The Bangladeshi ‘Menace’ and Questions of Migration

Bangladeshis are coming and taking away our jobs is an old rhetoric. History informs us that people unlike trees migrate. They move from one place to the other. Reasons for migrating can be different, for some it is better livelihood opportunities, for others socio-political freedom. In South Asian continent, like most of the modern day world, nation – state boundaries, passports and visas are just seven decades old. Partitions of the sub-continent polarized identities and hindered migration, but people continue to cross borders. Most without passport and visas. Age old treaties with Nepal and Bhutan- ensure that either passport or visas are not required for citizens of India and Nepal, Bhutan to visit each others’ countries. Sri Lanka has a provision of visa on arrival for most countries. India may replicate the same measure for Sri Lankans as announced by Narendra Modi during his visit to the island. Migration from Pakistan is all time low, except in rare circumstances. Hindus- one of the most persecuted minorities in the neighborhood are crossing borders, at times with visa or without. They stay back as they fear for life.

Question here is about migration from Republic of Bangladesh. India had age old welcoming attitude for Bangladeshi Hindu migrants, but despises those with skull caps and beard.  That hasn’t stopped the migration. People cross borders for better economic opportunities. All of us know that there are Bangladeshis in India. As national laws in India and Bangladesh are silent about it, we call them illegal. Most Bangladeshi migrants lack identity proof and are either ‘illiterate’ or ‘semi-literate’. For the same reason, they are not absorbed in formal workforce. The illegality of their identity pushes them in informal economy. They live in informal settlements with little to no amenities, suffer from malnourishment and remain absorbed in vicious cycle of poverty. Recent project brief ‘Social, Economic and Health Vulnerabilities of Cross-Border Male Migrants in South Asia- Findings of Bangladeshi, India and Nepal’ published by Population Council, CREHPA and UK AID highlights the same. Their sample size was fairly small- 504 Bangladeshi male migrants and 500 Nepali male migrants. According to the brief, migrants from Nepal are slightly better off. In its conclusion the brief points out ‘Bangladeshi migrants appear to be more vulnerable compared to Nepalese migrants’.

As has been cited in the post earlier, migrants from Bangladeshi are absorbed in informal economy work force. In informal economy they provide valuable services like wastepicking from streets and dump-yards, construction work, domestic work amongst many. The empirical evidence of their proportion in informal economy vocations is yet to be formulated. Indian academicians shy away from conducting research on these matters, thanks to the political rhetoric of the day. There are few researchers from European universities who are trying to undertake the arduous task. Most of the professions mentioned are not something the suited booted class of ‘anti-Bangladeshi’ rhetoricians would like to take up. Instinctively I can say that Bangladeshis don’t steal the jobs, they fill the vacuum in labor markets, sometimes at lower wage than the others.

The nature of migration in Urban India is masculine has been pointed out by Chinmay Tumbe, Assistant Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences- Hyderabad, in a session on ‘Historical and Emerging Pattern of Urbanization in India’ as a part of ‘International Conference on Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Development in India’, organized by Institute of Human Development in collaboration with National Institute for Transformation of India (NITI) Aayog and University of Florida. There are going to be gender dimensions of competition in labor markets considering the masculine nature of migration. During my own research in Ahmedabad, I found Gujarati women wastepickers complaining about ‘Bangladeshi men taking away the waste. They are able to do so because they are men.’ Hearsay from Bangalore points out the opposite. Few ‘Bangla-speaking’ (as their national identity has not been established) wastepickers were detained by police. One of the Kannadiga women wastepicker opposed their detention on the basis of class and vocational solidarities.

The additional aspect, which has not been touched in the post, is the fear of hounding faced by Bangla speaking Muslims. They are easily termed as ‘anti –India’, thanks to their un-established and divided Bangla identity. I’m consciously taking a decision to avoid writing about it here, as the orientation of this piece is different and remarks on that issue may make it go haywire.

Half a million Indians live in Bangladesh and account for $3.7 million remittances. Number is double when it comes to remittances from India to Bangladesh. Contribution in local economies is yet to be calculated. Migration –formal and informal are fueling economic growth in both countries. Considering that the migration from Bangladesh will not fade away. It will be better if humane way is institutionalized. On humanitarian grounds and for economic development, governments in both countries have to devise a way which is conducive for movement of labor across borders. Bangladesh Government floated an idea of work permit during the visit of Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister. Details are not out and so far no progress has been made. India also needs a comprehensive refugee citizenship policy which is not hijacked by ideological propaganda. Last day, an announcement has been made in that regard. The current framing of amendments in the citizenship law limits the possibility of citizenship to ‘Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians’ fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The proposed amendments fail to recognize that there Ahmaddiyyas (both in Bangladesh and Pakistan), Shias, Hazaras all face severe restrictions and are condemned to death. It’s a different topic. Still it is necessary to mention here and extrapolate it to the fact that the with ever increasing inequality and inequity, violations on economic grounds in all South Asian countries is far more in numbers than the religious ones, the refugee citizenship policies have to account for that also.

Allotment of work permits for migrant workers by both governments without passport and visa process has a potential of opening new avenues. Lesser stringent norms and low pricing will reduce the harassment faced during ‘illegal’ crossing of the borders. It will also recognize the workforce from neighborhood. De-criminalization of Bangladeshi ‘menace’ will be possible. Provision of basic amenities in India is attached to the identity proofs. Special work permits can provide for it. It is a very touchy topic. Political class will take a lot of time to accept it. Compared to past governments, current government is better off. It has numbers in Lok Sabha and support of ultra nationalists. It can move in the direction of humanitarian solution to ‘Bangladeshi problem’.


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