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Bangla admits border breach

New Delhi, Feb. 14: India appeared to have crossed the first diplomatic hurdle with Bangladesh, getting it to acknowledge the problem of “illegal immigration”.

This came after hours of negotiations, including a “one-to-one” between Bangladesh foreign minister Mohammed Morshed Khan and his Indian counterpart Yashwant Sinha.

The two sides have agreed to take forward the process agreed upon in the “1992 joint communique” for handling illegal immigration. The foreign secretaries will meet in April — the venue will be finalised later — to discuss how to improve the mechanism to deal with the problem.

India, on its part, agreed to hold the meeting of the Joint Commission on July 15 to discuss all other pending issues. The commission has not met since 1997. Indications are that working groups under it will meet first on issues such as granting Bangladesh freer access to the Indian market.

If all goes well, the two sides might even agree to a free trade area in the coming months, which will help strengthen economic ties.

“I am very, very sanguine that this will move the entire relationship forward,” Sinha said after his discussions with the Bangladesh foreign minister. He was headed for another meeting with Morshed over dinner at Hyderabad House.

Morshed matched Sinha’s enthusiasm, saying, “all issues were discussed candidly”. He added: “We are destined to work together and will not allow any irritants to stand in the way of our cooperation. We are very happy with the outcome”.

The 1992 joint communique was signed when Khaleda Zia visited Delhi during her earlier stint as Prime Minister. It was the first official acknowledgement by Dhaka that illegal immigration was a problem that needed to be tackled jointly.

This had led the two sides to agree to a formula under which any person found crossing the border was handed over to the other side. If the nationality was in doubt, the two sides were to hold a joint verification within three days to ascertain it. This worked well for several months. But following the recent strains in Indo-Bangla ties, the formula was no longer followed. This had led to the standoff in Cooch Behar over the nationality of 213 nomads.

Asked if India’s concerns were addressed, foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said: “The idea was to clear the air.”

Morshed had earlier in the day been reluctant to acknowledge the problem of illegal immigration. He had argued that though people came from Bangladesh to look for jobs in India, most of them returned to the country after a while. Very few stayed back, he said. But he admitted that the immigration laws needed to be made “more responsible”.

India claims there are nearly 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.

Tomorrow, Morshed is scheduled to call on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.

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