No, India is not home to crores of illegal immigrants, ‘Bangladeshis’ or otherwise Trumped-up numbers of ‘Bangladeshis’ and ‘Rohingyas’ in India touted by divisive politicians play into commonly held prejudices about fellow Indians.

26, May 2023 | CJP Team

Unwarranted figures claiming 5 crore illegal population in India is busted by CJP by analysing existing government data. The data debunks the claim and, in fact, points us toward information that paints a completely opposite picture!

This article is the third of a four-part series of Hate-Busters by CJP. It dives into alarmist claims made by far-right politicians, fact-checks, and presents them to you. Part 3 of the series examines and debunks the contents spoken by Supreme Court Advocate and former BJP Delhi Spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay, who has made alarming claims about the populations of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India allegedly basing these unsubstantiated claims on statistical data. The first, second and fourth parts too deal with Upadhyay’s statements concerning Muslims, population, and conspiracies.

The Supreme Court has rebuked the advocate for repeated attempts to ‘target Muslims’ amidst other prejudice-laced legal measures.  While these statements may be attributed to Upadhyay, the individual, they are but stray examples of an ecosystem of hate generated, created, and sustained by money, right-wing organisational power all coalescing into bedrock of wider party propaganda. Once generated in a speech, book or an ill-conceived PIL in the Supreme Court of India (remember the SC in earlier times dismissed his efforts with sharp rebukes six times!), they are unstoppable, take on a life off their own outside of the television, internet, and instant messaging applications. Their goal is clear, it is to further entrench hate in society.

 You may find part 1, 2 and 4 of the series here, here and here

Below are relevant excerpts from Ashwini Upadhyay’s segment in a show titled  “Is India Moving Towards Partition”, telecast by Capital TV with host and editor-in-chief of Capital TV, Dr Manish Kumar.  The segment, in full, can be found here

Extracts from Ashwini Upadhyay’s speech on Capital TV:

“A PIL of mine has been pending in the Supreme Court since 2017 in which I have highlighted that there are 5 crore people present in the country who have come here illegally. The numbers must have increased too now as ‘these people’ now have children.

He goes on to say, “One thing we need to be clear about the Hindu nation when it is established, though I am not opposing the same, is that this is not enough. We need to fulfil the basic things first. Illegals are coming to our country, Rohingyas are coming, and converts are coming.”

Claim: There are 5 crore illegal Bangladeshi nationals present in India

Busted: Claiming Five Crore Bangladeshi nationals as illegally present in India is a loud claim to go unwarranted and unchecked in public. CJP fact-checked the claim to discover that no available data backs it. In fact, it was discovered that the number of people leaving India and going to Bangladesh is higher than the number of people entering India!

CJP is dedicated to finding and bringing to light instances of Hate Speech, so that the bigots propagating these venomous ideas can be unmasked and brought to justice. To learn more about our campaign against hate speech, please become a member. To support our initiatives, please donate now!

Is this claim asserting population anxiety without any basis?

Existing anxieties about populations have been present ever since the government of India took to the task of enumerating people. Thomas Blom Hansen, notable American anthropologist, observes that this anxiety and fear were particularly influential in Bengal in the 1870s as India’s first census data was released. He explains further that Bengal’s peasantry was mostly Muslim, and the landowning gentry was largely Hindu. This anxiety about the working class continues to be prevalent even today.

Claims that there are a large number of Bangladeshi settlers in India are frequently made by ministers and prominent leaders even today. Yet due to a paucity of data, and the swift spread of propaganda, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusion for many of us. Here are a few quotes from politicians and sitting ministers over the past two decades. 

  • In 2004, then-Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, told parliament that there were 12 million illegal Bangladeshis in India.   
  • In 2016, Kiren Rijiju, the then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told India’s parliament: “There are about 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India.” 
  • Likening Bangladeshi nationals to ‘termites’, current Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, had said in 2018, the BJP had identified 40 lakh such illegal immigrants. 

What is unsurprising yet hilariously common among all these claims is that there is no source cited for the data. Amit Shah of course was referring to the first draft of the NRC – a number that went down to 19 Lakhs in the final list.  The numbers keep varying with resounding intensity – fluctuating between lakhs and crores as speakers change and the season passes. It is clear that such varying figures hardly emanate from any reliable set of data. Curiously, these politicians making these tall claims, seldom have an interest in looking into and utilising the laboriously procured data by government agencies. But is there existing data from government agencies? Let us find out.

What does the data say?

In a report published by the Wire and the Hindu,  it was found that the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants caught leaving India has been double than that of those who have entered the country by illegal means in the past four years, as per data disclosed by the Border Security Force (BSF) and the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). It was provided that until December 14, 2020, the BSF had apprehended 3,173 illegal migrants when they were attempting to cross over to Bangladesh! On the other hand, 1,115 persons were caught by the security forces when they were trying to make their way into India through illegal means in the same period. 

It was further provided that the number of Bangladeshis leaving India grew over the 2017-19 period from 821 in 2017 to 2,971 in 2018 to 2,638 in 2019.

None of these figures is even close to the alleged data cited by Upadhyay. 

The ‘Bangladeshi’ amongst us.

What passes for a ‘Bangladeshi’ in Indian cities is often a figment of our bourgeois imagination nay prejudice. The ‘Muslim-looking’, Bengali speaking neighbourhood tailor, construction worker or house-help has inevitably migrated from Muslim majority districts of Assam and West Bengal.  According to the 2011 census, from West Bengal alone 33, 448, 472 people have migrated outside. Sometimes they’ve lived in our cities for more than one generation. Limited land ownership, climate change, no jobs in their hometowns, better opportunities for education for their children and the voracious appetite for cheap labour in ‘developing’ Indian cities are creating a steady flow of very poor migrants from India’s hinterlands to service the urban ‘middle’ class, which then thinks nothing of branding them ‘Bangladeshis’. It is these workers’ that face the brunt of the propaganda and prejudice when people like Upadhyay add fuel to already existing prejudice against migrant labourers. But what if, as is often claimed that these Muslim majority areas of Assam and West Bengal are in-fact populated by ‘infiltrators’

‘Illegal immigration’ in Assam

Let us take the example of Assam. Claims of illegal immigration have dominated the politics of Assam since a British official SC Mulan, ICS, the Census Superintendent of Assam, wrote in 1931,”…… invasion of a vast horde of land hungry Bengali immigrants; mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal …”. This can be seen as yet another attempt by the British to ‘divide and rule’ and break the powerful unity between Hindus and Muslims that the national movement was giving rise to. Later, these fires (to which country will Assam belong) were fanned further in the run-up to the partition of India. And it is in Assam that efforts to locate illegal immigrants take many forms. From the Border Police to Foreigners Tribunals to the NRC, various measures taken over years to identify, detain and deport ‘illegal immigrants’ have had mixed results. But CJP’s long engagement with the problem of citizenship in Assam has given us precious insights into the question of ‘who is an illegal-immigrant in Assam’?

Historically, many Bengali speaking Muslims, known for their crop-growing prowess, were encouraged to migrate to the fertile Brahmaputra valley by British administrators who had turned dense forests into agricultural lands. This process was similar to the migration, often forced, of tribal people from the impoverished Bihar and Chota Nagpur plateau to the tea growing estates of Assam. It can therefore be assumed that this revenue generating internal migration aimed at filling British coffers coupled with stoking of identities by officers like SC Mulan and the competing narratives leading up to the partition of India, gave rise to the question of ‘Illegal Immigrants in Assam’. 

Professor Abdul Mannan identifies the root cause of these exaggerated statistics alleging large populations of Bangladeshi immigrants in India, arguing that it originated in what is called the Sinha Report of 1994 which stated that the illegal immigrant population in Assam was 4 crores. Professor Mannan questions the veracity of the report, citing that the entire population of Assam is 3.4 crore – how does the Sinha Report wish to make us believe such numbers?

Illegal Immigrants or Natural Growth?

Mathematician and erstwhile professor of Statistics at the Gauhati University, Prof Abdul Mannan in his book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement busts the myths surrounding ‘illegal immigration’ in Assam. He argues that a higher population of Muslims in some districts of Assam (as per census data) can be ascribed to either of two reasons – illegal immigration or natural growth. Then via a systematic study of revenue circles in these districts he finds that there is a significant presence of persons aged 0-6, i.e., children -indicating a natural growth of population. Further he says that this growth of population is due to poverty and consequent early marriages in the Muslim community. Read our take on the myths of Muslim population growth here <Muslim population growth HB has to be hyperlinked here>

 In South Salmara, for instance, 24 % of the population amongst Muslims is children, from ages 0-6 years. This leads us to conclude that in such area’s population growth is natural and by no means is the population increasing due to migration from Bangladesh, as Upadhyay claims.

The land-eating, ‘illegal immigrant’-producing rivers 

Tributaries of the great Brahmaputra (and many other major and minor rivers in Assam) change course inundating wide tracts of land, drowning rivers, chars and sometimes throwing up new land. This geographical process can take place within years in Assam. The people displaced thus often build temporary villages on the other bank and are eventually ferried to a different district and given land by the Government. Many of these villagers are Bengali Hindus and Muslims. It is not uncommon to find that these internal refugees have been branded illegal immigrants. CJP found that a large number of people of Dholpur-Gorukhuti in Darrang district of Assam, which was in news for a brutal eviction drive defended by no less a personality by the Chief Minister himself, are in fact river-erosion refugees from Barpeta district. 

Violence-hit internal refugees of Assam

The question of who is a resident, who is a citizen and who is an illegal immigrant in Assam has led to various episodes of brutal violence across the state. Each bout of violence, from Nellie in 1984 to Kokrajhar-Bongaigaon in 1993 leaves a wave of internal refugees who, after living in refugee camps for some time, slowly and inevitably resettle in other parts of the state. Many times, these new lives are interrupted rudely by a notice from the Border police, which finds it easier to brand them ‘Bangladeshis’ despite them being violence-hit internal refugees.    

Can documents decide who is an Indian?

In 2015, the Assam government under Tarun Gogoi, decided to update the NRC, as agreed upon in the Assam Accord which brought to a close a particularly bloody chapter of anti-immigrant movement in Assam. The NRC (National Registry of Citizens) is supposed to determine- and register – who is an Indian. During its decade-long exercise in Assam, over 19,00,000 people have been excluded and rendered stateless – out of which 7 lakh are Hindus. While the very intent and process behind the NRC has been criticised by many to be draconian, and the final exclusions arbitrary, even that has thrown by flaws in the concept of documentary tests for citizenship and not confirmed any of the exaggerated claims. Many of those excluded are non-Bengalis from various Indian tribes such as Rabhas, Sonowals, Kharbis etc. Muslims are only about 4.86 lakh. Women are the most affected by the NRC. Women often face complications regarding their documents due to marriage and relocation to distant villages. Often their natal family would not be willing to part with documents, or they would make documents in the area they live in after marriage, which creates further complications. CJP offers an area, region, and gender-wise breakdown of the Assam NRC here.  

It can be safely concluded that any test of citizenship that relies on documents being checked by bureaucracy will lead to unimaginable hardships to the most marginalised citizens of all communities and affect women disproportionately and in a Kafkaesque manner, brand them all ‘Bangladeshis’. 

Are refugees’ illegal immigrants?

Refugees/illegal immigrants from South Asia, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have found shelter in India. While refugees coming from other areas—including Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Myanmar—have been managed somewhat systematically. However, the influx of refugees/illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has largely been left unattended. Though numbers are small, the political vilification and stigmatisation has seriously affected their treatment.

Suspected Bangladeshi migrants are often conflated with the Rohingya. However, the NRC screening process is not designated to screen the Rohingya, they are granted refugee status and are registered with the United Nations as The Rohingya are not Bengali, either. They are from the erstwhile Kingdom of Arakan in now-Myanmar and have faced consistent persecution in Myanmar. After a genocide in 2017, over 7 lakh of 14 lakh Rohingya in total sought refuge in countries across the world. 

Countries that accepted Rohingya Refugees

USA 12000
UAE 50000
India 20,000
Bangladesh  1,000,000

Source: Reuters, Al Jazeera 

Among others, 12000 were sent to USA, 50000 to the UAE, and 20,000 Rohingrya refugees is the number that India accepted. 

While Rohingya are a displaced, stateless people and they live in refugee camps scattered across the country, the very fact that they are by faith Muslim, has been enough to invite vile slurs from among the most powerful in government. Collapsing the issue of refugee rights and displacement of those persons fleeing from persecution with “illegal immigrants” is meant to further the discourse of a “hidden conspiracy and design” for which Islam and Muslim states are alleged to be responsible.

Instead of systematically resolving the issue of illegal immigrants entering India, extremist far-right leaders today harass ordinary Indian Muslims: the constant use of the slur “Bangladeshis” is meant to render them insecure and of second-class citizenship.  Many cases are reported, especially from the states of Assam and West Bengal, where Indian Muslims are wrongfully detained by authorities and dubbed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. In Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, another far-right leader of the BJP, and the state’s chief minister, has openly been discriminating against as well as harassing the Bengali Muslim community residing in the state. Bengali Migrants, regardless of religion, are stigmatised in the entire country despite the fact that they form the backbone in terms of labour of the country. 

Who is Ashwini Upadhyay? 

Ashwini Upadhyay has formerly also been spokesperson for the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, more than his political prowess, he is known for his voracious pattern of filing PILs (Public Interest Litigation) in the Supreme Court on matters mainly pertaining to communal issues. Upadhyay has filed PILs various PILs in India’s apex court, ranging from petitions to grant minority status to Hindus to demanding the name changes of several places named after Mughal rulers. According to a 2018 report by the New Indian Express, Upadhyaya holds a record of filing 50 PILs in 5 years. Many of his claims, especially on his social media, often seem to reflect a decided bias against Muslims and Christians. These claims, four of which have been debunked by CJP, often veer on the edge of misinformation and propaganda. 

Here’s a detailed profile of the man himself

Who is Ashwini Upadhyay?

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