Describing illegal immigration from Bangladesh as a “sensitive issue”, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has underlined the need for consultations with all stakeholders to carefully handle the problem along India’s nearly 4,000-km porous border with its eastern neighbour.
The new Indian government wants to take Indo-Bangladesh relations to a new high, Swaraj said in an interview to a leading Bangla daily, during her first stand-alone visit as foreign minister.
“We not only want to maintain the relationship both countries enjoyed during the previous regime, but also want to take it to a new height,” she told Prothom Alo daily.
“The illegal migrants issue is a sensitive subject in any country and needs careful handling,” said Swaraj.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his election campaign had threatened to deport all “illegal migrants from Bangladesh”, especially when he campaigned in West Bengal and the states of the northeast.
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“We want to address the issue through consultations with all stakeholders… The issue is also important for both the countries on security front…” she said.
She said India shared its longest international boundary with Bangladesh. “It’s a porous border. People living on the border are poor and the areas are densely populated. For this, lots of illegal activities are taking place… Both countries should work together to stop illegal activities in the border areas…”
Swaraj, however, added the issue also highlighted the need for “better border management” and “it is the responsibility of both the countries to ensure it”.
“India has borders with several countries but its frontier with Bangladesh is the longest one (and) this border is porous. The people living in these border areas are poor while the entire area is densely populated and therefore many illegal activities occur there,” Swaraj said.
She said India though security of both Bangladesh and India were interlinked and therefore “both the countries should work together to control these illegal activities”.
“If the security is ensured, our border areas will become prosperous and for which rule of law will have to be strengthened. The helpless and innocent people must not be allowed to be victims of mindless activities,” Swaraj said.
Commenting on the Teesta water sharing treaty and Land Border Agreement (LBA), Swaraj said, “We are trying to build consensus within our country on the Teesta treaty. For land border agreement, a constitutional amendment bill has been tabled in the Rajya Sabha. We are working on a political consensus on the issue”.
The LBA, which is yet to be approved by Parliament, is aimed at redrawing the international boundary between India and Bangladesh by exchanging areas of adverse possession and enclaves along with population on either side, thus making the highly incongruous and porous Indo-Bangla border more manageable.
In 2011, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, then an ally of the Congress-led UPA, backed out from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Bangladesh visit, opposing the Teesta water sharing treaty between India and Bangladesh,following which it was shelved.
Swaraj said, “This is my first official visit after becoming foreign minister… The meetings with senior Bangladeshi leaders were cordial and will lay the foundation for future cooperation between the two countries”.
She also laid stress on better relations between the two countries in the fields of trade and culture.
Asked whether there will be qualitative changes in Indo-Bangladesh relations after the change of guard in New Delhi given that the ruling Awami League shared a special relationship with the Congress party, Swaraj said, “Our government will try to build relations with the present Bangladesh government”.
“Relations between the two countries depend on the relations between their people and the governments. We want a wide-ranging and inclusive relationship with Bangladesh and hope to achieve this by taking everyone along,” she said.
Asked whether the NDA regime would support the Januray 5 elections in Bangladesh that was not “representative”, Swaraj said, “We cannot comment on Bangladesh’s elections. The political future of the country will be decided by its people”.
Asked her for comments about a notion that India gained many things from the incumbent Awami League government and in return gave nothing significant turning the bilateral relationship into a one-sided affair, Swaraj disagreed.
“This notion is not correct. India-Bangladesh relations are a two-way traffic (and) the bilateral ties witnessed some specific development which was possible due to mutual cooperation,” she said.
She said during the period India opened its market for all Bangladeshi products excepting 25 items and Bangladesh set a record in exporting to India last year while Bangladesh too appeared to be a prospective area for Indian investments.
Asked what the outcome of her Dhaka tour was, she said, “It was my first tour abroad as the Indian external affairs minister when I carried with me the message of friendship on behalf of the new Indian government”.
“I think, the time has come to bring about a qualitative change in India-Bangladesh relations, against the backdrop ofthe problems we face in this region, the bilateral ties should be strengthened further in certain areas like poverty alleviation, fight against illiteracy, terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism,” Swaraj said.
During her visit, Swaraj held a series of meetings with top Bangladeshi leaders including President Abdul Hamid, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her counterpart A H Mahmud Ali, Opposition leader Raushan Ershad and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.