Author name: 
Jaideep Saikia, Terrorism and Conflict Analyst and author/editor of several books. He has served the Govt. of India as an Expert on North East India in the National Security Council Secretariat and the Govt. of Assam in security advisory capacities.
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National security in the context of the North East cannot confine itself to only the myriad insurgencies that dot its variegated landscape. It must take into account the strategic encirclement that the region is heir to. Surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal (the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom is placed a little afield, near the Siliguri corridor). 88 percent of the North East’s boundaries are international, with only 12 percent connecting it to mainland India. The borders in the North East must, therefore, lend itself to robust management. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and the porosity of the borders has been a source of considerable concern for the region, subverting thereby the national security of India, of which the North East is an inalienable part of.

 

While drugs, arms and insurgents enter the North East via the land border from across Myanmar, the border with Bangladesh—in addition to the above three aspects—also provides the route for illegal ingress of immigrants into India. The demographic invasion has critically altered the population patterns of Tripura and Assam in a manner that cannot be corrected. Despite the fact that the infamous Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) or IM(DT) Act was scrapped by the Supreme Court of India, there is little or no let-up in the influx of illegal migrants into Assam and other parts of the North East from the erstwhile East Pakistan. Even the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which had been started, was halted because of a “law and order” problem that reportedly gripped the illegal Bangladeshi migrant majority in the lower Assam district of Barpeta.

 

The new government in Assam is now trying to bring about a consensus among various groups of the state on the issue of the NRC. All right-thinking groups in Assam have demanded that the new government should complete the process of updating the citizenship document within a specific time-frame. It may be noted that in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister of India on 5 May 2005, a decision was taken to complete the NRC update within two years. But that has not been the case, and it is almost certain that the rolls in the last elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly had names of voters who are clearly of Bangladeshi origin without having adopted Indian citizenship by way of due process. The riots in Barpeta that led to the stoppage of the NRC update could have been intended to ascertain this aspect. Indeed, this is the population which will decide the future of Assam and India. It is a sad chapter in India’s history that a problem that has been loud-hailed for so long continues to fester, and more often than not with active support from vested interests, including those who are charged with the duty of safeguarding India’s national security.

 

The first warning about the danger came during the colonial period when Bengali Muslim migrants from East Bengal began to settle in four districts of Assam “clearing forests, cultivating waste lands and multiplying.” A British Census Commissioner, C. S. Mullan in 1931 had foretold, “without fuss, without tumult, without undue trouble to the district revenue staff, a population which amounts to about half a million has transplanted itself from Bengal into the Assam valley during the last twenty-five years...it is sad but by no means improbable that in another thirty years Sibsagar district will be the only part of Assam in which an Assamese will find himself at home.” A former governor of Assam, Lt. Gen. (Retd) S. K. Sinha, in a report to the President of India on the illegal migration into Assam, had written, “This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of lower Assam. The influx of illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made. The rapid growth of international Islamic fundamentalism may provide the driving force for this demand.”

 

Time will tell whether these prophecies will see the light of day, but what is already evident is the fact that alongside the illegal migration (which has transformed six districts of Assam into Muslim majority districts) there is a full-bodied ingress of Islamist militants from Bangladesh. With the relative heat that groups such as Neo-JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh) are facing in the country, many cadres of such groups are using the demographic jungles of lower Assam both as a safe haven and as a pull-back area after operations (alongside Pakistani terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed) in mainland India.

 

But notwithstanding the constants that beleaguer the region by way of the presence of millions of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, a majority of whose affinity continues to be informed from across the border, it is important to take stock of an important measure that was undertaken to put a stop to the infiltration. The Government of India had decided to fence the boundary between Bangladesh and the North East. To that end, a sanction was accorded to fence a stretch of 571.163 km that made up the international boundary in the Assam-Meghalaya sector. But despite the undue long passage of time, only about 250 km has been completed. It is also a well-known fact that both illegal migrants and insurgents enter the North East via West Garo Hills in Meghalaya, traversing the hilly and forested region that borders the Assam-Meghalaya border in the area to enter Assam’s Goalpara district.

 

While the district of Goalpara is now a Muslim majority district as a result of illegal migration, insurgents use the district as a launching pad for carrying out operations throughout the state. Indeed, despite the aid which Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League dispensation had rendered to India by handing over important insurgents, the fact of the matter is that active remnants of the now disbanded United Liberation Front of Asom’s (ULFA) 109 Battalion (which was located in Sherpur) and groups such as Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) are still active inside Bangladesh. It would, therefore, be in the interest of national security that the stretch that remains to be fenced is completed sooner than later. In this context, it may be worthwhile to note the war-footing on which the Indo-Pakistan border was fenced; and an appropriate comparison of the delay and hindrance in the eastern sector be made.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.