March 7, 2020
Bangladesh-India Border sign. Photo by Nahid Sultan/Wikimedia

India’s attempts to make Bangladeshis leave its territory has been mired in controversies for long

INDIA IS witnessing a series of protests and controversies related to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

CAA provides citizenship to those Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who came to India fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before December 31, 2014. NRC’s primary goal is to create a register of citizens to identify “illegal immigrants”. 

On January 19, 2020, police and Bengaluru’s civic body, BBMP, demolished more than 100 sheds in south Bengaluru on suspicion that illegal Bangladeshi migrants were staying there.

Many people were rendered homeless, most of them working as labourers, domestic helpers and security guards in the city.

The evicted residents, however, claimed they had valid papers to prove their Indian identity and got relief from the Karnataka High Court which ordered the state government to rehabilitate them.

“All documents submitted to the court prove that they are as legal as you and I. Those evicted came to the city from West Bengal, Assam, Karnataka, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh,” said J.R Amani from Swaraj Abhiyan. “According to estimates around 40,000 people migrated to Karnataka due to farm crisis and unemployment in their home states. They also do a major job of cleaning the city. Do you want them to suffer because police is not able to recognize a few Bangladeshis? The government should ensure better border security than hunting people like this.”

There were only 4,420 people in Karnataka who identified themselves of Bangladeshi origin during the Census 2011 exercise and 15 percent of Bengaluru’s workforce is made of migrants, most of whom came from northern and north-eastern states of India.

But this is not the first time that Bengaluru Police has flouted norms in dealing with alleged ‘doubtful citizens’. 

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Deportation is not easy

In October 2019, a police team took 60 undocumented immigrants to Kolkata to be deported to Bangladesh without any trial. Among them were 22 women and nine minor girls and they worked as manual laborers or waste pickers in the city.

In October 2019, a police team took 60 undocumented immigrants to Kolkata to be deported to Bangladesh without any trial 

On the other hand, Bangladesh Border Guard arrested 329 people while trying to illegally enter Bangladesh from India, said a report in The Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper. The arrested claimed they fled India, fearing harassment and detention.

In past there have been reports of many immigrants being ‘pushed back’ along the Indian border by the BSF, a practice that was started in 1991 by the Congress government at the Centre.

During the Assembly election campaign of Jharkhand recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said he would throw out all the infiltrators by 2024. Bangladesh government responded that it would take people back if India can prove they are Bangladeshis.

Proving the country of origin is, however, tough task. Between 1964 and March 2019, the foreign tribunals identified 1,17,164 individuals as foreigners. Of these, only 25 per cent have been deported.

Past cases of deportation between India and Bangladesh have always been controversial, inviting international criticism.

Migration across borders 

From the time of independence, India has seen many refugee /illegal migration problem. Many people migrated to India from neighbouring countries fleeing persecution in their homes or looking for better work opportunities. Though India dealt with most migrant crisis systematically, migration from Bangladesh has always been a knotty affair.

India shares a 4,096 kilometre border with Bangladesh, which is not fenced at many places. During the 1971 war in East Pakistan, which led to the formation of Bangladesh, around 10 million people, mostly Hindus came to India due to religious persecution and discrimination. Later, however, many Muslims also crossed over in hope of better life.

In past there have been reports of many immigrants being ‘pushed back’ along the Indian border by the BSF, a practice that was started in 1992

According to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international treaty on refugee law, refugees are people who leave their country of origin to take shelter in any other country because of persecution against them on religious, ethnic, political, or other grounds.

India is not a signatory to the protocol or the 1951 Refugee Convention but it is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These international regimes make it binding on India to adopt a refugee policy that is non-discriminatory and includes everyone who has faced persecution despite their nationality, religion, gender or place of birth.

The current hunt targeting mostly Muslim Bangladeshis is reminiscent of “Operation Push Back” initiated by the Congress-led national government in 1990s. India’s Border Security Force (BSF) forcibly pushed people across the border, leaving them to find their way into Bangladesh.

The operation was part of an “action plan” against Bangladeshis which had three steps: detect, identify and deport, said this paper published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Though ‘Operation Pushback’ was implemented all over India, but most of the action took place in BJP-ruled Delhi.

In September 1992 a group of 132 persons (87 men, 23 women and 22 children) from New Seemapuri in East Delhi were deported to Bangladesh.

Their heads were shaved before being deported for easy identification if they tried to return to India and their money or meagre belongings were burnt so they could not take anything from India. Bangladesh government condemned Indian action as “unilateral, illegal, unfortunate, and against all international laws”. It refused to accept the deportees unless Indian government proved their origin. Bangladesh even accused the India of trying to get rid of its own rejected citizens or Bangla-speaking Indian Muslims.

Bangladesh govt condemned Indian action as “unilateral, illegal, unfortunate, and against all international laws

The then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu also showed his displeasure and declared that his administration will not allow the alleged illegal migrants to be pushed through the state’s borders.

The operation was criticised because of unauthorised, random picking of people and use of coercive and communal impulses. The Indian government had to suspend the action in November 1992. under growing national and international criticism.

More than 45,000 Bangladeshis were claimed to have been deported under various operations conducted by the Delhi Police in the national capital since 1991, said this paper from the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

Caught In-Between

In January 2003, BJP-led national government issued a directive to all the states to identify, locate, and throw out all undocumented immigrants. After a few weeks troops of BSF and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) tried to push back around 240 people across their respective territories.

A crisis erupted when 213 nomads, including 80 children and 65 women, were stranded in a ‘no-man’s land’ between the two countries for several days without food and adequate shelter in harsh winter. India said they were Bangladeshis and had no right to stay in its territory while Bangladesh refused to accept them. One fine morning these no-where people mysteriously disappeared leaving several questions and smudging the already-tarnished legacy of Indo-Bangla migration. 

In 2015, India and Bangladesh government signed an agreement to prevent human trafficking and fixing responsibility of the home country for safety and reintegration of victims. The issue of those crossing the border of their own will, however, remains the burning issue that has singed many.

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