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Indian govt data proves number of Bangladeshi immigrants on the decline

  • Published at 10:35 pm September 18th, 2019
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File photo: Undocumented immigrants just released from detention through "catch and release"immigration policy stand at a bus station before being taken to the Catholic Charities relief center in McAllen, Texas, US, April 11, 2018 Reuters

Its own data do not support its claim upon which it decides to get rid of 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants'

It was November 16, 2016. 

The winter session of the Indian parliament had just begun. And it was during that session that the then-State Minister for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, in a reply to a written question, said there are around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants residing in India.

But Rijiju never clarified the source of this data, and merely said it was collected from the "available input". However, he did add that a large number of Bangladeshi citizens were entering India without any valid documents. 

Since the whole thing was happening secretly, "behind the scenes", Rijiju was unable to specify the exact number of Bangladeshis with their addresses in India.

And it has been observed that whenever any discussion or argument arises over this issue, the narrative contains a certain lack of reliable data that can specify the actual number.

No doubt the "20 million" figure – though gaining popularity on social media – only received a nod from the government after Rijiju mentioned it in the parliamentary session. 

Now, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders can smoothly say at any event-seminar-discussion: "There are over 20 million illegal Bangladeshis in India; we will find each and every one of them."

However, the confusion over the source of this data remains, to this date. 

On top of that, according to the immigration related data in the Indian census of 2011, the number of Bangladeshi immigrants has lessened by a huge margin in the last decade. 

As a result, uncomfortable questions are rising over the sudden rush to find and identify all the so-called illegal Bangladeshis in different Indian states, in the fashion of Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC). 

The census data clearly reveals this "rush" is a politically motivated move. 

Why did the census data come to light after 8 years?

Professor of Ahmedabad's Indian Institute of Management, Chinmay Tumbe, is a long-time researcher on the topic of Indian immigration. He also authored the critically-acclaimed book, "India Moving: A History of Migration".

In a recently published essay, Tumbe says, perhaps 2011's census data was published eight years later – at the beginning of 2019 – to hide the fact that the number of Bangladeshi immigrants is actually on a downward slope. 

The government wanted to keep this fact under wraps as long as it could, Tumbe speculated.

According to data from the 2011 census, the number of Bangladeshi-born people in India in 2011 was 3.7 million - 1 million less than the total number in 2001. 

And counting the number of people with ancestral homes in Bangladesh, compared to 3.1 million in 2001, the number stood at 2.3 million in 2011.

Tumbe says: "This statistics prove in recent times, Bangladeshis are much more eager to travel to Mediterranean or European countries. Especially, Bangladesh's rise in the Human Development Index, during the last decade, has made them lose interest in coming to India."

Even the Indian government backs the argument that Bangladeshis have no reason to migrate to India. Its census bureau statistics further supports this fact.

'India should naturalize Bangladeshis'    

Abheek Barman, senior journalist and columnist at Delhi's Times of India, also believes that with a higher economic growth than India, the number of Bangladeshi immigrants in India has lessened to "almost zero".

But what should be done with the ones who have stayed illegally?

Barman said: "I think without taking religion, race, or the date of entry into consideration, the so-called illegal Bangladeshis should be gradually naturalized. A lot of European countries have also followed this path, because this is the only logical solution to this problem." 

He argued, since there is no deportation treaty between India and Bangladesh, even if India manages to identify millions as illegal Bangladeshis, it will not be able to send them back to Bangladesh through any legal channels. 

Secondly, to select a "cut-off" date would also prove to be extremely difficult. For example, the Assam treaty says only those who entered Bangladesh before March 25, 1971, are eligible to become Indian citizens. 

But BJP's proposed citizenship bills cuts off the date to December 31, 2014. Although this only covers Hindu-Buddhists-Christians and excludes Muslims.

Other than that, whether all states will heed the central government's directive, is another matter of constitutional contention.

That is why Abheek Barman says: "The only realistic solution is to integrate these 'illegal' Bangladeshis into mainstream Indian society; but the scheme to gain political ground says otherwise!" 

'We need the carrot, not the stick'

Senior fellow of renowned Indian think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Joyeeta Bhattacharya published an essay on this issue nearly five years earlier.  

In the context of NRC, the essay is as relevant today as it was back then. 

"If India wants to slap the Bangladeshi identity upon a few people and attempt to forcefully send them back, it will not lead to anything," she said in her essay. "Only a bilateral discussion can result in any long-term solution."

And in this discussion, using the carrot rather than stick would be more effective, Bhattacharya opined; meaning, Delhi will not be able to accomplish their task by threatening Dhaka. 

Bhattacharya advised Delhi to convince Bangladesh to see that the latter can also profit from the arrangement. 

If there are millions of illegal Bangladeshis in India, they can only send foreign remittance through illegal ways, which makes the Bangladeshi government lose billions of dollars in revenue. 

The proposal also came up to start a system of issuing a short-term work visa or work permit, which will profit both parties. 

However, the recent statistics have pointed out that the number of Bangladeshi immigrants has been decreasing every year – and the "20 million" figure that BJP has been propagating is not based on any methodology or reliability. 

The Indian government’s own statistics do not support the claim upon which it has embarked on the mission to get rid of illegal immigrants. 

'No Bangladeshi entered India after 1971'

General Secretary of ruling party Awami League Obaidul Quader said that no Bangladeshi citizen intruded into India after 1971. 

Quader, also the road transport and bridges minister, said: "Not a single Bangladeshi intruded into India after 1971 and Bangladesh has nothing to worry over Assam situation."