The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Relations between India and Bangladesh have rarely been as tense as they are today. The latest crisis has been caused by a group of 200-odd men, women and children stranded in the no-manís land between India and Bangladesh near the Satgachi outpost in Coochbehar. For nearly a week, the group, virtually abandoned without food and water, has been confronted by border guards from both sides of the border. India claims that the group ó mostly snake charmers and their families from Bangladesh ó attempted to sneak into West Bengal and were prevented from doing so by the border security force. Dhaka, of course, has the opposite view. It believes that New Delhi is pushing Indian Bengali Muslims into Bangladesh. Even a cursory examination of the issue suggests that the Indian viewpoint has merit. Reports indicate that most of the group is carrying proof of residence in Bangladesh like electricity bills. Moreover, once refused entry into India, the group has been trying to go back to Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Rifles have, however, resisted all such efforts. The incident is only symptomatic of the larger problems of India-Bangladesh relations, including the issue of illegal immigration. Estimates about the extent of illegal immigration from Bangladesh vary, but the Indian home ministry believes that the number of illegal Bangladesh nationals could go up to as high as 20 million. It is also clear that Dhaka has not been particularly cooperative on the issue; indeed, there are also reports that Bangladesh Rifles actually aids illegals to cross over into India. Bangladeshi security agencies have also resisted attempts at firmly fencing the border, and prevented the BSF from its legitimate duty of monitoring what still is a very porous border.

The recent crisis comes in the wake of the statement made by the Union home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, that illegal immigrants would be forced back, but as is obvious, this is easier said than done. Moreover, illegal immigrants often become convenient vote-banks for local politicians, which often makes it difficult to muster the political will to tackle the problem in any systematic manner. In any case, as the experience from across the world reveals, it is extremely difficult to stop the flood of people who leave their homeland for economic reasons. Despite the best efforts of the United States of America, illegal immigrants come in from Mexico continuously. The only real long-term solution is to ensure the prosperity of the neighbouring country from which the immigrants and refugees come. The tragedy, of course, is that Bangladesh is unwilling to shape policies that could lead to economic integration. Bangladeshi intransigence on the issue of a gas pipeline to India is just one example.

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