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Bangla tweak, not reversal, foreseen

New Delhi, May 14: India’s foreign policy establishment is preparing for possible shifts in the nation’s bilateral agenda with Bangladesh after May 16, but is ruling out any move that may reverse a relationship that it counts among its biggest gains over the past decade.

Narendra Modi, predicted by exit polls as the next Prime Minister, has in this election campaign relentlessly criticised rivals in Bengal and Assam for allowing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to stay in India, terming them a drain on resources meant for locals.

But while India can hold talks with Bangladesh on illegal immigration if a Modi-led BJP comes to power and wants to act on its campaign words, expelling these immigrants would practically be impossible, diplomats, former envoys and experts have told The Telegraph.

“Bangladesh will certainly be a foreign policy priority for the new government and introducing illegal immigration in talks with Dhaka is indeed possible and may even be a good idea,” Veena Sikri, a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, said. “But I don’t think any government will want to risk souring of ties with Bangladesh.”

In multiple campaign speeches across border districts in Bengal and Assam, Modi has referred to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as a “vote bank” for his rivals. In at least two speeches, he has warned these immigrants to “pack up their bags and leave” by May 16.

At a campaign rally in Assam, Modi even suggested that the ruling Congress there was comfortable with the poaching of rhinos as that allowed illegal immigrants an opportunity at land grab.

In itself, illegal immigration is no new bone of contention between India and Bangladesh.

Under UPA-I, a series of terror attacks — both successful and foiled — were attributed by intelligence agencies to Bangladesh-based groups aided by illegal immigrants here.

Yet most times India raised concerns with Bangladesh, Dhaka — then under Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief Khaleda Zia — would refuse to accept the accused as its nationals, officials said.

That changed once Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in 2009. India and Bangladesh — under Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Hasina — have since elevated security co-operation to unparalleled levels, with the two nations now routinely co-ordinating in assisting each other in tracking and handing over militants.

“National security has to be paramount, and that’s something we’ve gained in over the past five years through co-operation,” Sanjay Bhardwaj, a Bangladesh expert and assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said. “If the issue of illegal immigration is limited to those concerns, I don’t see it affecting bilateral ties adversely.”

But any attempt to actually displace illegal immigrants would be both impractical and fraught with security challenges internally for India, and would hurt ties with Bangladesh, Bhardwaj said.

“What was said in the election campaign is, I hope, merely rhetoric,” Bhardwaj said. “Actually removing immigrants is simply not an option.”

Instead, the campaign focus on illegal immigration can be channelled into talks acceptable to both nations, officials said.

Sikri recalled how India and Bangladesh had in 1992 actually included the subject in a joint statement between then Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Khaleda Zia. But the statement was never followed up diplomatically.

“If the campaign talk is actually a sign of renewed diplomatic focus on illegal immigration, it can be taken up in dialogue to find a mutually acceptable solution,” Sikri, who now teaches international relations at Jamia Millia Islamia, said.

One way dialogue on the contentious subject could help both nations, Bhardwaj said, is if India proposes a system of work permits allowing Bangladesh nationals easy entry into India to work and live.

“That would give legal status to these men and women who currently live in daily uncertainty, would help regulate genuine security concerns and could help towards resolving this long-festering problem,” Bhardwaj said.