The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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But for the human tragedy, it would have passed for a theatre of the absurd. More than two hundred impoverished, shelterless people, including women and children, are gathered on the India-Bangladesh border by India’s Border Security Force. India claims that the people — illegal migrants — belong to Bangladesh and wants to send them home across the border. But Dhaka disowns them and sees India’s move as a hostile act. In a tit-for-tat exercise, the Bangladesh Rifles collects a smaller group, allegedly Indians, on another part of the border and waits to push them back into India. Gunshots are exchanged and public passions roused, even as the hapless families spend days and nights under the open skies, braving rain, cold and hunger.

Obviously, both governments have been more jingoistic than realistic. For Dhaka to deny the fact of migration to India is far more absurd than Mexico denying the illegal migration of its people to the United States of America. India is not a land of opportunities that the US is. Even for Bangladeshis, the Arab Emirates, some African countries or Malayasia in the east are better destinations than India insofar as unskilled job opportunities are concerned. It is the poorest of Bangladeshis who have traditionally entered India and stayed on illegally to scrape a living.

To deny this is as much diplomatic rubbish as Dhaka’s refusal to admit that some militant groups in the Northeast take shelter in Bangladesh. But that is what successive governments in Bangladesh have done. Even the previous regime of Hasina Wajed was no different on this from the present government of her bête noire, Khaleda Zia, although India-Bangladesh relations improved considerably during the former’s tenure to enable the two countries to sign the Ganga water treaty and introduce bus services between Calcutta and Dhaka for the first time since Partition.

The problem is no government in Dhaka can really do otherwise. Which government can admit the presence of illegal Bangladeshis in India, thereby opening a Pandora’s box of endless Indian attempts to send such people back home' India and Bangladesh can never agree on the modality of detection, let alone deportation, of such migrants. In fact, Dhaka can justifiably ask how India’s deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, estimated that 20 million Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India. Who counted them and how' Bangladesh will never accept the Indian intelligence or home ministry reports that make such estimates. And, if Advani knows about the illegal migrants, how does he propose to identify and deport them'

No one knows the enormity of the problem better than Advani. Why then this sudden Indian outcry over illegal Bangladeshi migration' After all, neither the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi nor the Marxist rulers in West Bengal raised the anti-Dhaka pitch so high over the atrocities on the Hindu minority in Bangladesh and the illegal migration of hundreds of them to India before and after the last general elections in that country. On the contrary, there was a curious similarity in the manner both New Delhi and Calcutta sought to play it down.

The ostensible Indian reason for the hardening of its position towards Bang- ladesh is a new threat perception. India believes that the new regime in Dhaka is turning Bangladesh into a vassal state of Pakistan and is allowing Pakistan-sponsored terrorists to use that country for their subversive agenda against India. This is in keeping with the Pakistan army’s traditional theory that an eastern front is the best guarantee for its defence of the border with India on the west. What is more, not just India, even Hasina Wajed has complained of the presence of al Qaida in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh naturally denies all these charges. There are two broad explanations in Dhaka for the sudden Indian “aggressiveness”. India is upset, it says, because the Khaleda Zia government has withstood Indian pressure to force Bangladesh to sell its natural gas to India. Second, Advani’s anti-Dhaka rhetoric is believed to be part of the sangh parivar’s strategy to see Muslim enemies all around and thereby add to the Hindutva appeal on the eve of the crucial state elections this year and the parliamentary polls in India next year.

India’s keenness to get the Bangladeshi gas is not unknown. Hasina Wajed’s government too baulked at the idea because that would have further condemned her as an Indian agent and helped her opponents at home raise a huge political storm. Surprisingly, it was Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party that hoodwinked India into believing that if elected to power, it would open negotiations on the gas. It was not unknown in Dhaka or New Delhi that a top BNP leader close to Khaleda Zia had met the owners of a big Indian company to discuss a possible gas deal.

The gas hope probably explains why India did not find anything wrong in the Bangladesh elections in which several hundred thousand Hindu voters were allegedly not allowed to vote. Soon after the elections, Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, visited Dhaka. The discussions were never made public but gas is believed to have figured prominently in them.

Mishra’s Dhaka dialogue was followed up during the visit of the new Bangladesh foreign minister, Murshed Khan, to New Delhi. Things were not so bad even when India’s new foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, visited Dhaka and offered to work for better bilateral relations despite the controversies surrounding the gas export and transit facilities for Indian goods through Bangla- desh. India moved even further by agreeing to delink trade from the transit issue and withdrawing the tariff barrier on the export of 31 more Bangladeshi products to India. Although it did not fully satisfy Dhaka’s old demand for duty-free access of many more Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market, the two countries were still talking trade and friendship.

Then things started changing fast, both the content and tone of statements from both sides becoming confrontational, rather than conciliatory. The border stand-off led Dhaka to register its protest with the Indian embassy and other diplomatic missions there.

The danger is that the diplomatic row is slowly becoming a tool in the hands of fundamentalist elements in both countries. There was always a possibility that the presence of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Khaleda Zia’s new coalition government and its equations with the pro-Pakistani lobby in the Bangladesh army would strengthen Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh and incite anti-India sentiments there. The more the Indian rhetoric is seen as the BJP’s anti-Muslim agenda for India’s domestic politics, the more the religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh exploit it to their divisive ends.

It is futile for Dhaka to pretend that it can do without India, no matter how much it tries to keep up that pretence with its new “Look East” policy. Harbouring terrorists or promoting religious fundamentalism will ultimately harm its people much more than it will hurt India. Befriending Pakistan and baiting India may serve the interests of a small elite in Bangladesh. For the country and its people, it could be suicidal.

When the Bangladeshi migrant groups were brought to the border, India knew what Dhaka’s reaction would be. The attempt to send these people back home is only the medium; more important is the message it is meant to send to Dhaka.

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