Originally Published 2020-03-06 12:00:11 Published on Mar 06, 2020
Will Modi’s Bangladesh visit soothe ruffled feathers over NRC-CAA?

PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, later this month, will provide a good opportunity for applying the proverbial balm on the hurt feelings over the CAA and unwarranted pejorative comments by senior Indian ministers on illegal Bangladeshi migrants. This would be PM Modi’s second visit to Bangladesh after several high-level visits by Indian ministers, including External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla has also travelled to Dhaka, on his first visit, to prepare the ground for PM Modi’s visit.

On the CAA, Bangladesh made its displeasure known by cancelling several ministerial visits.

The singling out of Bangladesh, together with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Islamic countries where non-Muslims minorities have been mistreated and forced to flee to India, has caused anguish in Bangladesh. Among the three countries named in the CAA, Bangladesh has the highest percentage of non-Muslims, mainly Hindus, who comprise around 9-10 percent of the 160 million population of Bangladesh.

Anxiety Over NRC-CAA in Bangladesh

It is true that millions of Hindus were forced to migrate to India escaping communal violence after Partition and later, during communal riots in East Pakistan. There was a huge surge in Hindu migration during the pre-1971 War, when Hindus were targeted for genocide by the Pakistan Army. In independent Bangladesh, there has been spikes in Hindu migration during the BNP-Jamaat regime, though it is undeniable that both Hindus and Muslims have crossed the border into India in a steady flow, the former for refuge, and the latter for better economic prospects. Even this residual migration has now become a trickle, as Hindus feel more secure under PM Hasina’s government, and Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance makes it less attractive for Muslims to come across for economic reasons.

While there have been stray cases of harassment of Hindus in Bangladesh, it cannot be said that such cases have increased during the last decade that PM Hasina has led the government.

In fact, PM Hasina has increased the number of Hindu officials in higher echelons of her government, by way of informal affirmative action. The NRC in Assam and the CAA has triggered cases of reverse migration of illegal Bangladeshi migrants from India. The numbers are not large, but this has received wide media coverage, causing anxiety and concern in Bangladesh. These migrants have all claimed that they went to India for work, lending credibility to India’s position that there are illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, though numbers are debatable.

Are Bangladesh’s Concerns Justified?

What is not debatable is the rise of conservative Islamists in Bangladesh, the moderate among whom, like the Hefazet, have been coddled, but the extremists, inspired by jihadi fervour and ISIS into acts of violence, have been dealt with a heavy hand by PM Hasina’s government. As for coddling the moderate Islamists, these have focussed on removing statues from the Supreme Court premises, expunging stories of Hindu authors from school text books, and recognition of Madrassah degrees. More extreme demands like the application of the Sharia law, banishment of Ahmadiyyas from Islam, ceasing music and dance, have been ignored. PM Hasina, often attacked by hard-line Islamists like the Jamaat-e-Islami, for being ‘anti-Islam’, has had to balance the hard lines with the Hefazet. It is a political exercise in balancing and counterbalancing in a predominantly Muslim country.

Foreign Secretary Shringla has shouldered the delicate task of conveying assurances to Bangladesh’s leadership that the NRC and the CAA are entirely ‘internal matters’.

In a public address at the government funded think-tank, Bangladesh Institute of Strategic Studies , Shringla emphasised that the NRC was mandated by the Supreme Court of India, and inevitably, such “events in each other’s countries create ripples across the border — irrespective of whether there is real justification”. Shringla appears to question that the worry in Bangladesh may not be justified.

Has Shringla’s Comments Smoothed the Way for PM Modi’s Visit to Bangladesh?

Shringla also reiterated that “there will be no implications for the government and people of Bangladesh. You have our assurance on that account,” hinting, perhaps, that India will not take any measures to forcibly send back Bangladeshi illegal migrants. With evidence emerging of ‘detention centres’ being built, speculation has arisen that these would be used to incarcerate illegal migrants. The Assam NRC has thrown up around 7 lakh illegal Muslim migrants. The non-Muslim illegal migrants, deemed to be persecuted refugees, will be fast-tracked into Indian citizenship under the CAA. It could also indicate that India may be toying with the idea of granting resident status to illegal Bangladeshi migrants, with right to work but no rights that accrue out of citizenship.

PM Modi’s forthcoming visit will be as a special guest and keynote speaker, for ‘Mujib Borsho’ or Mujib Year on 17 March, that will mark the beginning of the birth centenary celebrations of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, PM Hasina’s father. Bangladesh has also invited former President Pranab Mukherjee and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi for the 50th Independence Day celebrations on 26 March. PM Hasina has had close personal relations with former President Mukherjee and the Gandhi family. Shringla’s comments will smoothen the way for the visit, and may well be a precursor for conveying assurances at the PM’s level.

Good Relations With Bangladesh are Vital for a Peaceful & Secure Sub-Region

There has been growing criticism of PM Hasina by opposition parties and anti-Indian quarters for her policies that have brought the two countries closer, as a result of strategic understanding of crucial issues of security, trade, investment, connectivity and energy cooperation. Critics of PM Hasina point fingers at the unfinished agenda of sharing river waters, the still-born Teesta water sharing agreement, vetoed by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee while Bangladesh has accepted Indian demands on security, transit and connectivity. Some in Bangladesh have called for cancelling the invitation to PM Modi, a demand summarily rejected by Bangladesh’s government.

Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia and connectivity via Bangladesh is important for the development of India’s north-eastern states. Bangladesh is also a crucial partner for India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and sub-regional cooperation under the rubric of BBIN. Good relations with Bangladesh are vital for a peaceful and secure sub-region, sometimes wracked by insurgencies and crises, like the forced migration of Rohingya from Myanmar. PM Modi’s visit will convey that India is committed to a close and productive relationship with Bangladesh and will do its utmost to promote mutually beneficial ties.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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