 20 million illegal migrantsEnumeration of electors in Assam by the Election Commission showed more than 30 per cent increase in 17 Assembly constituencies and more than 20 per cent increase in 40 constituencies between 1994 and 1997. Whereas the all-India average growth in electors between 1994 and 1997 was 7 per cent, the growth in Assam for this period was as high as 16.4 per cent. It may be empirical, but the evidence is tell-tale.The Assam Agitation, in hindsight, was successful only in the signing of an accord. The issue over which the movement was built, however, still rages on. And now, a conniving Congress government in the state and an impotent Congress-led alliance at the Centre have allowed the problem of illegal migrants get out of hand. Yes, it is out of hand. If the May 6 assertiveness is no proof, what more can one possibly want?Assam, today, is probably in dire need of another agitation. The one of the Eighties was by and large peaceful. The Nellie massacre may have been a brutal and gory exception; but then, it was not officially engineered by the AASU. The next agitation, if one happens, will surely be a more virulent, violent one.

Subir Ghosh is a senior Delhi-based journalist. He blogs at

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