Does India Stand to Lose Bangladesh’s Friendship Over CAA & NRC?

India’s bilateral ties with Bangladesh are at risk of going downhill, if CAA issue is not managed with sensitivity.

5 min read
Hindi Female
  • The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has ruffled feathers in three countries — Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — the countries whose ‘persecuted minorities’ the BJP government claims to be offering citizenship to on a fast-track basis
  • In Bangladesh particularly, CAA has raised the spectre of an exodus of illegal Bangladeshis living in India, to cross the border again to return home
  • Pakistan has gone ballistic and passed a resolution in the National Assembly, condemning the CAA as discriminatory
  • Both Afghanistan and Bangladesh, which share close and friendly ties with India, are miffed
  • This should be a cause for worry for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which came into force last week, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, has impacted ties with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The CAA names Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as the three Islamic countries which are the sources of illegal migration into India, and ones with significant numbers of persecuted non-Muslim minorities. Negative reaction, in varying degrees, to the CAA, has surfaced in all three countries.

In Bangladesh particularly, it has raised the spectre of an exodus of illegal Bangladeshis living in India, to cross the border again to return home. The government of PM Sheikh Hasina, which has taken bilateral ties with India to new heights over the last two decades and more, has been put in a quandary.


Concerns About India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’

Triggering these concerns are instances of reverse migration of a few hundred people who have been arrested after the crossing of the border into Bangladesh. All these people have reportedly declared that they are ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’ and have returned home because they no longer have any hope of getting Indian citizenship after the CAA came into force.

In India too, demonstrations against the CAA, with students in the vanguard of these agitations, have broken out in many cities, including Delhi NCR.

Pakistan has gone ballistic and passed a resolution in the National Assembly, condemning the CAA as discriminatory. PM Imran Khan has even hyped it further by declaring that the CAA will create fear among Muslims in India and they will leave in droves, leading to a nuclear war. A hostile Pakistan’s antics can be dismissed as the usual anti-India posturing. Pakistan’s reaction has been rebutted effectively by the official Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson. Both Afghanistan and Bangladesh, which share close and friendly ties with India, are miffed.

This should be a cause for worry for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’, when ties with the two friendly neighbouring countries have gotten ruffled.

Why the Illegal Migrants Determination Tribunal Failed

Fears were first raised when the NRC draft for Assam was published in January last year, containing 1.9 crore names, followed by the second and final list in July 2018. Those named in the NRC had the right of appeal, but the fear of being declared as ‘foreigners’, and illegally residing in India, bubbled to the surface. Most of these people are Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims who have migrated from East Bengal, East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, and settled in Assam over several decades. The ‘Bongali Khedao’ or ‘Drive Out the Bengalis’ agitation led to the infamous 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam, when over 2,000 illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants were killed. Later, the Assam Accord, during the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985, brought the agitation to a halt, and set up the Illegal Migrants Determination Tribunal (IMDT) to weed out illegal migrants.

The CAA has raised fears in Assam that Bengali Hindus will obtain citizenship and permanently alter the population composition of the state.

The IMDT failed miserably and only around 10,000 illegal migrants were detected, and around 1600 were finally deported to Bangladesh. Rising popular anger in Assam and legal petitions filed in the Supreme Court led to the latter abolishing the IMDT and issuing orders to complete the NRC exercise within a given time limit.


What CAA Aims To Do

India has always maintained that the NRC in Assam is a domestic issue, whenever concerns were raised in Bangladesh. The NRC undoubtedly is a domestic issue and so is the CAA, which is an amendment to India’s Citizenship Act of 1955. The CAA states that designated non-Muslim persecuted minorities will not be treated as illegal migrants if they have entered India by 31 December 2014, and fast tracks the grant of Indian citizenship via naturalisation after 6 years.

No such benefit is provided for illegal Muslims migrants, who can apply for citizenship via naturalisation after residing in India for a minimum of 11 years.

Hence, non-Muslims — mainly Hindu Bengali migrants — stand to gain Indian citizenship within a short period. The CAA is premised on the assertion that Muslim migrants cannot be classified as belonging to a ‘persecuted minority’ in Islamic countries.


Will CAA Become a ‘Stick’ to ‘Target’ Persecuted Hindus?

Apart from the perceived insult to Bangladesh which prides itself as upholding a secular ethos, the CAA has aroused fears of reverse migration that can encourage the Islamists and anti-Indian lobbies in Bangladesh to target the remaining 10 percent Hindu population. Bangladesh is 89 percent Muslim, with 1 percent Christians and other communities. Anti-Indian and Islamist propaganda is likely to paint India as having turned against Muslims. This may become the stick to target Hindus. Bangladesh’s original Constitution was secular till the dictator Gen Hussain Muhammad Ershad forced through an amendment which made Islam the state religion. PM Hasina has not ventured to repeal this amendment, fearing backlash from quarters who will label any such attempt as un-Islamic.

Statements from the Bangladeshi ministers have acknowledged that the CAA and the NRC are India’s domestic issues, but have rejected the CAA’s provisions that Hindus are a ‘persecuted minority’.

They have asserted that communal harmony is better than many other countries. Bangladesh is peeved that India has bracketed it with Pakistan, the latter having an atrocious record of ill-treating its Hindu minority. There is empirical evidence of sporadic harassment of Hindus and destruction of temples in Bangladesh, but PM Sheikh Hasina’s government has never encouraged it and has acted to prevent and deal with such incidents. There has been criticism of lack of punishment for perpetrators of such acts from Hindu leaders and civil society.

Bangladesh’s leaders have also said that if India provides a list of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, it will take them back after due verification.

India’s Bilateral Relations With Bangladesh Are At Risk

Bangladesh’s dilemma is an acute one because it has a policy of not acknowledging illegal migration from its territory into India. There is little doubt that during 2001-2006, when the BNP-Jamaat government was in power in Bangladesh, there were large scale atrocities against Hindus, resulting in migration into India.

After PM Sheikh Hasina came back to power, such attacks on Hindus have been few and far between.

The ground reality is that there is always a flow of migrants into India from Bangladesh, though numbers have come down. How the Indian government will deal with illegal Muslim migrants who will become stateless, is the million-dollar question. Reports of large detention centres being built in Assam has spooked Muslim migrants who find their names in the NRC, though there are provision for appeal. This fear is aggravated by the talk of having a country wide NRC. Bilateral ties with Bangladesh are at risk of going downhill, if this issue is not managed with sensitivity.

For live coverage of the anti-CAA protests, click here.

(The author is a retired Ambassador, a former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; he is a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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