Why PM Modi should offer Sheikh Hasina a win-win deal on illegal immigrants

When it comes to irritants in the relationship, the elephant in the room is illegal Bangladeshi immigration. Narendra Modi, during his trip, should consider opening talks on legalising their entry and providing work permits for others

R Jagannathan June 05, 2015 19:12:46 IST
Why PM Modi should offer Sheikh Hasina a win-win deal on illegal immigrants

Narendra Modi goes to Bangladesh on Saturday (6 June) in an atmosphere of greater bilateral trust and warmth than we have seen since the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. With parliament passing the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, Modi has something to offer Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. No agreement on Teesta waters is still on the cards, but this can presumably be left for later.

For her part, Sheikh Hasina has dealt firmly with anti-India terrorism, and has sent many of the worst war criminals of the 1971 freedom struggle – those who murdered and raped in the name of keeping Pakistan Islamic - to jail or the gallows. There is now a good chance that Bangladesh will, over time, become a proper secular state, despite its constitution formally retaining Islam as state religion.

Why PM Modi should offer Sheikh Hasina a winwin deal on illegal immigrants

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. PTI

But all this misses the elephant in the room: unchecked (and uncheckable) immigration. The biggest issue between India and Bangladesh has not been the land border or the sharing of Teesta waters or even terrorism, but illegal immigration. Estimates of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants now living in India range from 10 million to 20 million, but the truth is no one has any real clue, for no systematic survey has been done to identify illegal Bangladeshi. They are on electoral rolls, they have ration and Aadhaar cards, and they are everywhere – and not just in the border states of Assam and Bengal.

India is unwilling host to one of the largest contingents of illegal immigrants in the world, partly for historical reasons (with Hindus heading this way in droves after two partitions – one in 1947, and the other in 1971), but mostly because of demography. The pressure of land and population on the Bangladeshi side is simply too immense to contain them there. This is why immigration, legal or illegal, has been consistently in one direction – towards India - for over a century now.

The key to a rosier Indo-Bangladeshi relationship, one that will enable the creation of a robust South Asian common market (excluding Pakistan, about whom we cannot entertain much hope), is a deal on legal immigration. This means we need a roadmap for the regularisation of illegal immigrants as Indian residents without citizenship – to be followed by formal citizenship for those who have been here for very long. It would also include an agreement on those who may seek to migrate here later.

Given that Modi, during the Lok Sabha campaign, had called for the deportation of illegal immigrants, this won’t be easy. But then, even the land border agreement was not something the BJP has supported in the past. There are several reasons why Modi should change his tune on Bangladeshi immigrants, and the most important one is this: he can’t do anything about it. No country in the world can combat demographic pressures, unless it is willing to shoot or kill people on arrival and plant landmines on their path, or sink the boats that bring them to their shores. Even with the best technology and policing, America has been unable to prevent the illegal immigration of Hispanics from across the Mexican border. Hispanics form 17 percent of the US population, numbering about 54 million, replacing Afro-Americans as the largest ethnic minority. By 2050, they could form a quarter of America.

Illegal migrants from Bangladesh will be a smaller proportion of the Indian population even if we threw open the gates to them. India, thus, needs to accept the reality of demography and convert it to an economic virtue. Here’s what Modi should explore with Sheikh Hasina when he meets her.

First, India will change its immigration policy to have two classes of immigration: one is free entry for those who are seeking asylum against Islamist violence and intimidation. This will mean mostly Hindus and the Chakmas who inhabit some border areas, and will cater even to the Sangh policy of India offering a home to all Hindus anywhere in the world. This part of the policy is unilateral. But it needs to be supplemented with a bilateral pact that offers work permits and resident status to other immigrants who are merely fleeing poverty at home. Economic refugees are an asset too, for they tend to work harder and for lower wages than the local population.

Second, India should offer specific immigration quotas for future immigrants, provided the Bangladesh government agrees to provide info on where the immigrants are from and where they may go back when their work permits expire. India can also guarantee that they will not be deported against their will, and will be given residency and work permits easily. For the longer term, India should explore the possibility of offering the same terms to Bangladeshis as are now offered to Nepalese citizens – the right to immigrate and work in India.

Third, in return, Bangladesh must sign up a free trade and investment treaty whereby Indian businesses can invest in that country (and vice versa) without being subjected to discrimination. Investing in Bangladesh will create jobs there and make our own companies more competitive (especially in garments). This will help staunch the flows of illegal immigrants across the border. India should sign a Nafta-like treaty (signed by the US and Mexico) with Bangladesh. Once this happens, South Asia will have the makings of a European Union minus Pakistan. Who knows, such trade and immigration exclusion may force the Pakistani army and deep state to end its own unremitting hostility to India. But right now, we can’t count on any such thing, and a free trading Saarc minus Pakistan is a good enough option for enhancing regional prosperity.

It won’t be easy for Modi to make this shift in stance, but if he manages it, he will have arrived as a true statesman who has a vision for the future.He could also consider a political benefit: a potential shift in Muslim opinion about the BJP. It may be well worth the risk.

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