Bangladesh worried CAB-NRC will end golden chapter in Delhi-Dhaka ties


Dhaka: Bangladesh’s political leadership and diplomats have followed the debate in India on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [CAB] with growing wariness over the past few months. It is unlikely that they missed public comments by Indian leaders in Parliament this week about the deportation of all illegal migrants and the “persecution” of minorities in neighbouring countries.

Some 1.9 million were excluded from the final NRC for Assam, one of the states in India’s strategically important North-east, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in the state have often spoken about the deportation of these people. While these public remarks don’t usually name the country to which such people will be deported, it is assumed by almost everyone that the destination will be Bangladesh.

The NRC issue figured during Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s meeting with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi in October, with Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque saying after the talks that Dhaka takes comfort from New Delhi’s assurances that the implementation of NRC is an internal matter but will keep a close eye on developments.

After the contentious debate in Parliament on CAB, it is now obvious that the discomfort in Dhaka is increasing, especially at a time when India-Bangladesh relations are going through what leaders on both sides describe as a “shonali odhyay”.

Even before CAB was passed by the Rajya Sabha, Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen took umbrage at Indian home minister Amit Shah’s remarks about the oppression of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, including their reported inability to undertake religious activities.

Momen told Dhaka Tribune on Tuesday: “What they are saying in regards to torture on Hindus is unwarranted as well as untrue.”

He added: “There are very few countries in the world where communal harmony is as good as in Bangladesh. We have no minorities. We are all equal. If he stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see the exemplary communal harmony in our country.”

Noting that India has “many problems” of its own, Momen added, “As a friendly country, we hope that India will not do something that affects our friendly relationship.”

Even before CAB reached Parliament, Bangladesh’s outgoing high commissioner to India, Syed Muazzem Ali, bristled at suggestions that people from his country were sneaking into India’s North-east in search of better economic prospects.

“There has been so much criticism of Bangladesh in North-east India because of alleged illegal immigration from our side, but let me tell you that a person of my country would rather swim in the ocean and reach Italy instead of coming to India. A citizen of Bangladesh would like to go to a place where he can earn more but as you know the per capita income in India is not that high,” Ali said at a farewell news conference at the Press Club of India.

Ali’s stand is buttressed by the fact that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) recently revised Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate for 2019 from 8% to 8.1%, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, and several projections suggest that Bangladesh’s per capita income could outpace India’s by 2020.

Bangladesh’s diplomats are concerned about the potential for issues such as NRC and CAB to cause disquiet among their country’s population.

In other interactions with Indian journalists, Ali has pointed out that Bangladesh has surpassed the US in sending foreign tourists to India – 2.8 million Bangladeshis visited the country last year – and that thousands of Indians now work in Bangladesh.

“We have noted India’s stand that these are internal issues, but our people see the public comments by India’s leadership on deportations, especially during election campaigns, and are worried. What do we tell them?” a senior Bangladeshi diplomat said during a recent interaction, asking not to be named.

A second Delhi-based Bangladeshi diplomat, who too declined to be named, said: “We are your closest friend in South Asia. It’s a little hard for Bangladesh to understand why a friend like India is treating us this way on things like NRC.”

Since she assumed power, Prime Minister Hasina has worked closely with India on both development and security issues. The successful resolution of the land and maritime border issues gave a boost to ties despite the lack of progress on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river, a strategic and emotional issue for Dhaka.

Experts fear the contentious elements introduced by CAB and NRC, or the angry rhetoric surrounding them, could undo a lot of this good work.


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