"Probably the most important event in (Assam) during the last 25 years -- an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization -- has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims, from the districts of (Bangladesh)" You might think I am quoting a contemporary BJP leader. These are, in fact, words of C S Mullan, census commissioner under the British Raj. He made these comments in 1931. If you thought that the issue of "illegal immigrants from Bangladesh" is a recent one, then think again.
Demographic change in the erstwhile Assam province in the first half of the twentieth century was at the heart of the Muslim League's demand, in the 1940s, that the territory be given to Pakistan. So those who argue that large-scale immigration from Bangladesh is one of the biggest long-term threats to India's national security are right.
As much as the migration is driven by economic factors -- ordinary folks moving in search of a better livelihood -- it is inextricably linked with the politics of vote-banks. So we have allowed the problem to grow, by denying its existence, by underplaying its extent, by exploiting it politically and yes, by enjoying its benefits. You know that the lady who mops your floor is not quite from "Calcutta" as she claims. You know that the workers in farms as far south as Tamil Nadu are not all from "Bihar". You don't care because not only do they do the job, they are often the only ones who will. Forget Congress leaders in Assam: South Delhi housewives and rural Tamil landlords are unlikely to get too excited about taking action against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
In fact, the blunt, impractical and half-heartedly implemented measures we have used to address the problem have only worsened it. Attempts to force them to go back have created an illicit political protection racket that has undermined national security. Fencing is in progress, but it is impossible to erect an impenetrable barrier along the entire India-Bangladesh border. Over the years, many border officials and security personnel have become mixed up in organised networks smuggling everything from cough syrup to human beings. Indian and Bangladeshi border guards sometimes even exchange fire, indicating policy failure at so many levels. Amid all this, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants make their way into India each year.
We need a new approach. India should consider establishing a system of work permits to allow Bangladeshis to work in India, legally.
It is practically impossible to fight demographic pressure, not least given the geography of India's North East. It is, however, possible to ensure that the flow of immigrants does not concentrate in Assam or other states adjoining Bangladesh. The real political problem is not so much the inflow, but the accumulation of illegal immigrants in one state. If work permits are subject to state-wise quotas, then it is possible to distribute the flow across Indian states. This will allow migrant workers to work in states that need them, and prevent them from crowding in certain states.
Work permits with state-wise quotas can thus address Assam's genuine and longstanding concerns -- the state can cap the number of Bangladeshi migrants it will accept. India's national security concerns become more manageable by bringing the migration out into the open. Obviously, Bangladesh stands to benefit too, not least the immigrant who need not live a often fearful life in the twilight zone.
The time for work permits has come. You might be surprised to know that as many as 85 million Bangladeshis have biometric National ID Cards (NIDs) which were issued ahead of the 2008 elections. These cards are now required for opening bank accounts, applying for passports and accessing public services. Indian work permits could therefore be issued to valid Bangladeshi NID holders with a greater degree of confidence. There are challenges in getting the Bangladeshi authorities to co-operate, especially in terms of validating IDs, but these are not insurmountable.
That's half the solution. The other half involves the ability to positively identity an Indian citizen. This is where Aadhaar, the Indian UID, launched last month, becomes necessary. It will be a few years before most Indians have one. We do not have to wait, though, for Aadhaar to be ubiquitous throughout the country. The work permit scheme can be extended to only those states where Aadhaar implementation is complete.
We have the building blocks of what it takes to address a hundred-year-old problem. Now work permits are not the perfect solution. There will be people who will violate the quotas, there will be people who will slip into India for nefarious purposes, there will be attempts to form vote banks. Even so, it will still be a great deal better than the current situation of relentless, unmonitored, unchecked, unmanaged and irreversible flows of migrants into India.
What about the politics, you ask? There is something in the idea for either side of the political spectrum. The Congress party's fortunes in Assam will brighten once the illegal migration issue is settled. It can claim to have protected the rights of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims who no longer face the risk of harassment. The BJP, for its part, can credibly call for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants.
Work permits for Bangladeshis offers absolute gains for most political parties. Their own calculations, however, are on the basis of relative gains -- "does it benefit our party more than the other party." Both great leaders and good politicians would smell a political opportunity here. We do have some of the latter.
Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.