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Dhaka’s Migration Mantra

20 years later, Dhaka’s Migration Mantra advocate changes stand.

For over 22 years, Sadeq Khan, veteran Bangladeshi columnist and editor, has been demonized and vilified in the Assam media, both English language and vernacular. He is regarded as the person who used the highly sensitive and graphic phrase ‘Lebensraum’ in an article dated Feb. 18, 1991, to reflect Dhaka’s view of the North-east and the misplaced belief that Bangladeshis had a right to migrate there in search of living space. He was articulating his viewpoint and perhaps that of a number of people who shared it.

The view to migrate, though not specifically in the words that Mr. Khan so unfortunately used, was also articulated by the late ZA Bhutto and then by Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh (though I have found no mention of it so far in Mujib’s just published English language translation of his autobiography, Unfinished Diary, which I am still reading, though there are critical references of Maulana Bhashani of Mymensingh who led peasants movements in Dhubri in the pre-independence movement and was rabidly anti-Congress and pro-Muslim league before he broke away to form his own party).

So for decades, literally, Sadiq Khan has been published, republished, interpreted and columnized as well as pilloried extensively in the North-east especially in Assam as well as metro media. He is a respected columnist and leftist writer in Bangladesh, once regarded as close to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Khaleda Zia.

Sadeq Khan was never a diplomat though he has been called one in the Indian media.Other writers and journalists of repute have been nominated to plum jobs abroad ofBangladesh and within. But not him. These are usually rewards for support to the leadingparty of the day – meaning the leader of either leading party, Zia’s BNP or the Awami League of her successor and bête noir, Sheik Hasina, daughter of the Bangabandhu. He is a former Chairman of the Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB) and writes columns for a Bangla paper apart from his weekly writing for Holiday.

During a recent visit to Dhaka, where a discussion on the Himalayan river basins of Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna/Barak systems were discussed and reviewed by specialists and non-specialists (like me) at the Bangladesh International Institute for Strategic Studies (BIISS), a Government quasi military-quasi Foreign Office ‘think tank’, an elderly, bespectacled and portly gentleman, with thinning hair and a rather avuncular, grandfatherly appearance, got up to ask questions.

Indeed, as soon as Sadeq Khan introduced himself, I knew that I just had to talk to him. After all, it is always fascinating to know how the ‘other side’ feels about its portrayal. It was also interesting that of all the speakers (barring myself), Mr. Khan referred to Assam though in passing and with regard to the floods that Bangladesh suffers and benefits from every year — especially with regard to the four flood surges that his country faced annually, similar to that in Assam and West Bengal.

We chatted during the tea break and he invited me over to his home the next evening for a drink. He appeared very keen to talk and discuss issues. When I got there, the neighbourhood was suffering from a power cut and a feeble light was on. But he had laid out wonderful kebabs and snacks fortified by whisky. He talked about his age — 80+ and very robust for his age — he had quaffed four stiff whiskies by the time I reached for a second, and all straight shots, no dilution with water — spending half of his time in Dhaka and the rest in the West where his wife lives. I mentioned to him that he happened to be among the few Bangladeshis who were very extensively known in the NE, especially for the 1991 one which is cited as a mantra on the Bangladeshi justification of illegal migration.

‘Ah, but my views have changed, he remarked, smiling, to my surprise. ‘I now believe that Bangladesh should reclaim the land from the Bay of Bengal that the rivers wash down through our land and build space for populations to settle upon’ instead of moving away. This was a completely new perspective and he said he was disappointed that successive Bangladeshi governments had not done anything about it.

Apart from being a firm presence at the seminar circuit, Mr. Sadeq’s views are taken quite seriously in his country — barring this one on reclaiming the silt deposits in the Bay of Bengal. But even his reclaiming silt idea could have takers as the pressures of global warming and sea level rise begin to be felt in water-logged and land-locked Bangladesh.

He is often a guest on popular television chat shows (there are dozens of Bangla channels which seem to be doing quite well) and inaugurates events and programmes quite energetically across the country. In one earlier this year, he chaired a meeting addressed by BNP Chairperson Khaleda where she apologized to the people of Bangladesh for the mistakes of her past government, positioning itself for the nationwide polls expected sometime in 2014.

Holiday, for which he writes every week, is left of Centre, has been seen as pro-BNP and has a small circulation. Its editor also dropped by, to chat and listen. They were interested in national and regional issues, including the recent violence in Assam, its causes and the concerns that it drew particularly after the exodus of North-eastern groups from Bangalore and elsewhere. This they could not comprehend. As we talked, we both realized how little we knew about each other’s countries, peoples and issues and how, in a country of the size of Bangladesh (170 million or home to four times the population of the entire NER) our concern about illegal migration does not have much of an impact or resonance.

But I have been taking efforts at public fora in Bangladesh, through the media friends and visits over the years to register this concern. It is studied by Bangladeshi scholars as a serious problem these days, not dismissed out of hand as in the past. Senior officials who I met also and especially those who have retired recognize it as a significant concern.

But this is a low priority for Dhaka: Bangladesh is far more dominated and concerned by India’s failure to persuade Ms. Mamata Banerjee to share the waters of the Teesta. This view is shared by senior editors, academics, policy makers and those in think tanks: water is the principal issue for the country as without adequate water, crops, livelihoods, food and survival.

“Just as India is concerned about migration and related issues, Bangladesh is more worried about getting adequate water for its population,” says the editor of a major newspaper. He and other senior figures are concerned that this sentiment –the blame India feeling for our problems — could harden into an anti-Awami League process in the next general elections. But although as in India and even Assam, most Bangla eyes are on 2014, Dhaka knows as does New Delhi that the window of opportunity is shrinking fast for India’s goodwill and capacity to deliver.

Only then will other issues come on the table for discussion: the last time illegal migration figured in bilateral talks was way back in 1992 and it is too sensitive an issue for Dhaka to accept to have on an official agenda. It would push the current government further on the backfoot.

Bangladesh too questions the high figures shown by various political parties for the illegal migration. Their rationale is somewhat different: their Human Development Indices on a range of counts are better than many parts of India, including the North-east. Indeed, with improved MMR levels (194 compared to 392 for Assam) as well as gender parity, representation of women at the national and other levels, improved child mortality. So, the argument is, why would people leave, to go to a poorer, more challenging place with greater problems plus the reality and record of hostility to outsiders? But the devil lies in the details, doesn’t it? There is a huge unemployment bulge between the ages of 15-24 years: approximately 18.6% of the population or 23.4 percent of the labour force. People go long distances for jobs and survival.

Whether they come to the Bodo areas or not is not really the issue, although many media pundits and politicians are making it appear that they are going to an area which has the lowest growth rate of anywhere in Assam or the country. Let me put it simply: whatever extensive migration exists is largely a labour flow.

Take another statistic: the Arjun Sengupta Commission on Unemployment in the unorganized Sector placed the number of workers needed to fulfil the Government of India’s ambitious infrastructure plans for the NER (dams, roads, bridges etc) at 23 lakh.

How many labourers exist in the NER work force? Three lakh. Even if you doubled that figure, there would be a huge gap to fill. Where would those numbers come from the neighbouring states, Bihar etc and also quite likely from Bangladesh and Nepal. That is why the revision of the NRC is crucial and the provision of ID cards to all citizens followed by Work Permits for those who come to work and live, not settle.

The issue of land is crucial to the future of Assam especially of Bodoland. The key questions relate to alienation of land and illegal occupation, not by one group but by a number of ethnic and linguistic groups. Selective, half hearted measures targeting one side or another can’t work. Revenue regulations need to be implemented for it is in their non-implementation that both political groups and revenue staff have benefited and provided land illegally to those whose votes are crucial – from all groups.

Meghalaya has apparently managed a work permit scheme reasonably well, albeit for Indian nationals. Why can’t other states of the NE learn from their neighbour?


By Sanjoy Hazarika


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