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Delhi, Assam versions vary on visa plan

June 20: The Centre’s proposal to relax visa norms for Bangladesh citizens that has upset Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is rooted in a 17-month-old roadmap prepared by the UPA and agreed on by New Delhi and Dhaka but not implemented yet.

Then home minister Sushil Shinde and his Dhaka counterpart Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir had agreed to a reciprocal system of visas-on-arrival for visitors over 65 or under 12 when they met in Dhaka on January 28, 2013, foreign office officials and Bangladeshi diplomats said in separate conversations.

However, Gogoi had said yesterday his government had opposed the Centre’s proposal to allow Bangladeshi nationals below 18 and above 65 to visit India without visas.

Gogoi could not be contacted today to seek a clarification on the divergent versions and whether he meant “visa-on-arrival” when he made the statement yesterday. There was also no clarity on why Gogoi mentioned the lower age as 18.

Gogoi’s close aide and former press adviser, Bharat Chandra Narah, said in Guwahati today: “Chief minister Tarun Gogoi has said that such a letter has come.”

But a foreign ministry official in New Delhi said he was not aware of such a letter having been sent. Another official said the PMO had earlier sought information on ties with Bangladesh, and the visa relaxation proposal may have reached Gogoi from an arm of the government other than the foreign office.

Unlike some other visa relaxation plans articulated in the blueprint agreed on by Shinde and Alamgir, the plan for visas-on-arrival has not yet been implemented — partly because India, officials said, wanted to verify if states are comfortable with the idea.

But no letter has been sent from the foreign ministry to Gogoi since Sushma Swaraj took over on May 26, a foreign office official said. Swaraj is travelling to Bangladesh on June 25, but officials said no decision had been taken on visa relaxation announcements.

“I can confirm no letter at all from the external affairs ministry has gone to the chief minister of Assam,” the official said. “Someone from the central government may have had informal discussions but no formal communication has happened between the ministry of external affairs and the Assam chief minister.”

The proposal for India to allow visas-on-arrival for citizens older than 65 is not new — New Delhi already implements this policy for Pakistani visitors as a part of the multiple confidence-building measures the neighbours employ.

The idea to extend the initiative to Bangladesh originated in January 2013.

The Congress-led government at the time was struggling to resurrect its relationship with Bangladesh in the aftermath of its failure to deliver on promises to Dhaka that it would ratify a key land swap pact and an agreement on water sharing.

“We needed to demonstrate our goodwill — and relaxing visa requirements made sense,” an official said.

The foreign office, after discussions with the home ministry, had drafted a series of other proposals too. These included multiple-entry tourist visas, extending the duration for which medical visa holders could stay in India, multiple-entry five-year visas for business and employment and easy visas for parents travelling with students to India. Those travelling on government or diplomatic work would, under the new proposal, need no visa at all for a trip up to 45 days.

These proposals were included in a Revised Travel Arrangement Shinde and Alamgir inked when the Indian home minister travelled to Dhaka in January 2013.

But while many of these proposals have been implemented, some — like the visas-on-arrival plan — were put on hold amid worries about political reactions in border states ahead of the elections.

Yesterday, Gogoi had said that the Centre had asked Assam for its opinion on a proposal to allow visa-free entry for the two categories of Bangladeshi citizens as a gesture of goodwill to improve relations with the neighbouring country.

The chief minister had clarified that the state government is not against good neighbourly relations with Bangladesh, but it should not be at the cost of Assam’s interests.

Assam had witnessed widespread protests against a land-swap deal signed between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka in 2011 in the presence of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gogoi.