The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Border standoff tiptoes to thaw

Feb. 5: In the first possible sign of the border standoff moving towards a resolution, overnight the stranded group of 213 nomads stepped into Bangladesh but stayed close to the no man’s land and the reassuring presence of India’s Border Security Force.

Simultaneously, a serious effort began at the diplomatic level to settle the dispute between the two countries over the identity of the group with indications of a meeting of the foreign ministers.

On his way back to Delhi from Southeast Asia, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani sought to lower the pitch of the confrontation by speaking of the possibility of such a meeting.

Bangladesh high commissioner Tufail Karim Haidar called on foreign minister Yashwant Sinha to discuss a probable visit by Mohd Morshed Khan. Sinha welcomed the proposal.

Since Friday, the 213-strong group had been camping in the no man’s land towards India’s side. Last night, it shifted into Bangladesh territory without that country’s border guards resisting the attempt. Nor did the inhabitants of the Bangladeshi border village of Nazir Gumani, who had attacked the group earlier, push them back.

Both signal a change in Dhaka’s attitude. Bangladesh has so far declined to accept the group as its citizens.

Preparatory to diplomatic initiatives, the head of the BSF, Ajai Raj Sharma, delivered documents proving the group’s nationality at a meeting between officials of the foreign and home ministries. “The evidence is conclusive about the identity of the nomads — they are Bangladeshis,” he said.

Apart from documentary evidence like addresses, cash memos and electricity bills, the BSF has on tape members of the group admitting that they are Bangladeshis.

In an assessment that is reflected on the ground in the group being allowed to camp on Bangladeshi land, BSF sources said: “After the evidence was forwarded to the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the authorities there seem to have seen reason and are now trying to find a face-saving formula.”

Such a way will have to be found at the diplomatic level. In Calcutta, with Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee — who shares his firmness in deporting “illegal immigrants” — at his side, Advani said: “Any dialogue has to have only one basis — the basis of truth.”

“And the truth is known to the whole world,” he added, referring to the “large population of Bangladeshis staying here without papers”.

“No country has had to face illegal immigration of this dimension.” The number, when Indrajit Gupta was home minister six years ago, was 10 million. “Now, the figures are much more,” he said.

The Indian side is hoping that flag meetings between the border guards on the two sides, suspended for two days, will resume tomorrow, but the BDR has yet to agree.

It is also not permitting the group to move any further into Bangladesh.

Jarip Mian, an elderly member of the nomadic group of mostly snake charmers, said: “We are now in Bangladesh. But we are not going deeper for fear that the BDR will open fire. Our patience is running thin. Sooner or later we will go in, let them fire on us.”


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