Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants – A shadowy underclass
Ashutosh works as a contractor for Pillsbury General Mills. His job is to find recruits to load goods on trucks at the production site. The company itself does not deal directly with the workers; Ashutosh is paid a lump sum out which he pays the workers. Ashutosh earns a cut of approximately Rs. 500 per worker whom he pays Rs 5000-6000 thousand per month. When he got into this profession most of his recruits were migrant Biharis, but lately, he says he has been hiring Bangladeshis. He even visited Kolkata slums last year for the purpose. “Biharis have become too shrewd, they try to deal with the company directly and circumvent the share of the contractors. Bangladeshis though are very docile.” He says matter-of-factly. Whether or not an entire people can be docile is open to speculation but it is true that being illegal outsiders Bangladeshis are more likely to take up jobs that pay the least and are most exploitative.
A story published in The Guardian says that for decades women from Bangladesh have crossed the border without passports and visas and travelled 2000kms to be bar dancers in Mumbai. A young girl Sultana who was interviewed by an NGO said, “I would never have crossed the border if I had found work locally. I was helpless.” This fact flies in the face of many stereotypes regarding rural Muslim communities. One would have expected strict control over women and sure enough, the study reveals that these women become social outcasts in their villages but the migration continues unabated. Economic compulsion is a force that decimates every social taboo and tears asunder community norms that may otherwise have endured for centuries.
Situating the problem of illegal Bangladeshi immigration
Contrary to what some fringe right wings groups would like us to believe, illegal immigration of Bangaldeshis is not a well thought out conspiracy to ‘Islamize’ parts of India to plot their accession to Bangladesh. It is not the well off Bangladeshis who are migrating illegally. Search for cultivable lands and jobs are two factors that are most likely to impel the Bangladeshis to migrate. And again, it is the poorest of poor among them who migrate to India to either become subsistence peasants or to join the lowest rungs of menial workers. I am not trying to paint an idealized picture of Bangladeshi immigrants as a people who silently bear all oppression and are perpetual victims. Sure enough they are often aggressive, as was reflected in the recent Assam riots. In the bigger Indian cities they have been known to take to crime too. But it can safely be said that they are no more or no less aggressive than the poor from other marginal communities. People driven to the wall due to poverty and desperation are likely to retaliate. Those who doubt this need not look very far from the region that formed the epicenter of the recent Assam riots: Nagas and Meiteis are at each other’s throat in Manipur, Nagas are trying to flush out Kukis from lands that they consider their ancestral abode, Kukis in turn have formed an army of their own which they use to pay the former in kind and to slaughter Karbis whose ‘ancestral’ homeland they now claim for themselves. Karbis too arm themselves to combat what they consider the invasion of Kuki ‘infiltration’ of their homelands. Those of us who feel that the ‘north-east’ is unique should shift their gazes to the ‘heartland’ of India’. Marathis beat up Bihari migrants to protect the ‘glorious homeland’ of their forefathers. Shiv Sena hates Biharis and is now targeting Bangladeshis as well. Nor is India unique as is neither the ‘north-east’. Indian students are attacked in Australia, Indians are attacked by the racist right-wings groups in the US, Sardars mistaken for being Muslims are particularly targeted. France expelled 28,000 illegal immigrants in 2011. In Germany they have a ‘Turkish illegal immigration problem’. It is clear that what we face today is not a unique Bangladeshi immigration issue. The problem of foreigners’ immigration is a global phenomenon now.
So how do we tackle the illegal Bangladeshi issue? Sealing the borders and efficient patrolling rarely works. Even the US government with its mighty infrastructure and state of the art technological apparatus has not had much success in sealing its borders with Mexico through which people pour in year after year, in search of greener pastures. A law and order solution hardly seems viable because it has rarely worked in any part of the world. So what can be the way ahead?
Sealed borders in a globalizing world
It is a cliché to mention that we are living today in a world that is globalizing very fast. Money flows from one part of the world to the other in seconds. Every country of the world seeks foreign investment. Multinational Corporations set up production units all over the world in search for cheap labor force, so much so, that in the past two decades or so, a very major chunk of the industries located in the US and Europe has been shifted to the Asian countries. Massive influx of investments in the newly developing countries leads to rapid changes in the local economies rendering many traditional forms of livelihood untenable forcing people to seek employment elsewhere. Herein, however emerges a discrepancy: while investments no know borders, and all efforts are being made to ensure the free flow of capital internationally, similar favour is not shown to labor, for them the borders remain firm and intact. We increasingly inhabit a world in which capital knows no borders but labor is sealed within nation states.
Towards a Solution
This brings me to the controversial aspect of this essay that might outrage many but merits a careful consideration nonetheless. Can we imagine a free border with Bangladesh, the kind we share with Nepal? Before my readers gasp with horror let me cite a few of the many mutual benefits this step would bring for both the countries: West Bengal, Bangladesh and the ‘north-east’ constitute an integrated economic zone that was torn apart through partition. By freeing the border we would not just give the ports of West Bengal a much bigger hinterland but would also end the artificial land lock for the ‘north-east’ and as well as Bangladesh that is hindering the developed of both these regions. End of the land lock for the ‘north-east’, boosted by an integrated highway and river road system passing through Bangladesh, connecting the rest of India and Bangladesh to the ‘north-east’, would increase the volume of trade manifolds. New employment opportunities would come up for the currently landlocked communities of the ‘north-east’. The movement of people that the free border would facilitate would ease up the pressure on land. This would relieve to some extent the tensions over cultivable land among the communities of the ‘north-east’ and also between the former and the Bangladeshis. Increasing movement of people from the ‘north-east’ to Bangladesh and the rest of India and vice-versa would help decrease the climate of distrust and suspicion.
Difficult as it sounds, it is probably the only way from the current impasse. In the era of internationalization of human interactions this would be a step forward in evolving a viable and amicable solution to the tensions that are arising due to illegal but at the same time inevitable immigration from Bangladesh.