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North-South rift over ‘visa-free’ proposal

Tarun Gogoi

New Delhi, June 23: Two arms of Narendra Modi’s government were tonight locked in conflict over plans to relax visa norms for Bangladeshi visitors, slicing through the image of a sleek, no-nonsense officialdom that the new government has tried to portray.

The home ministry, headed by Rajnath Singh, today rejected a proposal for visas-on-arrival for select Bangladeshi citizens, two days before foreign minister Sushma Swaraj flies to Dhaka on her maiden foreign trip.

North Block (home ministry) officials also said they had rejected a second proposal — allowing entry without visas to Bangladeshi citizens aged below 18 and above 65 — which South Block (the foreign ministry) denies it ever made.

It is this second proposal that Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi too claimed the foreign ministry had made at an inter-ministerial meeting chaired by foreign secretary Sujatha Singh on June 11.

“We want to clarify that no such decision has been taken, nor is any such proposal under consideration,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had told The Telegraph last weekend.

Foreign ministry sources have said the June 11 meeting had discussed the visa-on-arrival proposal but the minutes, sent to Assam and other stakeholders, mistakenly referred to “visa-free entry”.

According to the home ministry, the foreign ministry listed three proposals on Bangladesh for it to vet. The third — long-term multiple-entry visas for Bangladeshi nationals below 18 and above 65 — is acceptable to the home ministry.

“We rejected two of the proposals and sent our opinion to the ministry of external affairs today,” a home ministry official said.

Home ministry sources said the foreign ministry had last week sent a note listing “three proposals” to the states bordering Bangladesh and Union ministries such as home and power, seeking their opinion whether these could be included in the talks during Swaraj’s Bangladesh trip.

Although the note is said to have been for “internal discussion”, Gogoi went public with the proposals and said he was against a “visa-free” regime for Bangladeshis.

By saying this, Gogoi seemed to have made a political point in a climate where an ascendant BJP was making an issue of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into Assam. Elections in Assam are scheduled in 2016.

Home ministry sources blamed the foreign ministry for the situation. “This was an internal discussion within the government; why did the foreign ministry have to send it to the Assam government?” a source said.

“In any case, such a note should have been forwarded through the home ministry.”

The home ministry is the nodal ministry for Centre-state relations and implements the visa regime through its foreigners division. Foreign ministry officials accused the home ministry of “sniping at our heels”.

“(If) they want to do it, it’s fine,” an upset South Block official said. “We’ve made the facts known, and we thought things would be different with this new government. But bureaucrats appear determined to continue with their old ways.”

Issues relating to visas have often seen the two ministries at loggerheads. In 2010, the home ministry had sat for six months on three Chinese journalists’ visa applications, embarrassing the foreign ministry, which had forwarded them for security clearance.

Gogoi, replying to criticism from the state BJP, today said he had done nothing wrong by revealing the “visa-free” proposal.

In a media statement, he said his government was strongly opposed to the proposal since illegal immigration from Bangladesh was a sensitive issue in Assam and the other northeastern states.

“The people of the state have the right to know about such a sensitive issue, and I would be failing in my duty if I do not place the matter before them,” he said.

The visa relaxation proposals, foreign ministry officials said, are rooted in a UPA government plan. In January last year, then home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and his Bangladeshi counterpart Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir had signed a revised travel agreement to relax certain visa norms.