A CRY IN THE WILDERNESS - Poor Bangladeshi entrants are rather different from extremists

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By Cutting Corners / Ashok Mitra
  • Published 29.04.05

The pattern is getting stylized. Every few months, state chief ministers are called in in New Delhi to discuss national security, the prime minister and the home minister make set speeches, concern is expressed over infiltration across the country?s borders, Naxalite violence too forms a part of the agenda, there is reiteration of the resolve to put down with a firm hand both the disturbers of peace at home and the saboteurs trying to get in from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh. The sessions invariably end with the decision to further strengthen the security arrangements, which means greater allocation of funds for the army and paramilitary forces as well as for the police.

Reality however shows little regard for this stylized pattern. Take, for instance, the issue of infiltration from Bangladesh. The apprehension expressed by this or that chief minister and of the police and security personnel may be genuine, but there are still weighty factors crying out for cognizance. Such data have a historical context as well. It is standard practice to forget history; it is often also convenient to pretend forgetfulness toward history. What needs to be said has to be said though. Fifty-eight years ago, at the time the leaders of the Congress agreed to partition the country on the basis of religion, they made a pledge to the Hindus and other minorities left stranded in Pakistan. These hapless ones were urged not to panic, not to grieve; if at any time they discovered that they were unable to live in Pakistan with dignity and without fear, they should come over to India where they would always be received with welcoming arms. The leaders offering this assurance did not set any time frame. It was a carte blanche.

The Congress, one would have thought, is a continuum, and so too the government at the Centre manned by that party. The pledge made by Jawaharlal Nehru and his government should hold till this day. Unfortunately, it is otherwise. There have been any number of reports during the past few years of non-Muslim Bangladeshis being picked up in the different parts of the country, including Orissa and West Bengal, for unauthorized residence in India; several of them have been either imprisoned or pushed back across the border. Their plea for being granted Indian citizenship has been rudely turned down. Leading the clamour for resisting infiltration of Bangladeshis into India is the Bharatiya Janata Party; the leader from whose memory they draw inspiration, Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, was, however, one of those who, along with the Congress leadership, had signed the pledge referred to. With the revival of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh, some minority groups there are under pressure. If a smattering from amongst them now seek refuge in India, do the Indian authorities have the moral right to keep them out?

And it is not only a question of emigration, regular or irregular, of non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh. Much verbiage was expended six decades ago on behalf of the Congress leadership to put across a somewhat pompous claim: because of circumstances, they had to reluctantly agree to divide the country on religious basis, but India would always remain a secular nation. Does that not mean that should some Bangladeshis, who happened to bear Muslim names, want to come over to economically-better-placed India, conceivably in search of a livelihood, no particular barriers need be placed on their entry? Secularism is as secularism does. The policy indiscriminately followed by the police, specially in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi, to pick up Bengali-speaking Muslims on the ground that they must be Bangladeshis, cuts across this nation?s commitment to secularism.

True, these are delicate issues, and other considerations, we will be informed, are involved. Insurgency activities along both the West Bengal and the Tripura borders ? Indian intelligence have been keen to post the allegation ? are actually the machinations of Pakistan?s Inter-Services Intelligence hyperactive in Bangladesh. For understandable reasons, this allegation gladdened the heart of the BJP stalwart who was the country?s home minister in the National Democratic Alliance regime. That regime has ceased to be for nearly a year now. One or two chief ministers have however continued to subscribe to the ISI bogey; the fact that their political affiliation is far distant from the BJP?s has not bothered them.

Infiltrators along our eastern borders were there even during the Awami League tenure in Bangladesh. The ISI could not have operated in that country without the tacit or overt connivance of the Bangladesh government; that an Awami League regime, with its known pro-India stance, would have tolerated any Pakistan intelligence presence within its territory strains logic. It would be an altogether different proposition if the infiltrators were organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, with its record of little or no respect for other people?s sovereignty, and local authorities in Bangladesh too would feel so helpless as not to dare to protest. The hypothesis is at least worth considering: given the penetration of 9/11 ideology in our establishment circles, Indian intelligence networks would rather blame the ISI than the CIA, conceivably the real perpetrators of the series of recent border mischiefs.

It will, in any event, hardly do not to recognize the diverse facets of the problem. The role of phantom groups wishing to destabilize the political equilibrium in some of our border states has to be distinguished from the issue of how to treat poor Bangladeshi citizens ? of all religious denominations ? who seek entry into India for diverse economic and social reasons. The suggestion that the bulk of these latter groups are agents of hostile foreign powers borders on the ridiculous; it also detracts from India?s claim to be a haven of democratic and civil liberties. Most Bangladeshis picked up now and then from different parts of India belong to the category of immiserized human species. They are often victims of situations created along the country?s borders by war and Partition. Some of them are at the receiving end of economic ruination brought about by social and political upheavals or quixotic administrative decisions, such as, a family?s household is in Bangladesh while its traditional source of livelihood is in West Bengal. Describing people of such backgrounds as foreign spies is part of a habit that is the direct outcome of the indoctrination linked to the so-called global war against terror. Besides, the uncomfortable question will keep nagging: if a ?soft border? is all right along the country?s west, why should it not be equally tolerable along the east?

There is also the concurrent issue of assessing the credibility of assertions made by the government of a neighbouring country. Despite sustained efforts, it took the authorities in India more than two decades to put down the exploits of the sandalwood bandit, Veerappan. Over a similar period, factions of the People?s War Group have continued to operate in sizeable segments of the Indian countryside, despite determined endeavours to wipe them out. It should therefore not be per se difficult to take at face value the plea of Bangladesh authorities that it is not always possible for them to track down armed groups operating within their territories and making occasional forays into India.

A couple of additional points perhaps deserve to be inserted. Globalization is an all-embracing phenomenon. In the course of the past couple of decades, the country?s borders have become porous in more than one way; to be over-sensitive in the matter will be of little avail and may actually be instrumental in blotting the country?s record on civil liberties. Yet another doubt cannot be easily disposed of either: if leaders of the Nepali Congress can receive sanctuary in India as they flee from royal wrath in their own country, should Nepal?s Maoists be treated any differently?

Fifty years ago, India was a young democratic republic, just extricating itself from imperial domination. Going against the commitments entered into during the freedom struggle, the authorities, jittery at growing discontent with the manner in which they were ruling the country, chose to return to the infamous Defence of India Act of the colonial days of legislating a Preventive Detention Act. The left, and a number of distinguished individuals outside the orbit of the left, such as Chakravarti Rajagopalachariar, led the protest against this scandalous encroachment on civil liberties in the name of national security. While the tribe of CRs has thinned out, should the left too make a forfeiture of their conscience?

Finally, how come the chief ministers are called together to discuss security, but never to discuss land reforms?