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Migrants, spectres

Go ahead to Indo-Bangladesh land swap is welcome. But BJP should tread more carefully on a fraught issue

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
December 2, 2014 12:31:02 am

After three years of intransigence on the land boundary agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh, the BJP has executed a welcome u-turn. During UPA 2, it had resisted the constitutional amendment required to ratify the LBA signed in 2011, taking a nationalistic hard line on the loss of territory the deal seemed to imply. If passed, the LBA would rationalise the international enclaves that dot the Indo-Bangladesh border, and which are territorial anomalies inherited from Partition. As things stand, the enclaves are pockets of land trapped in alien territory that the state cannot reach. For the approximately 51,000 people who live there, the LBA could bring the basic rights and securities of citizenship. Ratifying the deal would also mean keeping faith with a neighbour who is turning into a valuable ally — India’s failure to deliver on the LBA and the Teesta water-sharing pact have turned into an embarrassing stumbling block in ties with Bangladesh.

Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stated reasons for pressing forward with the land swap seem to replace one form of hardline posturing with another. Rationalising the border would not only ensure security in Assam, Modi said in Guwahati on Sunday, but it would also keep out “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Waves of Bangladeshi migrants have settled in West Bengal and the Northeast over the decades, seeking refuge from war, religious persecution or poverty. As pressures on land and economic resources grew, so did simmering tensions in the region, occasionally erupting in violence. In this terrain of violence and suspicion, the BJP’s own discourse on Bangladeshi migrants has been far from responsible. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, Modi drew a distinction between Hindu and Muslim migrants, reinforcing a communal hue in an already fraught issue. The BJP has also participated in the popular spectre-making around Muslim migrants from across the border — that they are terrorists and smugglers, that their presence threatens the very cultural fabric of the region. Speaking at a rally in Kolkata on Sunday, BJP president Amit Shah drew a sinister arc of collusion, linking the funds funnelled away in the Saradha scam, the Trinamool Congress, the Burdwan blasts and terror outfits in Bangladesh. The problem, according to Shah, stemmed from the Mamata Banerjee government’s protection of “illegal immigrants”.

The BJP betrays an inability to comprehend the complex historical roots of a long-running migration. Modi might have made a successful local pitch for an international deal, but across the border, Bangladesh is listening. Will it take kindly to Bangladeshis being the bogey that drives the land swap deal?

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