Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, which concluded on 27 March, was popularly considered successful – as one that deepened bilateral ties.
The visit was special since PM Modi visited Bangladesh on the invitation of his counterpart Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to participate in the gala celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the independence of Bangladesh.
It also marked the birth centenary celebration of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the iconic leader of Bangladesh's independence and fifty years of the India-Bangladesh relationship.
During the visit, PM Modi held a meeting with top leaders of the country including Prime Minister Hasina and discussed a wide range of areas of bilateral interest like preserving the legacy of 1971, trade, commerce and connectivity, cooperation in water resources, security and defence cooperation, power and energy.
‘India Overlooked Issue of Illegal Migration During Visit’
The visit, however, overlooked thorny issues like illegal migration – a concern for India that evokes strong sentiments in the northeast region, bordering Bangladesh.
One possible reason behind India avoiding discussions on migration could be that Bangladesh does not recognise the existence of migration to India. Hence, it cannot be brought to the table and any reference to it would result in antagonising Bangladesh.
Another could be that the visit was not a regular bilateral visit and Prime Minister Modi was invited to the gala celebration of Bangladesh’s independence as a recognition of India's role in the country's liberation war of 1971. India had provided humanitarian and military support to the freedom-loving people of the country.
Considering the occasion, India avoided raising any issue that might dampen the feeling of warmth and bonhomie.
Notably, the bilateral relations faced a spell of uneasiness over the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which included its ministers cancelling visits to India. To manage the backlash, India had to assure Bangladesh that none of those identified under NRC would be deported to that country.
Why is Migration Issue Significant?
Incidentally, the issue of migration tends to gain attention in the political discourse in states of West Bengal and Assam, bordering Bangladesh, where elections are being held starting 27 March.
The politics in these states seems to boil upon the issue of the NRC, which is inherently linked with the problem of migration. NRC aims to record the legal citizens of India and identify foreigners.
During this visit, the issue of NRC attracted public attention particularly after Professor Gowhar Rizvi, the foreign affairs advisor of Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina, in a media interview observed that India’s move to implement NRC is internal to the country and rejected the need for his country to raise it with India.
Professor Rizvi’s comment, which was the reiteration of the government of Bangladesh’s earlier stance, indicated that the option for discussion with Bangladesh is extremely bleak.
Bangladesh is crucial in the NRC debate, which has been implemented only in Assam bordering Bangladesh because of the claims of illegal migration from across the border that has disturbed the demography there.
A large section of people in Assam fears that infiltrators across the border will outnumber them in the future.
Following Bangladesh’s stance on NRC, it is now evident that India has to deal with the outcome of NRC, alone. The pertinent point is whether the government has chalked out a future roadmap for NRC.
‘Implementation of NRC Considered To Be of Exclusionary Intention’
NRC was first implemented in 1951 based on census data available then. Recently, the NRC was updated in Assam following the directive of the Supreme Court after a petition was filed by a non-government organisation from the state seeking a remedy to the problem of illegal migration.
The final list published in 2019 included a total of 3,11,21,004 out of the 3,30,27,661 applicants. The 19 lakh people, who have been excluded in the final list, have been promised to be equally treated as citizens of India till they have exhausted all the redressal options.
Around 100 Foreigners Tribunal has been established in Assam to resolve cases of the illegal migrants. Besides, they have the option of moving to the regular courts if they do not get a satisfactory response.
Despite these provisions, the NRC left a feeling of uncertainty and fear of being stateless amongst the impacted people.
The problem regarding NRC further intensified following some whispers about its nationwide implementation, that resulted in wide scale protests.
Implementation of NRC was largely considered to be of exclusionary intention, targeting one particular community. The Union government, however, has repeatedly informed that it had no such motivation. Despite the claim, people remain suspicious of the government’s intentions about the NRC.
Normally, issues like citizenship are a prerogative of the sovereign state. The NRC issue shows that citizenship is not always considered as an internal affair, especially when the sole purpose of such an initiative is to identify foreigners.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been the root of the NRC initiative in Assam. Experiences suggest India’s initiative to tackle the problem of foreigners internally have been insufficient.
Failure of the Illegal Migrant Determination Tribunal (IMDT) established in Assam, following the enactment of IMDT Act 1983, which was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2005, has been the biggest example.
Thus, the government has to think of an alternative as the NRC has not proven to be a suitable solution to the problem either.
NRC Exposes Flaws in Governance Mechanism
The NRC has put forward some of the weaknesses of India’s governance mechanism that need immediate remedy.
Firstly, it has to address the governance delivery system in the grassroots, primarily in the border states, because the people have to submit identity proofs that were issued by the government.
By denying citizenship, will the government not question its own identity mechanism?
Secondly, it also highlighted the need to develop skills for holistic policy planning. The question arises, If none of the foreigners detected are sent back, what has been the purpose of the exercise that cost around Rs 1,200 crore of public money?
In an ethnically varied state like Assam, and given the focus of the NRC debate, majority of people might be happy if the migrants are dispatched to other parts of India, as this will help reduce the perceived burden on the state.
What guarantee exists in places where they will be resettled, that they will not face similar socio-political tensions as witnessed in Assam? Also, will this be humane because people who migrate largely do so out of despair and as the last resort?
The most common causes of migration are economic compulsions, persecution – religious, ethnic, racial etc – impact of natural disasters like floods, education and so on.
More significantly, since people have been living in a place with the idea of home, displacing them from that place may create significant psychological trauma, which often leads to various delinquencies. Have all these issues have been factored in?
The NRC remains an unresolved puzzle and the solution to it will be a test of time. What would be most crucial is to keep politics above the next steps.
(Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is Senior Fellow at ORF. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)