Making generous gestures to a neighbour is not a bad idea. For people and nations, there is much to be gained by earning the goodwill of neighbours. But the Centre’s proposal to allow visa-free entry into India for Bangladeshis below 18 and above 65 years is both ill-advised and impracticable. The Centre, state governments and political parties have routinely complained of huge numbers of Bangladeshis entering India illegally. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s protests against the phenomenon have been the loudest. It is strange that the proposal for the visa-free entry for certain groups of Bangladeshis has come from Narendra Modi’s government. Only a few weeks back — during the election campaign — Mr Modi had threatened to send illegal migrants from Bangladesh back across the border if he came to power. What made his government think up a dramatically different line is a mystery that no one has cared to explain.
Assam’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, is one leader who knows what the Centre’s proposal can mean for his state. Assam’s peace, political stability and communal harmony have been threatened over the decades by unchecked flows of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Much blood has been shed over the issue, but little progress has been made in the state’s efforts to identify and deport these illegal settlers in the state. His objection to the proposal is thus understandable. It is a big enough problem for Assam — and some other states as well — to keep track of Bangladeshis entering India with regular visas. It could only make matters worse if the states had also to deal with a fresh surge of people across the border who would not need the visa. However, it is not just Mr Gogoi’s problem. Many states, especially those in eastern India, could find themselves confronted with complex problems if the Centre’s proposal were to be implemented. The influx of Bangladeshi migrants into India is a national issue and should be treated as such. If successive governments at the Centre and the states had not addressed it the way they should have done, the reason was mostly political. What Mr Modi had promised to do about the issue raised hopes of a new firmness to deal with it. The least he can do to reassure the people of his intention is scrap the proposal on visa-free entry for Bangladeshis into any part of India.
There are other ways in which the new government can try and reach out to Dhaka. Mr Modi’s idea of greater economic integration with India’s neighbours will find many takers in Bangladesh. The economies of both India and Bangladesh can benefit if trade and transit facilities are expanded. There is much unfinished work on the settlement of the land boundary and the sharing of river waters. Allowing Bangladeshis to visit India without visas is not going to help resolve any of these issues.