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Trouble brewing in northeast India over ‘illegal Bangladeshis’

  • Published at 01:42 pm October 24th, 2017
Trouble brewing in northeast India over ‘illegal Bangladeshis’
Northeast Indian states, some of which share international border with Bangladesh, may see another spell of ethnic violence, targeting ‘foreign nationals’ or 'illegal Bangladeshis' as they are commonly referred to. Some political parties and vested interest are apparently keen to revive the agitation against ‘illegal immigrants and foreigners’ (read Bangladeshis) in the region beginning with Assam, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. In Assam, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a house divided on the thorny illegal immigration issue. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is among those who favour a hard line against alleged Bangladeshi settlers. As an active participant in the anti-foreigner agitations in the past, some of them very violent, he has lent his support to a recent administrative drive to re-examine most citizenship and related documents by people suspected of being illegal immigrants. It has already caused much harassment to mainly Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims. Thousands have been submitting and re-submitting such documents to local police and other authorities over the last couple of decades. Their plight has been reported in some sections of the Assam-based media while local civil rights groups have helped them seek legal remedies. Hard line BJP elements apparently derive their strength from announcements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “When the BJP comes to power in Delhi, illegal immigrants should start packing their bags and leave the country,” he had said. This pre-poll promise, like some others made by BJP and Modi, was never fulfilled. In Assam, even as BJP leaders resume their efforts to detect people without proof of Indian citizenship, the central leaders of the party have indicated that their old policy regarding immigration remains very much in place: only displaced Bangladeshi Hindus will get refugee status. Large section of people in Assam naturally feel restive with the centre virtually enforcing the possession of the Aadhar card and other documents as mandatory requirements for getting jobs and official relief, among others, often overriding directives from the Supreme Court. As things stand, it is not as though anyone without valid evident of citizenship papers in Assam are all illegal immigrants. In The flood-prone nature of the Assamiya rural landscape, along with poor infrastructure and economic backwardness, many people and tribals, including all major communities, have long been used to living without such documentation for decades. It is only of late that the situation has started to change, making things difficult for some. While Nagaland and Mizoram also target mainly poor Muslims regarded as ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’, some organisations in Mizoram have given a call to revive their agitations on the issue. Recently Arunachal Pradesh authorities and political parties objected to central government allowing citizen status to a number of Chakma and Hajong tribals. They have been living in special camps ever since they escaped from Chittagong Hill Tracts because of, what they claimed, ‘repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence’. The state is divided on the question of a fresh proposal from Delhi to settle a few hundred Tibetans displaced from China in Arunachal Pradesh. But the move could spell diplomatic problems in future as China regards Arunachal as part of the old autonomous Tibet region. While Chief Minister Pema Khandu is in favour of the idea and has got his Cabinet to approve of it, opposition parties have asked whether the interests of the local native population would be compromised. Analysts in Kolkata and Delhi fear that the worst case scenario could be yet another flare-up of mob violence and partisan official drives against certain communities or groups in parts of the sensitive northeast region. This will certainly result in loss of lives and property and could complicate otherwise smooth bilateral relations with Bangladesh.