More people-to-people contact between India and Bangladesh would go a long way in allaying the misconceptions that many in Assam harbour against Bangladeshi migrants.
Bangladesh, Assam, border terrorism, NRC, West Bengal, Digital Security Act, Mamata Banerjee, Bangladeshi migrants
People from Bangladesh are often perceived as trouble makers and unwanted guests in Northeastern states, especially Assam. One of the Bangladesh-bordering states (apart from West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura), Assam has witnessed a massive uprising against illegal migrants from that country and its implications are still visible.
But lately, India and Bangladesh have reached a steady bilateral relationship after many decades of diplomatic hiccups. The governments in New Delhi and Dhaka now regularly share common issues in an atmosphere of confidence and friendship. The mutual trust has been further heightened after resolving half-a-century- old border demarcation disputes. Duty-free trade, joint venture infrastructure projects, commerce, tourism, visa regime, communication through road, rail, river and air were a few areas of discussion between both nations. The talks on sharing of water from 56 international rivers are also in progress.
With authentic intelligence sharing by both New Delhi and Dhaka, cross-border terrorism has reduced to a great extent. At least the rigorous crackdowns on separatist militants hailing from Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura by various Bangladeshi government agencies have made the country almost free from those armed leaders and their cadres.
Interacting with a group of Guwahati- based scribes through video conferencing from Dhaka recently, senior Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator Saleem Samad said that there should not be any North-eastern separatist leader running their militant camps from Bangladesh. Many leaders including United Liberation Front of Assam president Arabinda Rajkhowa were silently handed over to Indian agencies by Dhaka in the recent past.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is committed to making Bangladesh free from cross-border terrorism. Because of Dhaka’s relentless crackdown on terrorism, the North-eastern militants have fled the country. Many of the separatist leaders were pushed back into India. The only fugitive on the run is Paresh Barua (supreme leader of Ulfa-Independent), who also faces capital punishment in Bangladesh,” said Samad.
The special correspondent at the Asian Age, published from Dhaka, also insisted that New Delhi should officially acknowledge efforts of the Hasina government, which has led to a significant decrease of budget for the five-decade-long anti-insurgency operation and deployment of law-enforcing agencies in the various troubled North-eastern localities. The anti-insurgency budget can now be diverted to infrastructure development, human development and industrial parks in the region.
A keen observer of socio-political situations in South Asia and a regular contributor to different Indian media outlets, Samad, however, admitted that the recent rise of Islamist extremism has been posing a serious threat to his Muslim majority country along with its neighbouring Indian states like West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. He narrated how secularist bloggers and LGBT activists are increasingly becoming the target of radicalised Muslims forces in the populous country, which has otherwise slowly, but steadily marched on the path of becoming a country of one nationality (Bangladeshi), one language (Bangla) and one religion (Sunni Muslim).
Citing how a network of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh was busted in West Bengal few years ago, Samad urged the North-eastern region to remain alert about jihadi elements after the ongoing crackdown on Islamist forces. He revealed that thousands of Bangladeshi youths had joined various militia groups in Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, Indonesia, Philippines, Afghanistan, and Pakistan et al to fight alongside the jihadis there. He also expressed concern over the new Digital Security Act 2018, which has already come under fire from journalists, including editors, rights defenders and anti-corruption advocates. International rights watchdogs have condemned the draconian law, which looks to criminalise freedom of press, speech and expression in that country.
Claiming that no visiting Indian political leader had ever spoken about illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India during parleys with their Bangladeshi counterparts, Samad pointed out that for the people of Bangladesh the issue of the National Register of Citizens updation in Assam remains an internal affair of India. “Though Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee made a hue and cry about the Assam NRC draft, Bangladeshi politicians and the civil society are still reluctant to comment on the sensitive matter. Even Dhaka-based media outlets had little coverage about the process and its larger implications,” said Samad.
It may be noted that Banerjee termed the massive citizenship scanning process in Assam, which is being monitored by the Supreme Court of India, as anti-Bengali but her views were not endorsed by anybody in Assam including those Bengali-speaking inhabitants in the Barak valley. Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal termed the release of the NRC draft as historic.
He expressed his heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to the Supreme Court, congratulated the 55,000 government officials engaged in the process and the people living across the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys, plains and hills of the state. It may be noted here that the first NRC in India was prepared in 1951 following a census the same year. Assam has been preparing a new NRC following the direction of the apex court of the country. Earlier, the first NRC draft in Assam was released on 31 December 2017.
The background for the NRC is traced to the Assam Accord, which was signed in 1985 by the Centre with leaders of Assam movement. The historic memorandum of understanding, signed by leaders of All Assam Students Union and Gana Sangram Parishad in presence of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi drew the curtain on the six-year-long Assam agitation that erupted in 1979. The Accord reposed responsibility on New Delhi to detect and deport all migrants (read East Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals), who entered Assam after the midnight of 24 March 1971. In other words, the agitating leaders agreed to accept all residents of Assam prior to the dateline as Indian nationals.
One can see that the influx of millions of illegal Bangladeshis is a vital socio-political issue for Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur. The region shares an international border of 5,182 km (about 99 percent of its total geographical boundary) with Tibet (now under China), Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Its border with Bangladesh is as long as 1,596 km. During the interaction, Samad strongly advocated more people-to-people contact between Assam and Bangladesh.
He even lamented how the state had missed the bus despite being so closely located, while other states like Bengal and Tripura launched multiple projects to improve rail, road and river connectivity with Bangladesh. Stressing on regular direct bus and air links between Guwahati and Dhaka, the Bangladeshi journalist said that improved trade and commerce along with cultural ties would help in erasing many misconceptions and suspicions prevailing on both sides. He also claimed more students and patients would move from both sides and that would obviously boost tourism.
First published in The Statesman, Kolkata on 15 October 2018
Nava Thakuria is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman.