Indian Decade

Bangladesh Border Worries

India and Bangladesh need to work more effectively on tackling illegal immigration into India’s north-east.

On January 7, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) shot and killed a hapless Bangladeshi illegal immigrant teenager who was trying to slip across the porous border into Bangladesh. Her killing has caused understandable outrage in Bangladesh and threatens to cast a pall over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh.

There’s little question that the BSF’s actions were both callous and high-handed. Indeed, according to The Economist, the BSF has shot and killed as many as 1000 Bangladeshis over the past four years as they have sought to cross the border. Such tactics remind me of an extreme form of the vigilante groups who seek to police parts of the US-Mexican border in Arizona, California and Texas.

Though the BSF’s methods of tackling illegal immigrants are worthy of condemnation, the larger issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh into India does require greater thought and analysis. Regardless of regime, Bangladeshi governments remain in complete denial about this problem. They are only too ready to hector and harangue India about unresolved issues of water sharing, about access to Indian markets and about some minor territorial disputes. Yet on this vital question of illegal immigration they maintain a studied silence.

Sadly, India, for its part, is also complicit. Upper middle class Indians are happy to nod and wink and hire Bangladeshis to work as maids and as casual labour. Simultaneously, politicians in border states, most notably in the Communist-run state of West Bengal, have been only too willing to provide illegal immigrants from Bangladesh with ration cards to enable them access to the state-subsidized public food distribution system. The acquisition of a ration card is usually the first step toward acquiring citizenship and thereby voting rights. Since the immigrants are generally poor and vulnerable, they are more than likely to vote for those who enabled them to change their status.

The entry of these Bangladeshis into India’s north-eastern states is increasingly changing the demographic composition of their border districts and is therefore a legitimate national security concern. Several of these states have witnessed ethno-religious tensions and the possibilities of another conflagration can't be written off. Yet in their feckless quest for electoral advantage local politicians seem oblivious to the problem that they are fostering.

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Given the complexity and seriousness of this issue, both India and Bangladesh need to address it forthrightly and not resort to pointless mutual recriminations. Otherwise, incidents like the death of the unfortunate teenager are bound to punctuate Indo-Bangladeshi relations with much wider repercussions.