New Delhi, June 21: A loosely worded summary of a key foreign ministry meeting may have left the Narendra Modi government fighting allegations of facilitating illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
Ironically, it’s a charge the Prime Minister is better known for levelling at others than for facing himself.
The external affairs ministry today rejected Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s suggestion that India was thinking of allowing Bangladeshi nationals entry without visa if they were aged over 70 or under 10. Gogoi made the allegation at two media briefings in three days.
“We have seen reports regarding a decision on the entry of Bangladesh citizens into India without visas,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told The Telegraph.
“We want to clarify that no such decision has been taken, nor is any such proposal under consideration.”
India has been contemplating a visa-on-arrival plan for select Bangladeshi visitors since January last year, when the UPA was in power. Indian and Bangladeshi officials insist that the old plan, with minor tweaks, is the sole plan they have been discussing ahead of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s first foreign trip, to Dhaka on June 25.
But the summary record of a meeting chaired by foreign secretary Sujatha Singh refers to the visa relaxation suggestion as an idea for “grant of visa-free entry” to select Bangladeshis. The phrase, a blooper, has left the Modi government scalded.
“I have record of the move (visa-free entry),” Gogoi said today. “I am totally opposed to it.”
Modi, while campaigning in Bengal and in Assam, had repeatedly accused the Congress of allowing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into India. He even suggested that rhinos were being killed in Assam to create space for these immigrants.
In at least two campaign speeches, Modi had warned illegal Bangladeshi immigrants that they would need to return once he came to power.
“It is a complete U-turn by the BJP on the influx issue,” Gogoi said.
But the “record” he referred to are the minutes of an inter-ministerial meeting on June 11, held to bounce ideas around ahead of Swaraj’s Dhaka trip.
Among those who attended it were the secretaries of several ministries, including environment, water resources, railway, human resource development, home and finance, officials said. Also present were representatives of governments from states bordering Bangladesh, including Assam’s additional chief secretary, H.S. Das.
The minutes of the meeting were sent to all of them, including Das, as is routine. The foreign office clarified yesterday that it had not written any letter to Gogoi.
Among the many suggestions that came up at the meeting, officials said, was one for visa-on-arrival for Bangladeshis aged below 18 or over 65, in line with the earlier UPA plan that was never implemented.
At the June 11 meeting, a reluctant home ministry stalled the proposal. The foreign ministry then tried to dilute the proposal by suggesting the age limits be revised to 70 and 10 years.
The Assam government rejected the proposal at the meeting. The foreign ministry, officials said, incorporated Assam’s rejection in the minutes to indicate to the recipients that the suggestion had not been accepted by the participants and so could not be taken forward.
But Gogoi wasn’t willing to accept the foreign ministry’s version.
“First they (the foreign office) pushed for visa-free entry to those below 18 and above 65. Now they are suggesting the same for those below 10 and above 70,” Gogoi said. “We are opposed to both, though I have no problem with the on-arrival-visa proposal.”
For Gogoi, the opportunity to paint the BJP as lax on infiltration is too sweet to skip. The BJP won seven of the 14 seats in Assam in the recent Lok Sabha elections, its highest tally ever.
The Congress only won three seats. Modi’s aggressive campaigning on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, many believe, played a key role in boosting his party’s performance.