Battle of Identities at the India-Bangladesh Border
The steady influx of Bangladeshi migrants in India’s north-eastern state of Assam led to major ethnic backlash in the late 1970s. In reaction, the Indian government decided to fence its border with Bangladesh, which, ever since, has become the site of national identity politics and contestation over irregular migrants.
India and Bangladesh share a 4096.7-kilometre-long international border along the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Historically, the border resulted from the 1947 Radcliffe Award of the Bengal Boundary Commission that divided the British-ruled state of Bengal and people historically connected by customs, kinship and trade, into the sovereign states of India and East Pakistan. Subsequently, the Assam Accord of 1985, which accommodated the claims of the sub-national Assam Movement to keep out irregular migrants, prompted the construction of a fence by India along the India-Bangladesh border.
A CONTESTED HISTORY
Raised on the edifice of multi-scalar politics of control centring on the issue of curbing irregular migration from Bangladesh to Assam, the fence now covers more than 3,000 kilometres running through agricultural lands, hills and forests. For about 1,000 kilometres however, the border meanders along stretches of shifting river courses, rendering fencing impossible. The border fence, at times electrified, at times consisting of parallel barbed-wire fences, has transformed the Bengal borderland into a high-security surveillance zone. It is punctuated by countless border outposts and watchtowers, patrolled 24 hours a day by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), and sustained by a host of intelligence agents.
The border fence stands 150 yards inside Indian territory, often on agricultural fields of farmers who need to identify themselves daily at the border gates to go to work. A high volume of informal trade, mostly cattle and goods of everyday use, takes place across the India-Bangladesh land border, frequently with the tacit consent of anti-smuggling enforcement agencies. Playing an endless cat-and-mouse game, the Indian BSF border guards run behind “infiltrators” or “smugglers”, and sometimes even goats and hens that stray from one rural landholding in Bangladesh to the adjoining one in India. Instances of major violence and shootings by BSF guards of “infiltrators” have caused popular uproar. Migrants, traders, smugglers and locals visiting family or friends nevertheless subvert the border on a daily basis with the support of borderland people on both sides.
GOVERNMENTALITY OF MIGRATION
A combination of political and economic factors, including local insurrections, religious persecution, social insecurity, governmental apathy and environmental issues, sustains the steady flow of irregular migrants from Bangladesh. Though no exact figures are available, Indian government sources estimate the number of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” in India at 15 to 20 million. The migrants often work in brick kilns, the construction industry, factories and private households in urban centres like Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru. The Indian narrative of infiltration remains silent on the employment of unauthorised Bangladeshi immigrants by Indian citizens. The Bangladesh government, for its part, has remained in denial of the flow of its citizens to India, limiting itself to stripping the migrants of their Bangladeshi citizenship and ignoring their existence.
FENCING FOR VOTES
The discourse on irregular migration from Bangladesh has markedly evolved from the time of the Assam Accord in 1985, when it was mostly a local issue framed in sub-nationalist terms, to a national issue mobilised for political and electoral purposes. The Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently forming the national government in India, has played a crucial role in raising “unchecked illegal infiltration” in northeastern India as a national issue. The BJP’s Election Manifesto for 2014 addressed the issue of “illegal immigration across the eastern border” under the theme “Secure Indians – Zero Tolerance on Terrorism, Extremism and Crime”. In the operational understanding of Indian law enforcement agencies, the “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh are largely coterminous with “Bengali-speaking Muslims”, identified as India’s “others” and “aliens” on the basis of their language, behaviour and dress.
Such production of ethno-religious boundaries has rendered vulnerable all Bengali-speaking Muslims, both Indians from West Bengal and Bangladeshis. The Citizenship Act of 1955, amended in 2003, grants citizenship to every person born in India on or after 3 December 2004 “if both of his parents are citizens of India” or one of his parents “is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his birth”. The new Citizenship (Amendment) Bill brought in by the BJP government in 2016 plans to make Indian citizenship accessible to non-Muslim “illegal migrants” from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, while withholding it from Muslim “illegal migrants”. The Assamese have, however, protested against the bill on the ground that it would make Assam a “dumping ground of Hindu Bangladeshis”.
The border has been further politicised with the update of the National Population Register (NPR) in Assam, seeking to detect and remove “foreigners” from the state’s electoral rolls if they fail to prove that they came to Assam before the midnight of 24 March 1971.The India-Bangladesh border fence stands as a site of identifying India’s “unwanted” and “others”, while stemming the flow of irregular migrants This process may disqualify from citizenship over 4 million people living in Assam, which has led to a huge outcry in the country. With the BJP leading the state government in Assam, concern has further been growing that the Assamese contention with Bengali-speaking “foreigners” might be reframed through the Hindu-Muslim lens.
The India-Bangladesh border fence stands as a site of identifying India’s “unwanted” and “others”, while stemming the flow of irregular migrants. It is nurtured by electoral politics centring on Indian identity, with the government promoting narratives of national purity while agitating the spectre of terrorism and regional dissent. It stands as a symbol of fear, separation and domination, dangerously orienting the discourse on Indian citizenship in a direction which may prove highly detrimental and hard to undo for future generations.
Fact Sheet: The India-Bangladesh Border
Price: not known.
Size: the fence covers 3,200 kilometres of the 4,096.7-kilometre-long border.
Origin: the fence finds its origin in the Assam Accord of 1985 signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the sub-national Assam Movement. The accord accommodated the claims of the Assam Movement to keep out irregular migrants. The construction of the fence started in 1993.