For the current Bangladeshi regime, maintaining the stance that the formation of the National Register of Citizen (NRC) and the subsequent enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are India’s “internal matter” has become an increasingly difficult task.
Sheikh Hasina’s government has been having a hard time assuaging the increasing number of opposing voices inside the country, who termed her reaction towards India’s controversial actions as “soft.”
Finding no other option, Dhaka has taken some steps towards hammering out concrete “assurances” from New Delhi that those rendered “foreigners” under the NRC in bordering Assam will not be sent to Bangladesh.
On the diplomatic front, the South Asian nation of 170 million people still churns out statements like “India is not pushing anybody into the country,” but at the border area – the two countries share the world’s fifth-longest border at 4,156 kilometers – Bangladesh has increased its vigilance in the past few weeks.
Networks shut down
On January 1, 2020, the Bangladeshi government ordered its four mobile telecom operators to shut down their networks along the border area “for the sake of the country’s security in the current circumstances.”
An official from the home ministry of Bangladesh confided to Xinhua news agency that the mobile network shutdown was “aimed at foiling any possible bid of Indians to enter Bangladesh with support of their friends and well-wishers in our country.”
About 18 hours later, the Bangladesh government backtracked from its decision and restored the mobile network. But the message was loud and clear, that Bangladesh no longer considers the effect of NRC and CAA as India’s internal matter.
Earlier, right after the CAA enactment in India’s parliament, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan canceled their scheduled trips to India.
Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry, said the “cancellation of those visits and the enactment of CAA should not be linked.” But a report in India Today said: “Speculation was rife that the decision taken by Dhaka was as a result of the CAA.”
According to a report in The Print, Bangladesh has asked for a written assurance from New Delhi that “it won’t send immigrants across the border” following the enactment of the CAA.
However, the report suggests that New Delhi “does not seem to have given any kind of assurance to Dhaka yet that such a sovereign guarantee will be given.”
Why Dhaka is worried
The publication of the NRC in the Indian state of Assam on August 30 resulted in the exclusion of more than 1.9 million people. The Indian government had been saying that none of the excluded would be declared “foreigners” or “detained” until all the remaining procedures – appeals at Foreigners’ Tribunals, High Court and Supreme Court – were exhausted.
However, public discourse in India mostly equates “illegal immigrants” with “Bangladeshis,” due to a large influx of refugees into India fleeing violence during and after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, and Indian politicians belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have termed them “infiltrators.”
The NRC was published in India at a time when Bangladesh was going through its own struggle of having to shelter more than one million refugees fleeing a possible “genocide” in Myanmar.
Despite already having the ninth-largest population density in the world, Bangladesh is now hosting those Rohingya refugees living in camps and is in no position to receive further immigrants.
Meanwhile, the controversial CAA became a law on December 11, 2019, after the upper house of India’s Parliament passed the measure and the country’s president gave his assent. This accentuates the possibility of infiltration of “Muslim refugees” from India who would become stateless because of the religiously divisive nature of the CAA.
The CAA says Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi migrants who have entered India illegally – that is, without a visa – on or before December 31, 2014, from the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and have stayed in the country for five years are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.
‘Only Muslims targeted’
The act excludes Muslims, the second-largest religious group in India after Hindus.
Anupam Debashish Roy, the editor of Muktoforum – an independent media in Bangladesh – told this correspondent that there was no question that for India “this is a politics of exclusion and division.”
“CAA does not apply for Non-Muslims from Non-Muslim countries. It does not protect Rohingyas, Tibet refugees and Sri Lankan refugees. Only the Muslims are being targeted and excluded and they are being labeled as Bangladeshis,” said Roy equating this with the “Rohingya politics” of Myanmar.
“Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar started with this rhetoric of exclusion from citizenship long ago and its operational result was genocide and a massive exodus into Bangladesh. Maybe a full-blown genocide won’t take place in India, even though Genocide Watch says that the preconditions of that are being met, but there will be structural repression and Muslims will be pushed into Bangladesh, making the operational effects the same for Bangladesh as the Rohingya crisis.”
Roy said the Rohingya crisis, still, mostly affected Southern Bangladesh as the refugee camps were built there. But if an NRC-CAA push comes, people will come in from three sides of Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is not equipped to support that population.
“This means that the NRC-CAA could affect Bangladesh even more adversely than the Rohingya crisis. Therefore, our government must act immediately,” Roy added.
Anti-India sentiment on the rise
Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, said the formation of the NRC and the enactment of the CAA have accentuated anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh.
“This is because they have come at the heel of unfounded allegations of mass migration from Bangladesh, a threat to ‘push in’ alleged Bangladeshis, describing Bangladeshis as ‘termites,’ putting Bangladesh under pressure and completely disregarding Bangladeshi perception,” he said.
The fact that these measures are highly discriminatory to Muslim communities plays a part too, Riaz said. On the other hand, secularists are afraid that a transformation of India to a Hindu Rashtra will embolden religio-political forces in Bangladesh, he added.
Riaz argues that there are multiple reasons for the growing anti-Indian sentiment in recent days. There has always been a strand within society and politics which felt that India acted like a “big brother.”
“However, the primary source of the recent discontent lies with the fact the relationship has become very lopsided while the ruling Awami League insists on ‘a golden era of relationship’.”
Patience running out
He said it is now evident that Bangladesh has conceded more than it received from India since 2009.
“It was expected that it will change over time, India will reciprocate, and some semblance of balance will be established, but after almost a decade of waiting, patience is running out.”
India’s stance on the Rohingya crisis, water sharing, border killings and trade deficit have all demonstrated that India pays little attention to the needs of Bangladesh.
The unpleasant rhetoric and belligerent posturing of the BJP leaders against Bangladeshis, and no protest from the Bangladesh government, have contributed to the sentiment, said Riaz.
“The unqualified support to Awami League while its authoritarian bent has become more pronounced is contributing to the sentiment. In some measures, a large segment of Bangladeshis blame India for the absence of democracy in Bangladesh,” he said.
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist