In September, Salman Fazlur Rahman, advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said in an interview with India Today that “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh are economic refugees who will return to their country of origin once their economic situation improves. The statement went by surprisingly unnoticed.

But it was the first time that the Bangladeshi state recognised the issue of “unauthorised” immigration from Bangladesh to India, and more importantly, demonstrated a sense of concern by designating the migrants as “economic refugees”. Bangladesh has historically kept silent on the issue while India has increasingly framed it as a national security problem.

The migrants in question are poor working-class people, mostly Muslim, looking for livelihoods that will help them survive. Their activities contribute immensely to the local economies of the cities in India where they work. The political response to migrants from Bangladesh has negated this and instead unduly presented them as “infiltrators”, a “threat” to the national body.

Religious affiliation has become politicised as a marker of national belonging due to which poor Muslim Indian citizens have also been stigmatised and marginalised as “infiltrators”.

With their contribution to the economy and socio-political life, do not the poor – migrant or Indian – belong to the Indian nation in more substantive ways than currently acknowledged by policy and politics?

The political discourse

The Bangladeshi Muslim migrant has gradually become a referent for the undesirable outsider in India. Besides making a regular appearance in election campaigns in several states since the early 1990s as well as propelling deportation drives in Delhi and Mumbai (such as “Operation Pushback” and “Operation Flush-Out”) the figure of this “enemy” has also been used to penalise vulnerable urban populations time and again.

In fact, the Bangladeshi “infiltrator” has even loomed large over the national citizenship regime, influencing it since the early 1980s. The latest example of this is the amendment of the Citizenship Act in 2019 that changed the definition of an “illegal” immigrant; excluding non-Muslims from neighbouring countries from the definition and cementing the Muslim immigrant (typified by the “infiltrator” figure) as the sole carrier of the tag of illegality.

There are two problems here. First, the discourse of “infiltration” – economic migrants becoming characterised as “illegal” and then as “infiltrators” or national enemies – has steadily securitised migration by placing it as an issue of “national security”.

This understanding has garnered visibility and acceptance through political rhetoric that accuses the migrants of encroaching on “scarce” resources meant for bona fide citizens – even marked as “termites” eating the country’s future from the inside out – and presents them as a “danger” to the safety and identity of citizens.

Members of a group linked to the BJP's North East wing hold placards during a protest in in New Delhi in August 2012. Credit: Reuters.

The resulting public anger towards this character has reached a crescendo over the past few years, especially in the eastern territorial frontiers of India, buoyed and maintained through multi-level nationalist politics and sentiments.

Long-standing concerns over the “threat” to economic well-being as well as socio-cultural and political security of the border states due to the perceived adverse impact of “the continuing influx of foreign nationals” from Bangladesh have managed to keep latitudes of anxieties bubbling in these contexts – meaning that identity and population politics based on ethnic, religious, and linguistic markers have fashioned a general culture of haunting fear and pervasive angst.

This has resulted in several horrible displays of violence, both by the state and the citizenry, as well as highly contentious mega-state bureaucratic exercises such as the National Register of Citizens.

The politics of insecurity supplied especially (but not only) by ethnic and religious nationalists have articulated the presence of the migrants as an “assault”, “intrusion”, “invasion” or “a ticking bomb” – all framed in the language of war.

They have also been described as an “infestation”, a “plague” or the “most fatal malady” – linguistically characterising them as infectious pathogens. But by far the most entrenched narrative weaved around these migrants has been that of demographic aggression ­– which, in its most straightforward sense, refers to the majoritarian anxiety around a minority’s “threat by numbers”. Even the Supreme Court has chimed in in the characterisation of migration as aggression.

Implications for Indian Muslims

The punitive conflation of the Bangladeshi “infiltrator” identity with Muslim migrant workers in general within Indian cities has had real consequences on the ground. In January 2020, more than 200 migrant families were evicted from their settlement in Bengaluru. Many of them were Bengali-speaking Muslims from West Bengal and migrants from other states in India, including from within Karnataka.

This also underpinned the spate of bulldozer-politics of evictions targeted at Muslims in Delhi in April, following communal clashes that were characterised in Hindutva political circles as “terrorist attacks” aimed to spoil the “harmony” of the nation by “Bangladeshis and Rohingyas”.

Migrants and their rights

Most significantly though, the steady characterisation of migration from a security lens has never fully allowed a discussion of the issue as economic labour movement and the rights it ought to entail.

The purported presence of “illegal” Bangladeshi migrants in the country draining all its resources, which forms the basis of the proposed nation-wide National Register of Citizens, is not just hugely exaggerated – based on unsubstantiated numbers – but the migrants so present are extremely vulnerable themselves.

For instance, around 60 “illegal” Bangladeshis were detained and deported from Bengaluru late in 2019 in the fervour gripping the state machinery after Assam released a draft National Register of Citizens.

The deported workers were contractual labourers forming an essential backbone of the waste management industry in the city. They existed as “slave labour” within the interstices of the cities, caught in the webs of local municipal workers, political actors, labour contractors, cross-border agents and police officials who use their precarious status to extract labour at minimal wages.

In the West, the issue of irregular migration – a less dehumanising and criminalising term than “illegal” migration – has been equally politicised and securitised. But there is also a rich discussion about the rights of the non-citizens or the need to fashion society in a way that allows basic rights to those who are present within the polity but not granted full membership in it.

In many countries, irregular migrants possess minimal de facto rights and have institutions actively engaged in decriminalising their status. There have even been strong political mobilisation and movements shouldered by the “illegal” migrants.

The “No one is Illegal” campaign in Canada is a good example of a continuing civil society movement and the “Sans Papiers” movement in France is a famous historical example of a sustained collective action initiated “by immigrants for immigrants”.

In India, however, the discourse of “infiltration” has marked the limit for such discussions from even being uttered. Nationalist passions at all levels have foreclosed any discussion of labour rights, responsibility or exploitation. Migrants are treated as politicised numbers with no regard for their human rights, working conditions or future. Very rarely do trade unions and non-profits work explicitly for such migrants, fearing state reprisal. It has made the issue ever more taboo – driving migrants into more clandestine dual lives and making productive engagement with them almost impossible.

Returning to the Bangladeshi official, Rehman’s statement is noteworthy in this context because it is one of the rare moments when a state official (albeit informal) has acknowledged migrants from the prism of care, recognising their contribution and belonging to both India and Bangladesh.

It can serve as a starting point to wrest the issue from homogenous religio-ethnic ideas of Indian and Bangladeshi nationalisms and de-securitise people who essentially are labouring bodies, deserving of decent lives, in line with the contributions they make to two different national communities.

Maggie Paul is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

This is the fifth of a six-part series on Nationalism and Belonging in India. It is based on the research of the author and the discussions of the Nationalism Reading Group convened by Priyadarshini Singh at the Centre for Policy Research in partnership with the Association for the Study of Nationalism and Ethnicity, at the London School of Economics. Read the series here.