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By India?s unilateralism in dealing with illegal immigration shows a misunderstanding about its power and influence, says Sanjib Baruah The author is visiting professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
  • Published 8.06.05

India is hardly alone in facing the problem of large-scale illegal immigration from a neighbouring country. But unlike some other countries, it is yet to realize the value of cooperation with the source country. India has mostly stuck to a unilateral course of action. Yet bilateral cooperation has produced good results in other parts of the world.

The US-Mexico dialogue on illegal immigration to the United States of America is a case in point. Under the leadership of its president, Vicente Fox, Mexico has successfully pushed for a say in US immigration policy. It has asserted its moral right in the well-being of Mexican immigrants in the US, irrespective of their legal status. Measures taken by the US on illegal immigrants are part of Mexican political debates ? not unlike debates generated in Bangladesh by the Indian treatment of their compatriots. It is partly in response to Mexican pressures that George W. Bush has proposed a Temporary Workers Program that will give amnesty to a large number of illegal immigrants.

India?s way of dealing with the problem has been mostly unilateral. Thus when reports appeared of an exodus of suspected Bangladeshis from Assam for fear of vigilante action, following a local youth group?s call for an economic boycott, Bangladesh promptly threatened to seek the intervention of the United Nations Human Commission for Refugees.

One can hardly blame them. In Operation Pushback in the Nineties, suspected Bangladeshi illegal immigrants were rounded up and deported even though Ban- gladesh had not agreed that the people were Bangladeshi citizens. They were simply left in the no-man?s-land between the two countries with the Border Security Force pointing guns at them from one side and the Bangladesh Rifles doing so from the other.

There are important differences between the US situation and India?s. Very few of India?s poorer countrymen carry identity papers. Many of them move around in search of livelihood. It would be dangerous to go by looks and decide that a new group of people in town are Bangladeshis. Giving policemen the right to ask for identity papers is a sure way of bringing harassment to them. On the other hand, a highly compromised system of obtaining official documentation effectively puts on fast-track the process of an illegal immigrant becoming a citizen with voting rights. This has few parallels in the world.

Most suspected Bangladeshis fleeing from the Dibrugarh area of Assam, according to reports, were workers in the construction industry ? working at brick kilns and building sites ? and rickshaw-pullers. From random conversations with people in these occupations in Assam it appears that a significant number are seasonal migrants. They come in increasing numbers from other parts of India as well as from Bangladesh in response to the massive labour demand in north-east India?s booming construction industry. The Assamese discourse on illegal Bangladeshi immigration assumes that all illegal migrants, as before, are potential settlers and citizens, but the reality may be quite different. There is now a transnational grid of seasonal movement by the labouring poor in south Asia and Bangladeshis are certainly a part of it.

However, to save themselves from harassment, seasonal migrants from Bangladesh have to seek the protection of powerful political patrons and they try to get some form of official documentation as proof of citizenship. Were legal status in India as temporary workers ? like the ones applicable to Mexicans in the US ? available to them, one wonders if they would have had an interest in claiming citizenship. Indeed, a transnational legal regime for temporary workers ? something that can be established only with Bangladesh?s cooperation ? might significantly reduce the demand for political patrons and the market for false documents to prove citizenship. Making such a status available could also reduce the anxiety of many Assamese and other north-easterners about the impact of illegal immigration on the state?s future demographic and political balance.

Of course, there is much that can be done about illegal immigration that does not depend on cooperation with Bangladesh. India?s laws, for instance, could target and penalize the contractor, the brick-kiln owner, the house-builder or the land-owner who prefers employing illegal immigrants because they are cheaper and less likely to assert their rights. Historically, the incapacity of the Assam government to protect public lands from encroachments ? be it forests or the flood plains of the Brahmaputra -? has been a major factor in attracting immigrants to Assam.

Apart from the political trouble this has caused, the state?s cavalier attitude to its responsibilities as custodian of public lands has significantly worsened the region?s environment and quality of life. The incapacity to hold on to public lands has also created the political space for vigilantism. In western Assam, for instance, the fact that many ?Bangladeshi? victims of Bodo violence were settled in lands that are legally-speaking reserved forests, has made it impossible to resettle them after the violence ended. This has also created a dangerous example in the region of the effectiveness of vigilante action to deal with the illegal encroachment on public lands by ?Bangladeshis?.

India?s reliance on unilateralism in dealing with illegal immigration may reflect a misunderstanding about power and influence in the world of international relations today. The political scientist, Joseph Nye, uses the metaphor of a three-dimensional chess game to describe the contemporary world. There is the traditional level of hard military power, the second level of economic power and influence, and a third level where Nye places migration along with currency flows, the media, the internet and transnational movements of various kinds. Countries that wield power at one level may be quite ineffective at another.

Thus, while the US may be the only superpower in terms of hard military power, it does not have the same status at the second level, where soft power counts for a lot. And at the third level, where non-state actors have more influence, the most powerful of state actors can be quite powerless. Nye is critical of those in charge of shaping US foreign policy today for playing only at the first level and assuming that military firepower alone can win victories without engaging the world at the other two levels. India?s unilateralism on illegal immigration may reflect a similar misunderstanding about its relative power vis-?-vis its neighbours.