Covers | July 10, 2012 at 8:41 am

Bangladesh: Sinking and Dragging India Down?

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In 1200 B.C., the Zoroastrians fled Iran with the fall of the Persian Empire, carrying with them the symbolic fire of the faith. When they arrived at Surat, Gujarat, the Zoroastrians sought refuge from the ruling king. Reluctantly, the ruler of the Indian kingdom brought forth a glass of milk, filled to the brim, demonstrating how the kingdom itself was full, overextended, and threatening to spill over the edges. The Zoroastrian high priest called for a spoonful of sugar and cautiously mixed it into the glass without spilling a drop.

Today, that symbolic gesture illustrates how the Zoroastrian community has dissolved in India, creating a homogenous Indian society. India’s reception of migrants has been offered seemingly unconditionally from receiving the Zoroastrians to taking in Tibetans in Dharamsala in 1959. More recently, however, Bangladeshi immigration has created problems that threaten this tradition of hospitality and India’s status as an accepting, diverse democracy.

The Consequences of Illegal Immigration

Bangladesh, which split from the Indian state in 1947, has long struggled to establish its strength as a nation. Numerous troubles have plagued the country ranging from cyclones and soil erosion to political mishandling of these crises. Religious persecution of Hindus since the time of the Mughal Empire has also led to swathes of the population fleeing across the border. In 2008, for example, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported several instances of land grabbing in the country, where the police of Paikgachha were asked to give up their land for no lawful reason. Given these problems, an estimated 15 million Bangladeshis have crossed the border into India to settle in West Bengal, Delhi, and Assam.

Illegal immigration has created a number of social, economic, and political consequences for both the Indian and Bangladeshi governments. Dr. Ranabir Samaddar, Director of the Calcutta Research Group, noted in his book, The Marginal Nation, that the flow of migrants across the Indo-Bangladeshi border has been the norm for generations, allowing an exchange of cultures, ideas, and faiths. However, this very porous border and illegal immigration have recently led to concerns about Indian security and safety.

Some argue that the influx of illegal immigrants over the border has led to a spurt in homegrown terrorist organizations. According to the South Asian Institute, Assam has seen the birth of nine Muslim militant groups pledging allegiance to Harkat ul Mujaheedin and Lashkar-e-Toiba, two Islamic militant groups that have gathered strength over the last decade. Lashkar-e-Toiba, in particular, claimed responsibility for the devastating November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. This problem, no doubt, is exacerbated by the easy, fluid exchange of weapons and cash across the border. Furthermore, the presence of large Bangladeshi populations in places like Assam has led to skewed elections due to increased voting along ethnic lines.

The Backlash and Proposed Solutions

Throughout history, most migrant populations have assimilated into Indian society. The Bangladeshi immigrants, however, migrating in such large numbers, have failed to fully integrate into society, choosing instead to live in condensed pockets around the country. As problems associated with migration come to light, parties have had varied reactions ranging from quiet support to strong disapproval.

While the secular Congress party labels much of the criticism of illegal immigration “Hindu chauvinism” and islamophobia, others, such as Minister L.K. Advani, have advocated for the deportation of the entire 15 million unregistered Bangladeshis. Some have suggested reinforcement of the porous border to prevent the flow of people, money, weapons, and disease. Others are encouraging negotiations between Bangladesh and India over new laws to prevent migration, rather than the simple lacunae of both nations.

Stepping Forward

Few practical proposals have addressed the situation of migrants already present in India. Indeed, the country’s long history of hospitality towards immigrants is threatened, even as India’s diversity remains representative of its democratic tradition. One wonders what kind of precedent a rejection of these Bangladeshi migrants might set internationally. The Guardian’s recent criticism of India’s new “shoot on sight” policy along borderlines is but a taste of the condemnation India might face.

It is difficult to envision an ethically correct conclusion to this issue. On the one hand, the Indian government’s strict stance is understandable and practically justifiable. However, at this critical time in India’s development, it must be wary of its role as a multi-ethnic democracy. It is undoubtedly more practical to argue that harsh measures need to be taken against the Bangladeshi migrant population. But neglecting compassion is clearly not the answer.

While India’s economy is booming, and urban and rural areas are making great developmental strides, Indian acceptance of diversity has allowed democracy to flourish in an extremely heterogeneous society. Today, the Zoroastrians have managed to flourish, adding to the economy and resources of the country instead of draining them. Perhaps, then, we should have a little more faith that the Bangladeshis, too, can sweeten the milk.

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