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Sushma salve for Dhaka

New Delhi, June 24: The Narendra Modi government opposes illegal immigration but wants to facilitate visits by genuine Bangladeshi travellers more than its predecessor, New Delhi is preparing to tell Dhaka, trying to douse flames lit during the recent elections that hang over bilateral ties.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will highlight this distinction when she meets the Bangladesh leadership in Dhaka on her first trip abroad starting Wednesday, multiple senior officials have confirmed to The Telegraph.

Sushma will carry a message from Modi for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the only head of government from the neighbourhood who did not attend the new government’s swearing-in ceremony last month.

That message, officials said, will carry Modi’s commitment to honouring key deals the UPA had struck with Bangladesh when it was in power, and those the BJP — when in Opposition — had never wholeheartedly supported. These include the Land Boundary Agreement — to swap tracts of land each country claims, which are embedded in the territory of the other — and a pact to share the waters of the Teesta river.

India committed to both these agreements in 2011 but domestic politics has since prevented Parliament from approving the pacts.

Modi’s message to Hasina, combined with the balm Sushma will deliver by indicating her government’s openness to welcome Bangladeshi visitors, are the trumps the foreign minister is carrying with her, officials said.

Sushma will meet, apart from Hasina, Bangladesh foreign minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali and President Abdul Hamid. She has also sought an appointment with Begum Khaleda Zia of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party.

“This is a goodwill visit, and there won’t be any deals signed,” an official said. “But this is a crucial visit because this is the first chance for the new government and the foreign minister to get to know the Bangladesh leadership and build a rapport.”

Hasina was visiting Japan at the time of Modi’s swearing-in on May 26, and had sent Parliament Speaker Shirin Sharmin as her representative to the ceremony attended by heads of government of eight other neighbouring nations.

Bangladesh has been pressing India to relax visa requirements for its citizens, and the two nations last January signed a deal known as the Revised Travel Arrangements that incorporated many of Dhaka’s demands. The UPA government turned down a few other proposals and some remained in limbo.

The rise of Modi triggered apprehensions in Bangladesh that not only could the visa relaxations be rolled back, New Delhi may also toughen its immigration regime for visitors from its eastern neighbour.

These fears are rooted in a series of campaign addresses in Bengal and Assam by Modi during the Lok Sabha election campaign in which the then prime ministerial aspirant repeatedly targeted illegal Bangladeshi immigrants — who he dubbed “infiltrators” — and warned them to leave India.

But the Modi government, officials said, is keen to apply balm to any hurt caused by his campaign speeches. By highlighting its willingness to ease entry norms for legal Bangladesh citizens, Sushma, they said, would demonstrate that Modi sees Dhaka as a key ally and Bangladeshis as friends, not foes.

Sushma will tell Mahmood Ali — her counterpart — that the Indian government is willing to consider relaxing visa restrictions, though it may not be able to accept some of Bangladesh’s suggestions that could impinge on India’s national security.