Why Savita will vote but I can’t

I am an Indian but bureaucratic procedures will not allow me to vote from my real constituency. She is a Bangladeshi but will elect a representative who will likely govern us. She is neither ‘Savita’ nor Indian but her paper-perfect Indian identity entitles her — and the 20 million illegal migrants in India — to vote.

You may have seen her, spoken to her, even hired her. They are all over the place in select ghettos across Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati — their first destination when they jump the border. The influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh is a reality — their numbers are large and growing; their networks are strong, allowing them to turn invisible; their enterprise is organised as each migrant provides a base for the next.

Their getting an Indian citizenship through a maze of corruption and manipulation, is not merely a supra-political paper issue. In real and tangible terms, they hurt Indian labour by offering lower wages and replacing them. Quite like what the Indian outsourcing industry does to workers of the developed world. With one difference: they are illegal.

In different ways and through the stories of different Savitas or Sameers, all of us know this. As do the officials who, through a mesh of bribes, are their catalysts. The local leaders as well as the local mafias — to which they provide competition — know this. The state governments (the Nano-Singur episode is one recent example) are also well informed.

And the Centre, at the highest level, too. “He has no business to work here unless he has a work permit,” home minister P Chidambaram told a TV channel in a January 11 interview. “He is a Bangladeshi. I think we issue  very large number of visas to Bangladeshis every month. There is no reason to issue so many visas. And there is very ineffective monitoring system (to check) whether the guy has gone back to Bangladesh or remained here.”

In the earlier NDA administration, George Fernades, speaking as defence minister in September 2003 had said: “My discussions with the Eastern Army Commander this week revealed that there are about 20 million Bangladeshi migrants in India, which are altering the demographic character of the north-eastern states.”

Whichever government takes charge after elections and whoever becomes home minister, defence minister and foreign minister, will have one more tool to fight this menace at the diplomatic and policy level: Kamal Sadiq’s fascinating first insights into the subject.

In Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries, Sadiq convincingly and compellingly argues that it is not just developed countries like the US, Canada, UK, Germany or France that face an influx of illegal immigrants. Developing countries like India (from Bangladesh), Pakistan (from Afghanistan) and Malaysia (from Philippines) too are major destinations for illegal immigrants.

Paper Citizens is fresh in its approach. It’s original. It’s insightful. And it’s somewhat scary. Apart from being one of the best new books I’ve read this year, this book is important for immediate perspective on two important intersections India stands at today — elections and the voting power of illegal citizens from Bangladesh; and Afghans who have illegally settled down in Pakistan and the resultant implications on India’s security.

While ‘illegal immigrants’ can’t be classified as they do not exist as statistics to be captured by the census or any demographic data collector, Sadiq weaves in published trends to illustrate the phenomenon. Between 1952 and 2001 (the latest data), the number of Muslim legislators in the Assam Legislative Assembly rose from 15 to 24, the Muslim share of legislators rose from 14 per cent to 20 per cent and the percentage of Muslim population rose from 22.6 per cent to 30.9 per cent.

Around this data, Sadiq weaves in his observations into the party politics happening there — the AGP having to dilute its strong anti-immigrant stance by entering into alliances with other pro-Muslim, pro-immigrant parties like CPI and CPI-M and thereby losing its charm with Asamiya middle class and the elite, for instance.

“The Hindu nationalist BJP’s increasing popularity in Assam has to be understood in the context of the political and electoral impact of illegal immigration,” writes Sadiq. “Initially, the Assamese Hindus were wary of the BJP because, unlike the AGP, which was opposed to all immigrants from Bangladesh (irrespective of their religion), the BJP’s Hindu nationalist view distinguished between Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, who were seen as refugees, and the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, who were seen as ‘infiltrators’.”

Wondering whether the BJP can replace AGP as the main anti-immigrant party in Assam, Sadiq further points out that “Document-wielding illegal immigrants make for an active and loyal electorate, which incites both nativism and party politics. For pro-illegal immigrant groups in India, electoral participation is enhanced through documentary citizenship, while those opposed to illegal immigrants decry the devaluation of a secure citizenship.”

It was as late as November 10, 2008, an empowered group of ministers approved the establishment of a Unique Identity Authority for all residents of the country. The UID Authority will be set up under the Planning Commission. The project was initiated by the NDA administration in 2002. Here’s what it proposes to do:

* Obviate the need for a person to produce multiple documentary proofs of his identity for availing of any government service, or private services like opening of a bank account. This would end needless harassment that people face for availing of basic government services like issuance of passports, driving licences, Electoral Identity Cards.
* Facilitate easy verification of a person’s identity and enable a single communication to trigger address changes in all relevant agencies records.
* Serve as the basis for many e-governance services incorporating online verification of a person’s identity.
* Enable government to ensure that benefits under various welfare programmes reach the intended beneficiaries, prevent cornering of benefits by a few people and minimise frauds.
* Enable financial institutions to exchange information regarding defaulters and encourage responsible borrower behaviour.

Apart from impacting domestic politics of India, the issue of illegal immigrants impacts the country’s security. “According to the census of Afghans living in Pakistan, the majority of the Afghans covered (58 per cent) in the registration exercise were found to be living outside camps, mingling and silently being absorbed into Pakistani society. Only 42 per cent continued to live in camps and were identifiable as refugees, the tentative boundaries around the camp excluding them from Pakistani citizenship.

“Nearly 2.5 million, or almost 81.5 per cent, of the Afghan refugees are Pashtuns, which means that they can easily be absorbed in the larger co-ethnic Pakistani Pathan and Pashtun communities. Once the Pashtun-led Taliban government fell, the need for Pakistani identity documents among Taliban sympathisers fleeing US forces in Afghanistan increased (they became invisible within the Pashtun areas of Pakistan).”

When the US suggests that Pakistan is one of the hubs that supports terror, it might want to examine the data Sadiq presents to illustrate that it could well be illegal Afghan immigrants in Pakistan who, through their networks, support and participate in the anarchy in that country.

The problem of illegal immigrants in India, Pakistan or Malaysia may not have the same textures as the 12 million illegal immigrants in the US that Barack Obama hopes to reform. But the enormity of the problem does suggest that India, well on its way to high growth and prosperity, has become an aspiration for immigrants from poorer countries like Bangladesh. That too is not surprising.

What is, is that a country like Pakistan that seems to be imploding can attract illegal immigrants. Why would any Afghan come to Pakistan for deliverance, when Iran would definitely be the better option? My feeling is that in this case the decision is only partially economic; the other part is a mission to destroy. Pakistan needs to wake up, though who precisely (state, non-state, middling) in this on-the-brink nation, I’m afraid I can’t point out.

What I can definitely say is that any leadership at the Centre in India and in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal must read this book right now — and begin action to prevent further influx (getting rid of existing paper citizens would be practically impossible, but the tide can be stemmed). Global powers looking at Obama’s Af-Pak policy would do well to go through the relevant chapters.

As for the rest, if you are really curious about knowing what makes Savita, who makes great fish, tick, and have the inclination to go deeper in search of an argument that stands on data and its analysis, Paper Citizens would take you to the frontlines of this issue.

Me — I have one forecast and one learning. The forecast: this book is going to grab intellectual and policy attention through the next two years, across the world. The learning: maybe, I should ask Savita to help me get my vote transferred from Gurgaon to New Delhi.

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