The newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, has vowed to seal the border with Bangladesh in two years. This is a reiteration of the promise made by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who had said it would be done by the end of this year.

The repeated BJP rhetoric about a supposedly porous border has turned it into a fact – at least in public perception. The now successful state Assembly campaign was built on Indian nationalism and repelling external threats. With 221.56-km of the 263-km border already fenced with barbed wire, as per Assamese border policy, the feeling that Sonowal is merely posturing may be misplaced.

Historical background

When the ill-conceived British partition of Bengal was aborted and Assam was made into a separate province in 1911, its population drew largely from the Bengali political tradition of art and culture as forms of protest against the colonialists. A strong indigenous call for tribal autonomy was added to the decision-making process, but this did not harm the relationship between Assam and Bengal.

After Partition, Assam became a constituent state of India, while the district of Sylhet of Assam (excluding the Karimganj subdivision) was given up to what was then East Pakistan. The 1961 language protests in Cachar only strengthened the cultural ties between Assam and the then East Pakistan.

Border control first became an issue in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. An estimated two to five million Bangladeshi refugees fled to Assam. Repatriation efforts after the war focused on West Bengal, where there were several large and organised refugee camps.

The Assamese backlash against Bangladeshi refugees and migrants took off in 1979, when the electoral rolls showed a disproportionate rise in registered voters. The concern from the local populace, which was concentrating on tribal autonomy at the time, was that the large influx of Bengali Muslims would change the outcome of the election and divert from the state’s political demands.

The 1979-1985 Assam Agitation focused on documenting and deporting illegal immigrants. It was largely non-violent until the Nellie Massacre in 1983. Almost all of those killed were later revealed to have legally migrated to Assam after 1947, not after 1971.

Border troubles

Right-wing Bangladeshi governments have sought to take advantage of the separatist principles that have been a part of local Assamese politics since the Assam Agitation.

The most brazen of these attempts was foiled in 2004. Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies interrupted a criminal operation in the port city of Chittagong. Ten trucks loaded with an extensive cache of illegal arms and ammunitions were seized. The investigation and subsequent prosecution uncovered that the weapons were destined for the United Liberation Front of Assam. Amongst those implicated in the collusion with one of India’s most wanted men, Paresh Baruah, were leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh government officials and officers of the country’s National Security Intelligence and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. The highest-ranking officers of these two intelligence agencies of Bangladesh, along with the then home minister and BNP leader, Lutfozzaman Babar, and industries minister and head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Motiur Rahman Nizami, were convicted in 2014 for their active involvement in the plot.

Whenever Awami League has been in power in Bangladesh, it has prioritised strong relations with the Central government of India, regardless of the party in power in New Delhi, at the expense of nurturing relationships with local governments in the bordering Indian states. That the 2014 general election of Bangladesh, which Awami League won, may have panned out differently without India’s support only makes it more beholden to Delhi, and therefore less inclined to develop strong ties with bordering states.

The adverse effects of this can be seen in the ongoing Teesta-Brahmaputra water sharing dispute. The 1996 Bangladesh government, led by the Awami League, had signed a bilateral treaty with its Indian counterpart to end decades of tension over water sharing. Its comparatively poor relationship with the current state government of West Bengal has seen this old wound reopened, with local politics in India trumping national priorities and goals.

Assam’s crucial role in the renewed hostilities by virtue of the geography of the Brahmaputra River, and the Bangladeshi government’s failure to cultivate regional kinship and encourage mutually beneficial development in the neighbourhood, make Sonowal’s promise into a deeper predicament for Bangladesh.

Rise of fundamentalism

Extremist Islamic ideology has compounded the problems. It has found home along the border of Assam and its neighbouring states.

The Rajshahi Division in Bangladesh’s North-West saw fundamentalist organisations like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh thrive with government patronage during the BNP-Jamaat regime of 2001-2006. Their leaders, including Abdur Rahman, moved freely across the border. They expanded operations in India and established a network of terror along, and on both sides of, the border. Recruitment and training had been active in the Muslim-majority districts of Assam as well as in West Bengal. Much of the recent surge in Islamist violence in Bangladesh has occurred in the North-West, signalling that the same forces continue to make that part of the country a hotbed of Islamism.

The Sylhet Division in Bangladesh’s North-East owes much of its recent prosperity to this ideology, thereby seeing it flourish. The majority of the Bangladeshi population in the UK comes from Sylhet. A lack of willingness to assimilate amongst the immigrants, and the Saudi-appeasing British government’s inability to homogenise amidst rising anti-immigration and anti-immigrant sentiments have fostered Islamism in the British Bangladeshi community. A strong Islamist lobby in London and sizeable foreign remittance have created an environment conducive to the promulgation of conservative and extremist ideologies in the North-East of Bangladesh.

With the rise of the Hindu right in India, distrusting Muslims is electorally, politically and economically beneficial for state governments. The North-West and North-East regions of Bangladesh have made it easy for them to make their case.

No incentive to cross over

However, the exploitative twin industries of microcredit and migrant labour mean that the rural populations of Bangladesh, in addition to being trapped in a ceaseless cycle of poverty, are more inclined to either attempt to improve their prospects at home using the first, or seek to do so in countries further afield via the second.

The popularity of the growing labour-intensive garments industry added to these two in Bangladesh make a nationalistic India a far less attractive prospect than what it may be misperceived as.

Furthermore, with the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 finally being enforced, the peculiar situation of Bangladeshi territories and citizens being stranded in India and vice versa is coming to an end. The exchange of 162 enclaves between the two countries as part of the implementation will remove the special directives imposed on the Assamese border until now, thus making it less fluid.

There is more than a hint of the divisive politics that saw the BJP’s rise in Gujarat, encompassing the 2002 riots, being deployed in Assam. The resulting resentment will be more detrimental to the local population than the perceived threat of a porous border.

Antipathetic border policies risk worsening the Islamist threat rather than improving the relationship to deal with real problems collectively – and not imaginary problems like immigration, unilaterally.

Bangladesh’s regional autonomy will be diminished, but its relationship with, and reliance on, the Delhi government means the country will not risk taking a strong stance to dispel the many myths that form the basis of the proposal for sealing the border.