While Angelina Jolie, the Special Envoy for the UN Refugee Agency, was visiting the Rohingya refugee camps in Chakmarkul and Kutupalong in Bangladesh on February 4 to take stock of the situation in the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee settlement, a group of visiting Indian journalists met some inmates of the camps, mostly children, in Teknaf, a sub-district town under Cox Bazar district. The children were doing odd jobs like selling foods to eke out a living.
As a member of the team of the Indian journalists, this writer had an opportunity to talk to these children. They approached us for selling some packets of cereal supplied by Unicef as relief material. They said that they cannot survive alone with these relief materials; they need cash to meet their daily needs. Lack of opportunity for formal education for Rohingya children is a bigger challenge here. The children are forced into the local labour market.
While the timely response to the humanitarian need of the displaced Rohingyas persecuted in Myanmar by Bangladesh is lauded by the international community, the country has faced similar displacement of its own people during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Of an erstwhile population of 70 million in Bangladesh, around 10 million people fled the country to its neighbour India during this period — many of whom returned to Bangladesh after it became an Independent country. Many refugees, however, chose to settle in India, which necessitated drawing of a deadline for acceptance as citizens in India.
The Indira-Mujib agreement was signed on March 19, 1972, between then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, determining various issues of the two countries, including 1971 as the cut off year to identify the Bangladeshi refugees to India. Migration from Bangladesh continued to India even after 1971 because of the country’s economic condition following the war and political unrest after the assassination of the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, there is no reliable data available with the government or with any other agencies of the actual number of post-1971 migrants from Bangladesh.
Burden of Infiltration
India shares a 4,096-km long international border with Bangladesh, the fifth-longest land border in the world. West Bengal with 2,217 km, shares the longest border with Bangladesh. The other States include 262 km in Assam, 856 km in Tripura, 180 km in Mizoram and 443 km in Meghalaya. West Bengal, Assam and Tripura have shared the maximum burden of infiltration from Bangladesh as the three States share cultural, linguistic and ethnic similarities.
The issue of foreign nationals assumes an unparallel proportion with interplaying of different political interests in Assam as the State is home to a number of tribal groups and unlike West Bengal and Tripura, is a non-Bengali speaking State with a higher Muslim population. The six-year long agitation in Assam against infiltration from Bangladesh culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord between the agitators, the Assam government and the Government of India in 1985 that accepted March 25, 1971, as the cut off year for determination of foreign nationals in Assam, irrespective of their religious identity.
The crux of the problem lies in the impracticality in determining and deporting a person or a group of people 47 years after their migration. The present updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam at the direction of the Supreme Court by engaging almost half of the employees of the State government has faced many controversies and complexities. How many undocumented foreign nationals will be detected after the mammoth exercise is uncertain and how the detected foreign nationals will be deported after nearly 50 years is to be seen.
The situation has become more complex with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill by the BJP-led Central government, which wants to grant citizenship to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities (and not to the Muslims) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan. The BJP, which promised to deport all foreign nationals from Assam during its 2014 campaign, now wants to keep Hindus, who constitute more than half of the migrants from Bangladesh.
The BJP’s pursuance of politics of polarisation on religious lines to maximise electoral dividends and encouragement of radical religious forces has taken a heavy toll on India’s development. In contrast to its Indian counterpart, Bangladesh under the Awami League has fought against radical Islamic forces and has succeeded in cornering these forces. After trailing its neighbour India for many decades, Bangladesh has moved ahead of India in economic growth and on social development indicators. The annual GDP growth rate of Bangladesh in 2010 was 5.57 and 7.13% in 2017.
Notwithstanding Bangladesh’s sheltering of Rohingya refugees, which took a heavy toll on the country’s exchequer, the annual growth rate is projected at 7.2% in the current fiscal year. Bangladesh is also ahead of India in the infant mortality and life expectancy at birth rates. A newborn in Bangladesh is more likely to see her fifth birthday than her Indian or Pakistani counterpart. She is also likely to live longer in Bangladesh (72.5 years) than India (68.6 years) and Pakistan (66.5 years).
Dhakeshwari Temple, a twelfth-century temple in the heart of Dhaka city, is considered an essential part of the city’s cultural heritage. The state-owned Hindu temple has been given the status of ‘National Temple of Bangladesh’.
The visiting journalists from India could see hundreds of devotees worshipping the idols at Dhakeshwari temple and nearby Kali Mandir. The festive atmosphere surrounding the Hindu temple of Lokanath Baba with a crowd of devotees is a testimony to the religious freedom enjoyed by the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. All the Hindu shrines are also heavily guarded by the security forces to prevent sabotage by radical Islamic forces.
In contrast to India’s rigid stand against sheltering Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh has responsibly acted by discharging obligation under the International Refugee Convention. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian need of Rohingya refugees, its stance against radical Islamic forces and protection of minorities will place the country at an advantage over India in international fora.
(The writer is a senior journalist from Assam)