June 27, 2020
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Citizenship Amendment Bill Has Bangladesh On Tenterhooks, Relationship With India May Suffer

Narendra Modi has assured Sheikh Hasina repeatedly that Dhaka has nothing to worry but the CAB and the NRC could change all equations

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Citizenship Amendment Bill Has Bangladesh On Tenterhooks, Relationship With India May Suffer
Modi with Hasina at Visva Bharati University
Photograph by PTI
Citizenship Amendment Bill Has Bangladesh On Tenterhooks, Relationship With India May Suffer

Irrespective of whether it is the perception of a condescending ‘bully’ or because of its over­bearing presence, India’s popularity among its South Asian neighbours has mostly been short-lived. Encouragingly, in recent years, Bangladesh seemed to have bucked that trend. The transformative cooperation that India and Bangladesh has embarked upon in the past four years, elevating their bilateral relation to a new high, had become a cause for great satisfaction for the leadership of both nations. But the Sheikh Hasina government is now in a bind over its future with New Delhi.

Insiders point out that recent political developments in India have led sections within her own administration to raise questions about what possible ramifications they might have on bilateral ties. There are also informal rep­orts that villagers along the border with India on the Bangladeshi side have been asked by security forces to keep vigil to thwart any Indian attempt to push back ‘illegal immigrants’ at night. Rounding up of people perceived to be Bangladeshi immigrants and threats of them being deported appears to have spread alarm in Bangladesh.

“The government will face a serious challenge to deal with the fallout of political developments in India,” observes a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary. Many Indian diplomats, especially those who have had a stint in Dhaka, seemed to agree, confirming an unease in the relationship that has begun to creep in.

The controversial legislation in India, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, and the National Register of Citizens have evoked strong reactions from countries in the neighbourhood and  far beyond.

Pakistan, unremitting in its hostility to India over decades, reacted on predictable lines. “The legislation is in complete contravention of various bil­ateral agreements between Pakistan and India, particularly the one concerning security and rights of minorities in respective countries,” its foreign office said in a statement.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan also condemned the CAB for violating global and bilateral agreements and dubbed it as “part of the RSS Hindu Rashtra design of expansionism propagated by the fascist Modi government.”

Protests against the CAB has rocked Guwahati.

Photograph by PTI

Equally strong was the response from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which pointed out that religious pluralism was a fundamental value shared by India and the US, suggesting that any violation of that should prompt sanctions on Union home minister Amit Shah and other leaders.

The external affairs ministry reacted sharply, stating that the critics had scant knowledge of what was happening in India and their views ref­lected their bias. MEA spokesman Rav­eesh Kumar argued that the CAB and the NRC doesn’t seek to strip citizenship from any Indian citizen of any faith.

Though “illegal immigrants” from Ban­gladesh are at the core of the ong­oing furore, there was no official reaction from the eastern neighbour on developments in India’s Parliament.

The silence on Dhaka’s part can perhaps be understood in the present context of its relation with New Delhi. In recent interactions between Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi, the Indian premier has repeatedly assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that there was nothing for her to worry as these were related to internal developments in India. Therefore, Hasina is unlikely to make any public statement unless the ground situation proves otherwise.

Modi has assured Hasina repeatedly that Dhaka has nothing to worry.It explains her silence thus far.

Significantly, too, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar took time out from his busy schedule to make a brief appe­arance on December 10 at the farewell reception of the outgoing Ban­­g­­la­desh high commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali. Jaishankar’s very presence was an att­empt to tell Ali and his government about the importance India attaches to the relationship. Visibly touched by the gesture of the minister, Ali also delved into the progress made by India and Bangladesh on a wide range of areas in his speech. Jaishankar’s Bangladeshi counterpart, A.K. Abdul Momen, will be in Delhi from December 12-14 to hold talks on some of these issues.

True, since Modi’s visit to Dhaka in 2015, bilateral relations have taken a visibly upward trajectory where the two sides have worked together or paved the way for possible cooperation in various areas for mutual benefit. The long- pending land and maritime boundary between the two sides were settled, inc­luding the exchange of enclaves.

In this period, over 90 agreements had been signed by the two sides that range from cooperation in hi-tech, cyber security, civil nuclear energy, space, IT and electronics. Besides, trade volume has also increased from $7 billion to $9 billion. In addition, there have been infrastructure agreements to enhance connectivity and setting up of an oil pipeline connection to help the Northeast.

However, all this has also been possible through engagements at the highest political level—indeed, there were nine prime ministerial and presidential visits.

The Manmohan Singh-led UPA government also had warm relations with Hasina. But back then, too, India’s inability to deliver on the Teesta river water sharing treaty, which became an emotive issue in Bangladesh, raised doubts about New Delhi’s intentions in Dhaka.

After Modi’s 2015 visit to Bangladesh, much of the apprehension that people had about him was put to rest. Though the Teesta agreement proved elusive, New Delhi’s unqualified support for Hasina, making it clear that the Awami League government was India’s best bet in Dhaka, helped her win the 2018 elections easily and consolidate her position.

For India, a reliable ally like Hasina not only takes care of its security interests along much of its eastern flank, but the success in transforming India-Bangladesh relations as a mutually beneficial one also helps New Delhi in showcasing it as a model while dealing with other neighbours.

The leadership in India and Bangladesh now face a challenge in dealing with the current disruption brought about by the CAB and the looming presence of the NRC.

“It needs mature handling and constant engagement between the two sides,” suggests Veena Sikri, former Ind­ian envoy to Bangla­desh. Sikri ack­nowledges that recent developments relating to the CAB and NCR are sensitive and “potentially divisive” issues. “There is no dearth of people in Bangladesh who are waiting to muddy the water,” she points out, referring to the anti-Indian sections in the neighbouring country that had been marginalised in recent years because of the upswing in India-Bangladesh relations.

For the moment, the ground situation in India as and when the controversial legislation is enacted is being keenly watched by all. The fallout will certainly affect India-Bangla­desh ties. But unless handled with care, there is no guarantee that they will remain confined to one neighbour. The pot­ential upheaval and disturbance may well leave its mark over a much wider swathe in our region.

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