NEW DELHI, India -- India has reached an agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate 60,000 Chakma tribal refugees who fled Bangladeshi military operations in their homeland, the national Parliament was told Wednesday.
The announcement was made by Minister of State for External Affairs Salman Khursheed in the lower House after a joint Indian-Bangladeshi government delegation toured the Chakma refugee camps in India's eastern Tripura state.
The Chakmas, who are Buddhists, oppose the relocation of Bengali- speaking Muslims to their homeland. The government-sponsored population movement began more than two decades ago after Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.
The tribespeople fled to India in the 1970s, and previous Indian efforts to persuade Bangladesh to take them back failed.
Khursheed, who toured the refugee camps with Bangladesh's Communications Minister Oli Ahmed, told lawmakers that Dhaka had agreed 'to accept all tribal Bangladeshi refugees based upon the available records of both sides and information furnished by the concerned village headmen.'
Bangladesh also pledged to 'restore their homes and legitimate properties and assured that they would live in safety and security,' Khursheed said.
After the tour of the refugee shelters last weekend, the Bangladeshi minister held talks with senior Indian officials in New Delhi. The repatriation agreement was announced as Bangladesh's Army chief, Gen. Mohammad Noordin Khan, began an official visit to New Delhi.
An underground tribal group, Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), has been waging a bloody campaign for the expulsion of all non-tribals and secession of the Chittagong Hill Tracts from Bangladesh.
According to Bangladeshi officials, an estimated 15,000 civilians and 400 Army soldiers have perished in violence in the region since 1976.
Until the partition of British India in 1947, the Chittagong hills were inhabited almost entirely by tribespeople. Now the native people account for less than 60 percent of the region's 1 million population.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International recently criticized the Bangladesh military for widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary shootings, in the insurgency-torn Chittagong Hill Tracts, home of the Chakmas.
Amnesty International, in a report on indigenous people worldwide, referred to a specific incident in which it said scores of tribespeople were shot to death by troops in the Chittagong region, bordering India and Burma.