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At a loss on migrants, Delhi sets up border date with Dhaka

New Delhi, Jan. 16: India does not quite know what it will do with the millions of illegal Bangladeshis who are in the country.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani recently claimed that there were over “20 million” illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India. Although officials are happy that a senior leader has for the first time specified the figure of the illegal migrants in the country, they are not sure what is to be done with them.

The problem stems from the fact that Dhaka refuses to acknowledge them as Bangladeshi nationals. Successive governments in Bangladesh have refused to acknowledge the problem and expressed doubts over the figures given by India. As a result, this has been one of the major irritants which keep cropping up to add fresh strains in the sensitive ties between the two countries.

An official team from the home ministry will leave for Dhaka early next week to talk with the Bangladeshi side on how the countries could improve their management of the border.

Reports of people dying in the alleged indiscriminate firing across the border by the Border Security Force have been given wide coverage in the Bangladeshi media, creating yet another sphere of concern for the two countries.

The Bangladesh National Party in Dhaka recently put the Bangladesh Rifles on high alert to maintain strict vigil along the 4,000-km porous border with India to ensure that no person is “pushed back” into the country from across the border.

Advani’s claim about the “20 million” Bangladeshis in India, coming in quick succession after his accusation against the Khaleda Zia government of not taking steps to check the activities of Northeast militants and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in the country, has made the neighbour’s position more rigid.

“One should know that Bengali-speaking people and Bangladeshis are not the same,” Bangladeshi foreign minister Morshed Khan was quoted by agencies as telling reporters in Dhaka on Tuesday. Khan made it clear that if there were indeed so many illegal Bangladeshis in India, then the leaders of Bengal should testify against them.

But despite India’s claim about the large number of illegal Bangladeshis in the country, the Centre has done precious little so far to deal with the problem. From time to time, there have been drives against “illegal immigrants” but more often than not, they have ended in fiascos.

The fact that only a little over 1,000 “illegal immigrants” in Delhi were pushed back across the border in a year indicates the seriousness with which the authorities have dealt with the problem. Even those who have been pushed back often find their way back into India through various openings in the porous border between the two countries.

The meeting on border management and related issues may not be much, but it at least indicates the two countries’ inclination to continue their engagement despite the strains in bilateral ties.

The home ministry team will be in Dhaka around the same time as a team from the Indian water resources ministry that is going there to discuss with the Bangladeshi authorities the sharing of waters of the Teesta and six other rivers.

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