The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Indo-Bangla visa regime

Guwahati, 24 July 2014 (Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in an effort to expand people-to-people relations between India and Bangladesh announced a liberalised visa regime for Bangladeshi nationals prior to Sushma Swaraj’s maiden visit to Dhaka in June. The MEA proposed to grant visa-on-arrival and visa-free entry to certain categories of Bangladeshi citizens and sent the proposals to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and state governments for their opinion. The relaxation of visa norms proposed by the MEA was immediately rejected by the MHA while it evoked mixed reactions in the states that share borders with Bangladesh—Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Bengal.

In a major policy shift, the MHA turned down the MEA proposals to give visa-on-arrival and visa-free entry to Bangladeshi nationals citing security reasons. Reacting to the proposals, a MHA official said, “We have out rightly rejected the two proposals. We have already communicated to the MEA our strong objections to the proposals”. The union home ministry told the MEA that its third proposal to provide long-term multiple-entry tourist visa for Bangladeshi citizens below the age of 18 years and above the age of 65 years could be agreed upon with certain conditions, including appearance of the visa holder before the Foreigner Regional Registration Office every year.

Incidentally, the MHA supported the liberalised visa regime with Bangladesh under former Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. On January 28, 2013, Shinde and his Bangladesh counterpart Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir had agreed on a reciprocal system of visa-on-arrival for visitors over 65 years or below 12 years but eventually not implemented as the union government was worried over possible adverse reactions in the border states.

Meanwhile, the Gogoi government, several organisations including political parties in Assam sharply reacted to the new visa regime announced by the MEA. Many in the state believe that Assam is already over-burdened with lakhs of illegal migrants from the neighbouring country and such moves could further deteriorate the prevailing situation. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi firmly resisted the move when the MEA sought the opinion of Assam government, among other stakeholders, on the visa issue. Gogoi accused the BJP of diverting people’s attention on the sensitive issue. He said, “Our government strongly opposed the proposal on the ground that illegal migration from Bangladesh was a very sensitive issue in Assam and other Northeastern states and that visa-free entry would have repercussions in terms of negative public reactions”.

Gogoi pointed out that Narendra Modi had been vociferously campaigning against the settlement of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and vowed to deport them while electioneering in Assam for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But after the assumption of office, Gogoi said that the BJP is moving just in the opposite direction. He remarked, “This is a complete U-turn by BJP. Illegal migrants have robbed our youths of jobs. Now the party wants to allow them entry without visas. Even Bangladeshi nationals who come here with visas vanish and make it difficult for government agencies to track them”.

The Assam government also rejected the revised proposal sent by the MEA. Besides, Gogoi criticised Swaraj for not raising the issue of illegal migration with the Bangladesh government. Interestingly, Assam state unit of BJP too opposed the centre’s initiatives to change the present visa regime for Bangladeshi citizens. A six-member delegation led by BJP state president and Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Welfare Sarbananda Sonowal met the prime minister recently and urged him to continue with current practice of issuing multiple-entry visa only for one year. Chief Minister Gogoi’s strident opposition to the new proposals and his comments on the issue had been slammed by the BJP MPs from the state. Sonowal said, “The CM is trying to gain political mileage by raking up this issue”.