AROUND THE REGION
Infiltration : View from Dhaka
Much has changed in Bangladesh over the way they view one of the key issues in the country's bilateral relationship with India. No longer is the Hasina government in denial mode over illegal migration -- it appears keen to stop it. Two Bangladesh ministers gave me an unique perspective on the issue during my recent visit to Bangladesh.
Overseas Employment and Expatriate Affairs minister Nurul Islam made it clear that illegal migrants do not bring back any return for the country. If their settlement is illegal, they conceal everything. You cannot expect an illegal migrant to go to a bank in a foreign country and send home any money. So no remittance can be expected from an illegal migrant. Since remittance from expatriate Bangladeshi workers is the second biggest source of foreign exchange for the country (anything around 20 billion US dollars a year) after ready-made garment exports, any loss on this score is not acceptable to the Hasina government which has set very ambitious development goals in its current budget.
"Our government is totally driven by development -- economic, social and human development and inclusive development. Our labour is one of our major national assets because we have hard working people and not enough employment for them in Bangladesh. So we don’t want it wasted, which happens if they migrate illegally," Nurul Islam said.
Islam pointed out the many agreements the Hasina government has signed with foreign countries from Malaysia to Australia to countries in the Middle East to those in Africa. These agreements (17 so far) pave the way for labour supply quotas and Nurul Islam's ministry finalises who goes where through an employment board.
"We are trying to drive out of business all private agencies who have been promoting illegal migration. They make money for smuggling people abroad, many migrants suffer unspeakable miseries and the country gets nothing because these illegal migrants don’t send back a penny," Islam said.
When asked about allegations of illegal Bangladeshi migration to India, Islam said his government was trying to discourage it. "We have started a crackdown on the many dubious agencies who promote it. For us, an illegal migrant is an opportunity lost because he or she will not contribute to our growing national economy. Be it India or anywhere else, we will only encourage migrants to go if they can make it legally."
When I spoke to my old friend Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu ( he is from Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal) , he gave me an unique perspective.
"Bhai, we are trying to reduce the flow of our migration to Middle East, we want to open other labour markets like Australia," he said.
Why! Inu's answer -- Our people are moderate Muslims but we have seen when they go and work for a few years in Middle East, they tend to get radicalise on religion. Because in those countries they have to live as devout practising Muslims. When they come back, they bring back the influence of radical Islam which our government does not want at any cost. That becomes a source of destabilisation for us ," said Inu.
"I would much rather want my countrymen to go to Australia rather than Saudi Arabia," he said. "We are trying to quietly change the flow of our workers to countries which are acceptable."
Bangladesh recently signed an agreement earlier this year to supply 1,20,000 housemaids to Saudi Arabia -- 10,000 a month. But when the date of registration expired, only 3983 women had applied . This is unusual -- poor Bangladeshis rarely like to miss a chance to go abroad to work. Nurul Islam had an explanation -- there has been much reporting in Bangladesh media about sexual torture of maids in Saudi Arabia and that must have discouraged the women to seek jobs as housemaids. "Our people have cultural issues," he said but did not elaborate, hinting to the fact that though mostly Muslims, Bangladeshis cannot accept the mediavel ways of Saudi Arabia-- specially Bangladesh's very assertive women.
"Now the Saudis are very upset because we cannot fulfil our commitments," Nurul Islam said.
With much development happening in Bangladesh whose GDP has steadily grown at above 6% per annum, poverty is not as stark as before. Under the Hasina government , the people living below poverty line has fallen sharply and was now at the same level as India -- around 25 percent of the total population.
"So gone are the days when our people will go anywhere and everywhere for anything ," says Nurul Islam. .
Hasina's Awami League makes it clear that it works to uphold the spirit of 1971 Liberation War, when it won its freedom with Indian support from an oppressive and Islamist Pakistani regime.
"Bangladesh emerged on the spirit of our great Liberation War and on the ideals of secular Bengali nationalism based on our great language. We buried the two nation theory of Jinnah that was based on religion. We are a territorially self contained country, the homeland of all Bengalis and other tribal minorties who have lived here for centuries," says secularism activist Shahriar Kabir.
"It will be unfair to imagine that we want to push our people into India and change its demography. India is a great friend and we don’t want to cause any trouble to it in any possible way," he said.
The message is clear -- the British may have encouraged migration from East Bengal into Assam and other parts of Northeast, the Pakistanis may have done it to change demography, the generals who ruled Bangladesh and even Begum Khaleda's government may have done it for similar reasons, but the Awami League was just not interested. It does not want the Hindus and other minorities to leave as well because it weakens their political support base and it does not want an illegal migrant to go to India because it complicates bilateral relations and does not add to its own national economy.
Interestingly, just when the Modi government seems to be changing its Pakistan policy by resuming NSA level talks , Bangladesh's relations with Pakistan has suffered heavily after Islamabad pulled up Dhaka for the hanging of two senior Opposition leaders Ali Ahsan Mujahid and Salauddin Quader Chaudhury. A statement by Pakistan foreign ministry said the trials were flawed and unjust and that both Mujahid and Chaudhury were great friends of Pakistan.
Ever since then, there has been huge pressure on the Hasina government to cut off diplomatic relations with Pakistan. The Pakistan envoy was called to the Bangladesh foreign ministry and warned with serious consequences for 'unfair and unwarranted interference into the internal affairs of Bangladesh."
Former Bangladesh army chiefs Lt Gen K M Shafiullah and Lt Gen Harun ur Rashid have joined other secular groups to push PM Hasina to 'immediately cut off all relations" with Pakistan and even lobby to throw Pakistan out of SAARC.
"Pakistan should not forget we are not their colony anymore, we are a proud and independent nation and we are doing much better than Pakistan on all fronts. So Pakistan should just shut up and stop interfering in our affairs," thundered Shafiullah, who commanded a sector during the 1971 war.
The Pakistani defence of Mujahid and Chadhury was seen as yet another evidence that Islamabad has not got over the 1971 hangover.
But there is a more substantive side to this downslide of relations. Bangladesh agencies believe Pakistan is supporting Islamist terror groups in their country that try to weaken the Hasina government. One Pakistan diplomat, Mazhar Khan, was expelled this year for allegedly funding Islamist groups like Ansarullah Bangla which is responsible for killing secular bloggers and publishers and for bombing Hindu and Buddhist temples.
"Mazhar was an ISI officer working under diplomatic cover. We have hard evidence that he was involved with fake currency rackets and used that money to fund the Islamist terrorist groups," one Bangladesh intelligence official said but was not willing to be named.
Chittagong port officials have recently detained a container full of fake Indian and Bangladesh currency notes. Recently another Pakistani national has been arrested in Dhaka, allegedly on Indian NIA's tip-off , for bringing in fake currencies into Bangladesh for ultimate shipment to India .
On the day Indian NSA Ajit Doval was meeting his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok in a bid to resume talks, Bangladesh foreign minister A H Mahmud Ali told journalists that his government was 'reviewing' its relations with Pakistan --- that was perhaps a warning that it was considering a downsizing of relations , if not a complete rupture.
For those like the saffronites who blindly demonise Bangladesh and see it as a source for all our problems, it is time for rethink. Bangladesh is not Pakistan and its proud people find it hugely insulting to be compared to Pakistan.
"Pakistan is a failed state, we are not," reminds leading sculptor Ferdousi Priyabashini.
"This country is built on the ideals of Tagore and Nazrul , Michael Madhusudan and Jibananda and that will never change." For those who do not know, Priyabashini suffered, like many Bengali women, the worst of torture at the hands of the Pakistani army in 1971.
"You mean to say, Bhai, we can ever forget that."
( Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka- based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )