The Telegraph
Sunday , June 22 , 2014
CIMA Gallary

Blooper at heart of ‘visa-free’ row

- Delhi denies Gogoi charge; CM defers trip to capital with Kharge set to arrive tomorrow

New Delhi, June 21: A loosely worded summary of a key foreign ministry meeting may have left the Narendra Modi government fighting allegations of facilitating illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Ironically, it’s a charge the Prime Minister is better known for levelling at others than for facing himself.

The external affairs ministry today rejected Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s suggestion that India was thinking of allowing Bangladeshi nationals entry without visa if they were aged over 70 or under 10. Gogoi made the allegation at two media briefings in three days.

“We have seen reports regarding a decision on the entry of Bangladesh citizens into India without visas,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told The Telegraph.

“We want to clarify that no such decision has been taken, nor is any such proposal under consideration.”

India has been contemplating a visa-on-arrival plan for select Bangladeshi visitors since January last year, when the UPA was in power. Indian and Bangladeshi officials insist that the old plan, with minor tweaks, is the sole plan they have been discussing ahead of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s first foreign trip, to Dhaka on June 25.

But the summary record of a meeting chaired by foreign secretary Sujatha Singh refers to the visa relaxation suggestion as an idea for “grant of visa-free entry” to select Bangladeshis.

The phrase, a blooper, has left the Modi government scalded.

“I have record of the move (visa-free entry),” Gogoi said today. “I am totally opposed to it.”

Modi, while campaigning in Bengal and Assam, had repeatedly accused the Congress of allowing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into India. He even suggested that rhinos were being killed in Assam to create space for these immigrants.

In at least two campaign speeches, Modi had warned illegal Bangladeshi immigrants that they would need to return once he came to power.

“It is a complete U-turn by the BJP on the influx issue,” Gogoi said.

But the “record” he referred to are the minutes of an inter-ministerial meeting on June 11, held to bounce ideas around ahead of Swaraj’s Dhaka trip.

Among those who attended it were the secretaries of several ministries, including environment, water resources, railway, human resource development, home and finance, officials said. Also present were representatives of governments from states bordering Bangladesh, including Assam’s additional chief secretary, H.S. Das.

The minutes of the meeting were sent to all of them, including Das, as is routine. The foreign office clarified yesterday that it had not written any letter to Gogoi.

Among the many suggestions that came up at the meeting, officials said, was one for visa-on-arrival for Bangladeshis aged below 18 or over 65, in line with the earlier UPA plan that was never implemented.

At the June 11 meeting, a reluctant home ministry stalled the proposal. The foreign ministry then tried to dilute the proposal by suggesting the age limits be revised to 70 and 10 years.

The Assam government rejected the proposal at the meeting on the ground that illegal migration from Bangladesh was a “sensitive issue for Assam and other northeastern states” and that “visa-free entry would have repercussions in terms of negative publication”.

The foreign ministry, officials said, incorporated Assam’s rejection in the minutes to indicate to the recipients that the suggestion had not been accepted by the participants and so could not be taken forward.

But Gogoi wasn’t willing to accept the foreign ministry’s version.

“First they (the foreign office) pushed for visa-free entry to those below 18 and above 65. Now they are suggesting the same for those below 10 and above 70,” Gogoi said. “We are opposed to both, though I have no problem with the on-arrival-visa proposal.”

For Gogoi, the opportunity to paint the BJP as lax on infiltration is too sweet to skip. The BJP won seven of the 14 seats in Assam in the recent Lok Sabha elections, its highest tally ever.

The Congress only won three seats. Modi’s aggressive campaigning on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, many believe, played a key role in boosting his party’s performance.

Taking a dig at the Modi government, he said, “They talked about achche din by checking price rise and corruption and packing off illegal immigrants from Bangladeshi after April 16. But there are no indications of achche din for the aam aadmi yet. They have increased railway fares and freight, which will lead to price rise. People thought there was Modi magic. I don’t know how this kind of Modi magic (price rise) will help the aam aadmi.

Assam BJP president Sarbananda Sonowal, who is the Union minister of state for sports and youth affairs, skill development and entrepreneurship, told reporters in Upper Assam today, “The Centre is just taking views of the states. Nothing has been finalised.”

Gogoi also voiced concern over the Centre’s alleged push for use of Hindi in official communications on social media. “I am not against Hindi but am totally opposed to its imposition,” he said.

Gogoi was slated to go to Delhi tomorrow for a review meeting convened by the AICC on Monday but it has been rescheduled for July. Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge is scheduled to come to Assam on Monday.

The official line announced by the Assam PCC this evening is that Kharge will arrive on a three-day visit to “deal with the rail fare hike.”

But sources from both the Gogoi and the Himanta Biswa Sarma camps in the CLP told The Telegraph that he would meet the MLAs, MPs, district presidents and PCC office-bearers to know their mind on the crisis.

The visit assumes importance because so far the dissidence was being driven by CLP members. For the first time, the Assam PCC, which has all but remained silent on the issue, will come into play.

“A government is formed by the party but nobody is asking what party leaders want. Kharge’s move to meet grassroots party leaders is a very positive development. Everybody wants this dissidence, on for over two years, to end,” one of them said.

On reports about possible change of guard in Assam, Maharashtra and Haryana, Gogoi had said earlier in the day, “I am not aware about any such move. I will neither deny nor confirm when I am not sure about it myself.” Sources asserted that the last word on the leadership has not yet been said but the three-term chief minister was on a “sticky” wicket.

Sarma remains a frontrunner for the chief minister’s post but sources said there could be a “dark horse” acceptable to both sides.

Most others were optimistic about a reconciliation if it is imposed by the high command as both sides have agreed to abide by the call to be taken by the top brass keeping in mind the challenges before the party in the 2016 assembly polls.

“The idea will be to hear all sides and take a decision which will end dissidence. Kharge will submit his report to the top brass which will take a call after June 27, after party president Sonia Gandhi’s return from abroad,” one of them said.

Reacting to the BPF’s hint of snapping ties with the Congress, Gogoi said, “If they want to leave, how can I stop them?”

There has been pressure on Gogoi from within the Congress to snap ties but he has always backed the alliance. But with reports of an impending reshuffle doing the rounds as part of a compromise between Gogoi and Himanta Biswa Sarma camps in the CLP, it is likely that no BPF member will be in the new ministry. Hence the talk about quitting the alliance, sources said. At present, BPF’s Chandan Brahma is in the 19-member council of ministers in Assam.

Additional reporting by Umanand Jaiswal in Guwahati