By Ashis Biswas
After Nepal, it could be the turn of Bangladesh to see a revival of anti-Indian political forces and fresh tensions against the minority Hindu community over the NRC controversy in Assam. Sentiments in Bangladesh have been aroused in recent times over repeated contemptuous references by top BJP leaders to Bangladeshis as ‘illegal infiltrators who must be thrown out’ and ‘termites’ undercutting the Indian economy.
Jamat-e-Islami, the major Islamist group that supported Pakistan during the Bangladeshi struggle for independence and its consistent opposition to India, has launched a pointed attack against Awami League (AL) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for allowing India to use the facilities of the Mongla and Chittagong ports. According to reports in Bangladesh media, JI general Secretary Shafiqur Islam asked her to clarify why such concessions were given to India, a country about to expel lakhs of Muslims on religious grounds from Assam. Muslims were also being killed regularly in ‘anti-Muslim India‘, he alleged.
The JI and its major political partner Bangladesh nationalist party (BNP) have been on the back foot during Sheikh Hasina’s present tenure. General elections in Bangladesh will be held in a few months. Already opposition parties are talking about fresh coalitions. Recent developments in Assam and the BJP’s anti-minority rhetoric have enabled them to stage a comeback against the avowedly secular AL.
During the present tenure of the AL, Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations and economic ties have been upgraded to a new level, resulting in economic benefits for both countries. By allowing India road and other transit rights, Bangladesh earns hefty annual fees, while there is a substantial reduction in terms of costs, travel time and pollution in goods movements in the region.
In the process, Bangladesh has emerged as India’s staunchest ally not only in South Asia, but in different international fora as well. This has resulted in a major diplomatic dividend in India’s favour. Bangladesh has consistently condemned Pakistan’s policy of exporting terrorism among its neighbours along with Afghanistan and Bhutan, at the UN and other gatherings. At home, too Bangladesh has dealt ruthlessly with its home grown, pro-Pak Islamist extremists and cracked down on separatist Indian organizations taking shelter on its territory.
While it would be too alarmist to conclude that bilateral relations are already under threat between Delhi and Dhaka, there is no denying that aggressive anti-minority rants from top BJP leaders have made things very difficult for the Bangladeshi Prime minister and secularist forces in general. At the best of times, Sheikh Hasina along with other AL leaders are regularly derided as ’Indian stooges’ by the opposition. Now they have to face much more flak from the islamists, some of it unprintable!
The BJP’s present campaign against illegal Muslim immigrants, especially the language and threats it employs, naturally strengthens the position of the anti-Indian parties and forces. “India must understand the dangers of this approach. If Bangladesh turns hostile, Delhi will be truly isolated in South Asia. In BJP’s bid to win more votes in domestic elections, India may end up squandering hard earned diplomatic goodwill in the region and beyond,” says an observer. Not surprisingly, BNP leaders have also attacked the AL and India over present developments, indicating that the NRC exercise fallout is already a live political issue in Bangladesh.
So far official Bangladeshi reaction has been low key. The prime minister has not commented on the threat posed to Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam because of the NRC upgrading exercise. Bangladeshi diplomats and senior ministers insist that they have heard nothing about India seeking to repatriate lakhs of disenfranchised people to their country.
Dhaka’s stand on illegal immigrants is that if it is convinced about the Bangladeshi origin of any person about to be sent back, repatriation would follow. The onus of evidence would be on the Indian authorities. As for the NRC upgrading exercise and its aftermath, it is entirely India’s problem.
From all indications, with both Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheiklh Hasina not going public, it is clear that the strange predicament of the Assam-based non- Indian peoples (if any) is yet to be settled at the highest level. Both the BJP and the AL are subject to compulsions of their domestic politics and respective constituencies.
Media pressure on both BJP and AL in both countries has also increased. Following a recent disclosure from a section of the Bangladeshi political establishment suggesting that Prime minister Hasina has been personally assured ‘at the highest level that there would be no deportation of illegal migrants’, the issue has been taken up by the Indian opposition.
INC spokesmen Randeep Singh Surjewalla has accused BJP leaders of using double standards if they say one thing in India and quite another to Bangladeshi leaders about the problem of illegal migration..
Meanwhile, even as the political leadership in both countries gets entangled over a highly sensitive issue, observers feel that the possibility of a regional political and diplomatic fallout should have been examined by India’s Supreme Court before giving its nod to the NRC upgrading exercise.
Former Congress chief minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi has suggested as a way out of the present impasse that people whose names figure in the voters’ list should all be accepted as citizens of India. He recently told the media that this alone could help settle the question of citizenship.
Unfortunately, hardline leaders of the violent anti–foreigners agitation in Assam had not accepted the electoral rolls as conclusive evidence of one’s citizenship. No one really expects Gogoi’s suggestion to be taken seriously. (IPA Service)