Mitali Konwar and Juthika Singha will be voting for the first time on 23 April, the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections in Assam. Third-year students of Devi Charan Baruah (DCB) Girls’ College, the two are from Sibsagar district neighbouring Jorhat.
Konwar and Singha don’t know what they will do after graduating in a region where jobs are scarce. But that or the lack of opportunities for higher education wouldn’t determine which party they vote for.
"We will vote for the party that seriously cracks down on illegal immigration (from Bangladesh) and not use them as vote banks," says Konwar, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in economics and the more vocal of the two.
These elections—in two phases on 16 April and 23 April—would be the first in Assam since 2005, when an anonymous mobile phone message and leaflet campaign urging people to boycott Bangladeshi people and goods in Dibrugarh and Sibsagar drove thousands of immigrants from the districts.
Konwar and Singha said they had taken part in the 2005 campaign, which was led by the Chiring Chapori Yuva Morcha—a youth organization based in Dibrugarh. "We don’t want our districts to go the same way as Dhuburi and Goalpara (districts in lower Assam, which are immigrant-dominated)," says Singha.
The alleged infiltration of Bangladeshi nationals into Assam is an issue that dates back to the late 1970, when the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) launched a campaign demanding detection of illegal immigrants, deletion of their names from electoral rolls and their deportation.
Assam, which has 14 Lok Sabha seats, shares a 270km border with Bangladesh. The terrain is such that it cannot be easily fenced or patrolled. People from Bangladesh sneak in through Dhuburi district bordering West Bengal, or through Meghalaya or the Barak valley, and then work their way up the banks of the Brahmaputra to the upper Assam districts, locals say.
"They settle along the banks of the Brahmaputra, on remote riverine islands and other forsaken places," says Moushumi Borgohain, a professor and the head of the department of economics at DCB College. "The men pull rickshaws or become labourers while the women work as maids."
It is widely believed that the demographics of districts such as Dhuburi and Goalpara have changed because of the phenomenon. Even districts such as Kokrajhar, Morigaon and Nagaon are believed to be immigrant-dominated now.
Recent unrest in Barpeta, Nalbari and Darrang districts indicate that these districts too are headed that way, according to Samujjal Bhattacharya, a veteran leader of the AASU.
"Everyone but the Congress government (in Assam) acknowledges that of the 26 million people in Assam, as many as six million are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants… We are facing a silent invasion and no political party is bothered," says Bhattacharya, who’s now turned an adviser to the organization.
Dhiren Bezboruah, founder-editor of The Sentinel newspaper and a former president of the Editors’ Guild of India, says migrants would create a "Greater Bangladesh" in Assam if they were not stopped from entering Indian territory immediately.
"Effectively, the border has shifted towards India thanks to the takeover of districts in lower Assam," adds Bezboruah, who blames both the Congress party and the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) for the border not being sealed.
The AGP, which has ruled Assam for two terms, is an offshoot of 1970s campaign waged by AASU against the alleged infiltration. The party, then composed mainly of students, came to power for the first time by winning the December 1985 Assam assembly elections.
Resentment against infiltration from across the border has continued to simmer.
"If it carries on like this, in 10 years an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant will become the CM (chief minister) of Assam," says Bhattacharya, the AASU leader, who vows to mobilize young first-time voters to fight for the state’s future.