The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Relations between India and Bangladesh have never been at a lower ebb than at present. And indications are that they will worsen further. In the last couple of months, India has stepped up the heat on two long-pending issues with Bangladesh. One, the use of Bangladeshi territory for subversive activities by insurgents in the Northeast and Inter-Services Intelligence operatives, and two, illegal immigration. Both issues are critical but it is the second that has assumed the proportions of a real crisis.

The Indian government estimates that there are roughly 15 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshis living in 13 states of the country, who pose a serious threat to internal security as well as the Indian economy.

Matters came to a head recently when 213 snake-charmers were stranded for six days in the no-man’s land between India and Bangladesh near Satgachi in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. Although these nomads were finally escorted back into Bangladesh by its border forces, the latter continues to maintain that none of its citizens is residing illegally in India. But non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh tell a different story.

A different picture

A report by the Action Against Sexual Exploitation of Children estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 women between the ages of 7 and 24 are trafficked every year to India, Pakistan and west Asia. Most of them are illiterate or poorly educated. The People’s Empowerment Trust claimed in December 2002 that as many as 2 lakh women had been trafficked in 1999 alone. According to the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, about 70,000 women and children were trafficked between 1990 and 2001. Reports of international organization like the United Nations also indicate the wide prevalence of illegal human trafficking from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s 130 million strong population is increasing by about three million every year and the pressure exerted by this rapidly increasing population will undoubtedly accentuate the problem. Even now, much of the illegal immigration into India is explained by the poverty-stricken Bangladeshi population’s search for better opportunities. Of course, there was a time when these immigrants were welcomed by favourable regimes in border states who thought it would give them an edge in the elections. But India has traditionally found it difficult to guard its highly porous 4,100 kilometre border with Bangladesh.

Strategic retreat

Bangladesh has reacted sharply to India’s crack-down on the borders. After all, the remittances that these immigrants send back are an important source of income for Bangladesh. Also a poor country like Bangladesh would have a serious problem resettling such a large expatriate population. Then again, the sudden pressure on the population might further worsen the law and order situation.

To handle the problem effectively, India needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy. At present, the government seems to be concentrating on deporting illegal immigrants — not very successfully. But it would be a better idea to first stem the inflow, for which a better system of border management must be devised. New laws to discourage the immigrants are also needed to supplement the efforts of the security forces.

Deportation is undoubtedly important because it serves to discourage potential migrants. But identifying the millions of illegal immigrants is a stupendous task and will take a very long time. The people of the two countries have very similar physical features and the fact that they speak Bengali, enables the illegal immigrants to claim that they are Indian Muslims. Also deportation may have a high diplomatic cost by grabbing the attention of human rights organizations, who might make things difficult for India. Thus, India would be better off first putting a stop to the continuing immigration from Bangladesh. Identification and deportation could come later.

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