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The kid gloves need to be taken off

February 04, 2003 14:33 IST

Way back in 1992, I was visiting my brother who ran a farm in North Dinajpur, a district in West Bengal which borders Bangladesh.

While strolling one afternoon along a riverbank which formed the Indian side of the border, I came across hectic activity near a small jetty.

A battered boat with a family on board had just docked on the Indian side. Greeting them was a young man with a bunch of papers in his hand. 

"What's your name? Age?" he barked at the bearded man alighting from the dinghy with a few tins, a bundle of  bedding and clothes. His wife, two young sons and a daughter were still in the boat.

"Mohammad Ghafoor," came the tentative reply.

The young man scribbled the name and some other details on a blank ration card, and pointed towards a group of tall trees about a kilometer away. "See that tree? A square quarter acre near that is yours. Make sure you know who to vote for."

I waited till the Bangladeshi family -- with a disbelieving, yet hopeful gleam in their eyes -- trudged off towards the horizon before accosting the man with ration cards. 

My queries surprised him.

"Why?" he asked innocently. "Don't you know the local elections are due soon?"

Further talk over a cup of steaming syrupy tea revealed that Manoj was a card-carrying Leftist, and just before every local election, he and hundreds others like him were given 'quotas' of people guaranteed to vote for the ruling Left Front in West Bengal. He was allotted a few acres of land which he would distribute among people who came across the border. 

In fact, he claimed the Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, across the border actually auctioned seats on the boats crossing the river.  However,"these ungrateful wretches might vote for us the first time... but most of them disappear soon afterwards."


"You know, Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, wherever... a ration card becomes their passport. And I have to get fresh lots with every election," grumbled Manoj.

Tales of largescale migration from Bangladesh into India are not new.

Since 1964, nearly a decade before the birth of Bangladesh, hordes of tribal Chakmas, who are predominantly Buddhist, have been fleeing the Chittagong Hill Tracts into Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam following persecution by Muslim leaders who wanted their land.

Then there are the Hindus and other minorities whose numbers, apart from a brief spell when Sheikh Hasina Wajed was in power, have shown a dramatic decline since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. 

Wounded and persecuted, most of them arrive in India and are assimilated without much fuss. As are the young Bangladeshi girls lured into brothels in India.

And then, of course, there are the economically deprived Bangladeshis, who dream of the grass being greener in India.

Of course, Indian government estimates of over 20 million illegal Bangladeshis in India are patently absurd; it even includes the exodus during and just after the 1971 war of liberation. 

But the Bangladesh government's assertion that there are no Bangladeshis living illegally in India is even more absurd.

Yet so far -- apart from the occasional purge of a few hundred obviously illegal immigrants initiated in a few states, some as far away as Maharashtra -- India has been a bit complacent, perhaps even guilty of actually encouraging such migration. 

Despite the fact that the alarmingly porous 4,096 kilometer-long border also allowed separatist leaders in the Northeast to train and set up camps in Bangladesh forests, with or without Dhaka's connivance.

Despite the fact that Dhaka's intelligence agencies have had overt and covert links with their counterparts in Pakistan, the ISI, since Bangladesh's formation in 1971.

Despite the gruesome pictures of dead Indian jawans tied up like animals on a stick being carted by Bangladesh Rifles Personnel after a border clash in April 2001 in Boraibari, Assam.

India, in fact, has been generous to a fault. In 1996, it signed the Indo-Bangladesh water treaty, thereby diluting the tremendous leverage it had by virtue of being able to flood or dry up Bangladesh at will through the Farakka barrage, which controls the flow of the mighty Ganges into Bangladesh.

This treaty, if strictly enforced, could actually silt up Kolkata port during the dry months.

Enter a wily commando who now rules Pakistan.

General Pervez Musharraf must have been very happy indeed to visit Dhaka last August and tender a rather tentative apology for the atrocities committed by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 war.

For in return, he was surely guaranteed that the government of Khaleda Zia and her fundamentalist allies, who came to power on an anti-India plank in December 2001, would continue to needle India on the western front.

Barely three months later, Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha claimed the Pakistani high commission in Dhaka has become a 'nerve centre' of  Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence operations against India.  

'Some Al Qaeda elements have taken shelter in Bangladesh... the foreign media has reported several such instances and our own sources have confirmed many of these reports,' he told the Lok Sabha.

Now, there is a tense standoff on the border again, with both sides having declared a red alert to prevent 'infiltration.' A group of Bengali snake charmers and their pets stranded in no-man's land are the latest pawns in the game of push and shove.  

These snake charmers reportedly told the BSF they were legitimate voters in Bangladesh and were even willing to produce identification documents if they allowed to return home. They claimed they had accidentally crossed over into the Indian side while crossing a Bangladeshi village called Kankramari in Lalmonirhat district. They were intercepted by the BSF and asked to return, but the Bangladesh Rifles refused, saying they were of  Indian origin. 

Dhaka accuses the 'fundamentalist, Hindu nationalist' Indian government of trying to force trainloads of Indians (read Bengali Muslims) into Bangladesh for political reasons.

'There were so far 30 attempts of push-in of Bengali speaking Indian nationals into Bangladesh during the last few days,' says Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhry about the latest developments, asserting that foreign diplomats might be asked to verify the situation for themselves.

But the question that needs to be asked is, do the BJP and its saffron allies really believe they will score electoral brownie points by evicting Indian nationals? Unlike in Bangladesh, the Opposition in India would have a field day if it could prove that a single Indian national was being deported. And there would certainly be riots in West Bengal. 

So far, aware of the fact that our smaller neighbours see India through a prism of fear and suspicion -- so cleverly capitalised by Khaleda Zia during her election campaign -- New Delhi has been going out of its way to handle bilateral problems discreetly. But the kid gloves need to be taken off now.

Dhaka needs to be clearly warned that the cost of hosting the ISI and other anti-Indian elements will cost it dearly. Private hints at the possibility of totally reneging on the water treaty and possible economic sanctions ought to serve the purpose, though it is also likely to foster further anti-India feelings.

To offset this, India should publicly offer a deadline to resolve the border dispute. Only a 6.5 km stretch near Coomila in Bangladesh adjoining Tripura is actually undemarcated, but the main issue is that of the enclaves, or Chits. These enclaves are known as chits because the Rajas of the two erstwhile princely states of Cooch Behar (now in North Bengal) and Rongpur (now in Bangladesh) regularly staked portions of their land on a game of cards, and the paper ceding such land were known as chits.

There are 111 Indian Chits in Bangladesh territory covering some 17,000 odd acres and  51 Bangladesh enclaves covering  7,083 acres in Indian territory. Sixty five of these disputed enclaves, (35 Indian and 31 Bangladeshi) are along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border.

Resolving this dispute in a manner that seems favourable to Dhaka (without being obviously condescending) could certainly help dissipate some of the anti-India sentiment now bubbling over in Bangladesh.

Third, and most important, we need to warn, and if necessary take action against, political parties in Bengal and other Northeastern states which encourage immigrants as vote banks.

For even if he is ordered to ask every boatload that comes across whether there are any ISI or Al Qaeda agents on board, poor Manoj can hardly expect a truthful reply.



Ramananda Sengupta