Torn between two allies

India’s Citizenship Bill is jeopardising its vital relationship with neighbouring Bangladesh, with potentially troubling results. Jayanta Roy Chowdhury reports

India’s new law on citizenship, which seeks to grant citizenship rights to religious minorities from neighbouring countries, has suddenly become the subject of a raging controversy in Bangladesh, threatening the South Asian giant’s relations with its eastern neighbour and giving arch-rival China space to move into a geographically strategic nation.

The law change, enacted last year, sparked protests within and beyond India. It particularly irked three of its neighbours, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, drawing criticism from several serving and former heads of state.

However, India’s potentially biggest diplomatic loss is the animosity towards the bill in Bangladesh, its closest ally in the region barring Bhutan. The country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina – a long-term close friend of India – has gone on record wondering why India enacted the legislation. which specifically allows minority Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Buddhists from the three neighbouring countries with an Islamic majority to migrate to India as citizens.

In an interview with Gulf News Hasina stated: ‘We don’t understand why [India] did it [bring in a new citizenship act]. It was not necessary.’In a rare show of ire, Bangladesh also cancelled the previously scheduled trips of its foreign and home ministers to India.

Hasina made these comments after several rounds of meetings with India’s top leadership, in which she was told that the law is India’s internal affair. Some say she also sought private assurances that it will not result in any pushback of suspected illegal migrants to Bangladesh.

Behind the diplomatic frost is a very serious problem that the Hasina government faces back home due to India’s citizenship bill. On the one hand the bill paints Bangladesh as an Islamic country which discriminates against its minorities, something the Hasina government vociferously denies by brandishing its secular credentials.

Religious radicals in Bangladesh have found the bill a rallying point

On the other, many in Bangladesh consider the bill to be discriminatory against Bengali-speaking Muslims. They point to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the Indian state of Assam bordering Bangladesh, where a ‘weeding out  of foreigners’ from electoral polling lists has left millions, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, in a stateless situation, as proof of perceived discrimination.

While some of those now termed ‘foreigners’ may well be Bangladeshis who crossed the border illegally in search of land or jobs, many are Indians born and brought up in Assam but caught in the maze of bureaucratic and legal red tape that demands documentary evidence as proof of citizenship, which many illiterate or even educated Indians do not have.

With the Indian Parliament’s passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), those among these hapless millions who are non-Muslims can theoretically claim to be Bangladeshis who have fled to India on account of religious persecution and become naturalised Indian citizens. However, Bengali Muslims caught in the dragnet, whether Indian or Bangladeshi, may face deportation or life in a detention camp.

Fears of a possible reverse migration from her larger neighbour, resulting from the combination of India’s NRC and CAA, have already been speculated upon by the Bangladeshi media and are grist for heated debates across the country. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K.A Momen, who recently cancelled a trip to India, has gone on record to state that Bangladesh will take back any of its citizens who entered India illegally – ‘if any’ – provided India comes up with a list and proof that they are Bangladeshis. Momen has also been quoted as stating: ‘But if anybody other than our citizens enter Bangladesh, we will send them back.’

Religious radicals in Bangladesh, who have borne the brunt of concerted attempts by the Hasina government to stamp out Islamist terror outfits, have found the bill a rallying point with which to counter-attack her. These groups – some legitimate, some banned – are effectively using social media to target the Awami League government, which has in any case been losing popularity lately on account of corruption within the party.

As it is, Sheikh Hasina’s rivals in Khaelda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and motley Islamists of various hues have long accused Hasina and the Awami League of being unduly friendly towards India, granting it ‘favours’ in trade and connectivity. This is a perception that now seems to be finding increasing resonance among the masses, given the propaganda war unleashed by Islamic radicals.

This new attack on Hasina for siding with an anti-Muslim nation not only complicates matters for her but also threatens Bangladesh’s relations with India.

At the same time, minorities in Bangladesh, whose numbers have been falling with every decade, have voiced apprehension that this law supposedly favouring them could be used as an excuse by radical Islamists to push them out of the country. With a bitter history of facing up to riots in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid in India in 1992 and on several other occasions when religious riots were engineered, it is only natural for the small community, not more than 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population, to be afraid.

The CAA sparked protests within and beyond India
The CAA sparked protests within and beyond India

Far worse from India’s point of view, it could also push Bangladesh into a deeper relationship with China. Hasina, like her father and Bangladesh’s founder, the late Sheikh Mujibbur Rahman, wisely made improving relations with India a foreign policy priority early in her rule.

She shut down camps set up by rebels from India’s north-east, who had allegedly beenwooed with shelter and logistics by previous Bangladeshi governments, in tandem with Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI. She also re-opened travel and trade routes,and Bangladesh signed deals with the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura to buy much needed electricity from India, and allowed Indians to trans-ship vital power generation equipment through Bangladeshi ports into India’s remote north-east.

However, wary of past accusations of cosying up to India, Hasina has tried to balance this relationship by also befriending China. Military hardware, including tanks, jets and submarines has been purchased or leased from China. After signing a defence cooperation pact with Beijing, Bangladesh went on a buying spree for Chinese military equipment. China has long become Bangladesh’s largest trade partner and an important study destination for its students. Large infrastructure building contracts have been awarded to Chinese firms.

China, which is investing some $10 billion in Belt and Road projects in this geographically vital nation that sits astride India’s road and sea links with South-East Asia, is involved in modernising and developing Bangladesh’s largest port, Chittagong, an industrial park to go with the port, and a giant bridge over the Padma River. It may soon build another vital port named Payra.

‘Bangladesh has used Chinese help such as in getting submarines from that nation to maintain its relevance and place in the bay of Bengal region… till now that has not proven to be threat to us,’ says Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd.),a former Flag Officer commanding India’s Western Fleet.

According to diplomats, many ministers in Hasina’s cabinet are believed to be pro-China and the souring of relations with India, Bangladesh’s closest ally till now, may well see them urge the mercurial Prime Minister to draw the Bengali-speaking nation into a closer embrace with the dragon.

At stake would benot only India’s external security and its ambitions of building road and railway links with East Asia through Myanmar and Thailand in a grand spice route rivalling China’s costlier silk route, but also the security scenario in India’s vital north-east.

From the 1950s, Pakistan’s intelligence agency has been actively assisting Indian rebel groups from various north-eastern states, including Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, in posing a challenge to India. One of the targets of India’s intervention in 1971 to help liberate Bangladesh was to bust the rebel camps located mostly in Chittagong hill tracts. Many in India’s security establishment believe that Pakistan was covertly aided by China in this effort to destabilise India.

The only periods when India has had a respite from this ‘war of a thousand cuts’ have been when the Awami League has been in power.  Which way the wind will blow in this vital relationship between the two neighbours will now depend on how the issue is treated by both Indian leaders and diplomats, as well as by the way Bangladesh perceives those overtures.

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is a senior Indian journalist

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