How many Bangladeshis live in India?
This is often debated at various different forums and studies. To be truthful, neither India nor Bangladesh can afford to have a proper documentation in place in order to count the number of migrants. So, there’s always a place for right wing political leaders to exploit the facts and try to use their own statistics to gain political mileage.
In India, the lack of documentation and the ethnic similarity between Indian and Bangladeshi population creates trouble in getting close to any actual figure. The most reliable figure produced from Indian side is from the Census report. It reports the number of people of Bangladeshi origin (i.e. place of birth is in Bangladesh) to be 3.08 million (Total 5.1 million and 2.5 million in West Bengal). So, this becomes the official figure of Bangladeshis living in India. However, one should remember that India had treaties with Pakistan and subsequently with independent Bangladesh to legalize Bangladeshis in India who entered the country before 25th March, 1971. Most of these population had actually migrated to India before 1971 and thus they are legal Indian citizens now. My father, who migrated to India in 1967, falls under this category.
A more detailed look at the same data provides some detailed insight. The number of Bangladeshis who migrated to India (thus deemed to be illegal) in last 20 years amount to around 880,000 among whom 600,000 came between 1981 and 1991, where only 280,000 came between 1991 and 2001. This drop of 53% can clearly be explained by growth of Bangladesh economy and establishment of democracy in Bangladesh.
There are a couple of caveats in the census data. The first one is that the data is voluntary, i.e. the chances of cross-referencing or verification of claimed country of birth is clearly very low. So, it totally relies with census official, who sometimes is convinced to change the country of origin and put them as internal migrants (or vice versa). It is understandable that a lot of migrants won’t be willing to disclose their country of origin. On the other hand, census official may put anything on their country of origin, merely by suspecting their origin. More often, a recent immigrant can always claim that he/she has actually migrated only a few years back, a technique used by most of my relatives who moved over in late 1980s. West Bengal, the Indian state that culturally resembles Bangladesh, has the majority of Bangladesh immigrants, amounting around 75-80% of them.
There are many incidents where an Indian Bengali is identified as a Bangladeshi, especially in Mumbai and Delhi. A report was published by Irfan Engineer on this issue where he identified a lot of similar cases. A tug of war between Govt of Maharashtra and West Bengal initiated in 1998 when a set of people to be deported were identified to be Bengalis of West Bengal.
There are couple of other official sources of data. The number of Chakmas living in Arunachal Pradesh is 60,000. However, they are granted Indian citizenship in 2004 and the Election Commission subsequently started enrolling them as voters.
The statistics on deportation is also interesting. The Supreme Court of India struck down the IMDT Act in Assam in 2005. Citing documentation, the court said that 489,046 persons were deported between 1983 and November 1998 from West Bengal under the Foreigners’ Act. On the contrary, IMDT was able to deport only 10,000 persons although 300,000 more allegations were in process.
A word of caution for whoever reads too much into the Foreigners’ Act because it is used not only for deporting illegal entrants, but also persons who overstayed in India. Unless we have a detailed documentation or break up on who was deported for what, any conclusion from this data can be misleading. Due to bureaucracy, a lot of Bangladeshis who come to visit India have to overstay as getting long term Indian visa is a nightmare for them.
That brings us to the conclusion – getting Bangladeshis to India legally should solve a lot of illegal immigration. A quota for Bangladeshi qualified engineers to have work visa for a certain period is absolutely necessary. The visa process for Bangladeshis who come to India for education or health should be eased. Along with all these, the improvement of economic and democratic processes in Bangladesh should reduce the flow of migrants.