It hovers perennially in the background, as if it’s the only real issue between India and Bangladesh. And the political rhetoric peaks every now and then within India. But all the internal hype over “illegal immigrants” notwithstanding, as a bilateral subject it’s sensitive and contentious and has hardly figured in official Indo-Bangladesh talks for over a decade, especially at the highest level.
Much of this stems from the way Indo-Bangladesh relations have progressed in the last 10 years, especially since Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in 2008, turning Dhaka into one of New Delhi’s closest allies in South Asia.
Both Manmohan Singh’s UPA government in its two terms and its successor, Narendra Modi’s NDA regime, have seen value in fostering those ties, and have been practically indistinguishable in their stance towards Dhaka. Both have made every effort to strengthen relations in the past decade—and that has essentially meant taking a conscious decision to keep contentious issues off the talks-table.
However, the near-completion of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam makes a direct reckoning of the illegal immigrants issue unavoidable. This looms as an extremely delicate task ahead for the Modi government: how to find a balance between satisfying its domestic audience and ensuring the issue does not act as a spoiler in bilateral ties.
India shares its longest land boundary with Bangladesh: there’s a 4,096-km porous border between the two countries. Given the decades-old animus the immigrant issue has created in Assam, it may come as a surprise that it’s got one of the smaller borders with Bangladesh. The five Indian border-states rank thus: West Bengal (2,217 km), Tripura (856 km), Meghalaya (443 km), Assam (262 km) and Mizoram (180...