[Assam] Migrants expelled from Arunachal Pradesh
baruah at bard.edu
Wed Jul 25 19:19:12 CDT 2007
The Telegraph (Guwahati edition)
Thursday, July 26, 2007
A migrants fight for survival
GUEST COLUMN -SANJIB BARUAH
The name Jamir Ali is perhaps fictional. But his story, recounted in the
2005 Arunachal Pradesh Human Development Report, might throw some light on
the phenomenon of suspected Bangladeshi nationals currently being expelled
from that state as the result of actions by the states student
Barely two years ago, this Arunachal government report had chosen to
recount Jamir Alis story to underscore a remarkable economic phenomenon in
the state: a quiet agricultural revolution led by migrant sharecroppers.
Ali lived in the Dikrong river valley and, according to the report, he had
moved to Arunachal from Lakhimpur district of Assam. Bringing with them
the technology of wet rice cultivation, Ali and other migrant
sharecroppers are described as pioneers of settled cultivation in
Arunachal Pradesh. Their bullock-driven plough is the main instrument for
extending settled cultivation and is therefore the symbol of the states
agricultural modernisation. Thus huts that belong to migrant sharecroppers
dot the entire valley and people like Jamir Ali are increasingly becoming
common in the other valleys of Arunachal as well. They are now an
important segment of the peasantry extending settled cultivation to
Arunachal. Despite their significant contribution to Arunachals economy,
however, the report also indicates that political and economic status of
this odd group of agricultural modernisers is extremely vulnerable.
Ali, for instance, leased five acres of land on a sharecropping
arrangement, and his family of seven lived in a thatched hut he built on
that land. Apart from the share of the crop, earnings from seasonal
labour, including the part of his wages as a rickshawpuller that he can
keep another part he pays as rent to the rickshaw owner were the familys
sources of livelihood. He cannot think of sending his children to school.
For a group heralded as agricultural modernisers, the vulnerability of the
legal status of Jamir Ali and his peers perhaps has few parallels in the
The contract between sharecroppers and landlords says the report, is only
short-term and eviction may take place any time. Since access to land in
Arunachal is governed by customary law, the oral leases that allow them to
live and cultivate after all the residential rights of most outsiders in
Arunachal are severely restricted under the inner-line permit (ILP)
Not surprisingly, the drive against suspected Bangladeshis in Arunachal
Pradesh has resulted in an exodus to Assam and the political parties and
other organisations in Assam have reacted along predictable lines.
The All Assam Students Union and the youth wing of the BJP have urged the
state government to ensure that these displaced suspected Bangladeshis do
not settle in Assam. The All Bodo Students Union and the All Assam Koch
Rajbongshi Students Union, too, have raised their voice on the same lines.
The Bodoland Territorial Councils chief executive Hagrama Mohilary said,
no foreigner will be allowed to settle in the BTC area at any cost.
On the opposite camp is the Congress-led state government that describes
those expelled from Arunachal Pradesh as residents of Assam. The Assam
United Democratic Fronts president Badruddin Ajmal calls them Bengali-
speaking Indian Muslims, and has said only a judicial authority can
determine the citizenship status of each individual. But who is right and
who is wrong in this debate? Since no one doubts that there are large
numbers of illegal immigrants from Bangla-desh in the Northeast, given the
highly porous international border, it is perhaps safe to guess that some
of them are indeed Bangladeshi nationals.
But such a guess can hardly be a basis for a programme of action. For it
is equally clear that since India has no mandatory personal identification
system, it would be impossible to say with certainty who is a Bangladeshi
national and who is not.
The dangers of the conflation between Bangladeshis and the descendants of
earlier settlers are real. After all, given that many of these immigrants
of an earlier generation had settled in erosion-prone chars and other
vulnerable lands, mobility is essential for their strategies of survival.
For instance, many older generation migrants had settled in char areas
despite the hazards of floods, erosion and submergence since sediments
make for very fertile soil. Yet most chars are notoriously inhospitable to
round-the-year living. Thus over the years, descendants of those settled
in chars of Assam have dispersed to all parts of the Northeast and beyond
in search of economic opportunities.
For instance, Jamir Alis great grandfather, according to the account in
the human development report, migrated to Assam from Mymensingh district
of East Bengal (todays Bangladesh) in the early part of the 20th century.
But this fourth generation immigrant from East Bengal could easily be
labelled a Bangladeshi today. Indeed the Bangladeshi discourse could be an
alternative framing of the reports story on migrant sharecroppers as
agricultural modernisers in Arunachal Pradesh.
The exclusive focus on citizenship status obscures the economic forces
that attract them to Arunachal Pradesh and the inescapable fact that the
impact of immigration to the Northeast today internal and cross-national,
legal as well as illegal -- is not the same everywhere. While continuing
immigration produces acute stress ecological, political and economic in
the Assam plains, Alis story also suggests that from an economic point of
view, additional population is not a problem but a solution for places
like Arunachal Pradesh.
Development is bound to bring more people to Arunachal and other parts of
the Northeast that are still sparsely populated. For instance, if the goal
is to bring about a transition from shifting cultivation to settled
cultivation, it cannot be done without significant expansion of the labour
The story of migrant sharecroppers like Ali, who makes intensive use of
family labour, simply illustrates this economic logic.
The expansion of the labour force is even more of a prerequisite when it
comes to other economic activities such as building roads or introducing
modern businesses, industry or services.
It is a new world of informal land markets and economic opportunities
growing behind the legal fictions of community ownership of land and
customary law that attract immigrants like Ali to Arunachal Pradesh.
Calling the shots
While our public discourse continues to be shaped by the image of migrant
settlers taking advantage of the misery of a poor tribal, there are many
places in the Northeast today where a tribal landlord, often empowered by
positions in or connections to the state government, is in a position of
power and dominance vis--vis the migrant sharecropper informally leasing
his land to foreigners as well as Indian citizens. The informality of the
arrangements exposes a large number of poor people to a more vulnerable
legal position than that already implied in the marginal nature of the
economic niches they occupy. The exodus from Arunachal Pradesh is a
dramatic illustration of that.
There is a remarkable symbiosis between the mobility-intensive livelihood
strategies of generations of char settlers in Assam, and the new economic
niches opening up in Arunachal Pradesh and other historically sparsely
populated parts of the Northeast.
It is important to address this dimension of the problem raised by the
exodus from Arunachal Pradesh. Should we not begin thinking about
legalising and formalising the land rental markets that bring the
Jamir Alis to Arunachal Pradesh?
In a political democracy, is it too much to ask that we begin working
towards giving people like Ali a permanent stake in the regions economic
future and more equal citizenship rights than what they could have under
the colonial-era ILP regime?
The writer is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Tech
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