Bangladesh's concern

Neighbour’s worries over CAA and NRC

Print edition : January 03, 2020
There is a fear in Bangladesh that the NRC and the CAA may trigger an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and create a Rohingya-like crisis.

A general concern was noticed across Bangladesh after India’s publication of the first draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the north-eastern State of Assam. The draft, with 1.9 crore names, was released on the intervening night of December 31 and January 1, 2018. The concern deepened when the second and final draft was published on July 30, 2018. Many of those left out, whose families had lived in Assam for generations, doubted the fairness of the process; some even said that the complicated process was adopted to deceive the vast majority of people.

The tension heightened further when more than 19 lakh people, out of 3.29 crore applicants, were excluded from the final NRC list, which was published on August 31, 2019. Bangladesh’s civil society, commentators and the media feared that the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of people, who were mostly Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus, from the NRC list would have a negative impact on the region. The concern was not without basis, going by the decades-old campaign in Assam to drive out “Bengali migrants”, most of whose ancestors had settled in Assam during the colonial era from East Bengal, which became East Pakistan in 1947 and independent Bangladesh in 1971 after a bloody war of liberation against Pakistan. The settlers in Assam also came from other Indian States, including West Bengal.

The concern was genuine in view of Assam’s long history of ethnic rivalries, especially the prolonged anti-Bengali agitation followed by repeated violence, which first erupted in 1979, and led up to the massacre in February 1983 when more than 2,000 people were killed in Nellie and 13 nearby villages in Assam’s Nagaon district.

Understandably, to lessen the NRC tension, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, explained to national editors at that time that Bangladesh should have nothing to worry about. He said making a list of citizens in Assam was an internal matter of India and it would not affect the country’s bilateral relations with Bangladesh.

“No person will be harassed and no one will be allowed to create fear or panic,” said the Government of India in a statement, which also said the authorities would provide all necessary help to the government of Assam in this regard.

India had reassured Bangladesh, its friendly neighbour, that the NRC would not affect it. However, New Delhi has failed to allay the natural concerns over potential domestic repercussions, which may see some of those eventually declared stateless crossing the border. Therefore, though the NRC and the CAB are entirely domestic exercises of India, they have caused concern in Bangladesh.

There is a general fear in Bangladesh that the NRC and the CAB might trigger an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and create another Rohingya-like crisis for Bangladesh, which the country cannot bear. A section of the people fear that the would-be scenario might affect India’s relations with Bangladesh, which have been steadily improving since Sheikh Hasina took over as Prime Minister in January 2009.

Not to speak of communal or extremist forces, which are the perpetual critics of “Hindu India”, secular and pro-liberation Bangladesh is also concerned about the CAB. Its fears that the situation might encourage Islamist fundamentalists and the defeated forces of the 1971 liberation war to gain strength and force Hindu and other minorities to migrate to India. Muslims make up 89.1 per cent of the population in Bangladesh followed by Hindus, who form nearly 10 per cent, and people of other religions, such as Buddhists and Christians, 0.9 per cent.

When Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi met in New Delhi on October 5, 2019, the NRC issue, by most accounts, figured in their discussions. Sheikh Hasina had flagged the issue during her previous meeting with Modi in New York on September 27 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session where Modi, according to Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that Dhaka had nothing to be worried about.

The NRC and the CAB, according to some analysts, may pose a challenge to the pro-secular parties in power. The Islamist groups, they think, might make a big issue of the denial of citizenship to tens of thousands of Bengali Muslims in Assam. Bangladesh’s political commentators say that the final NRC and the CAB are a blight on India’s humanitarian spirit, which saw the country give shelter to ten million Bangladeshis in 1971, when Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists were fighting for independence from Pakistan. Assam was one of the four Indian States that sheltered hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi refugees, and lent unequivocal support to Bangladesh’s independence struggle.

In an initial reaction, Bangladesh rejected the remarks made by a section of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leaders on the condition of religious minorities in the country. “What they are saying with regard to torture of Hindus is unwarranted as well as untrue…. There are very few countries in the world where communal harmony is as good as in Bangladesh. As a friendly country, we hope that India will not do something that affects our friendly relationship,” said Abdul Momen. He, however, said: “The matter has just come to our attention. We will study it minutely, and afterwards we will take this matter up with them.”

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) expressed resentment over the comments of Home Minister Amit Shah. The party’s secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, said: “We have nothing to say much on it as it is their internal matter. But we think it’s the duty of us to say on the matter when their comment, any responsible leader’s comment creates problem in our internal politics.” The BNP, which has been out of power since 2007, claimed that there were no instances of repression of minorities in Bangladesh when it was in power, which is grossly untrue.

The Communist Party of Bangladesh said a Bill such as the CAB would communalise the region as a whole. Newspaper commentators fear that it might create a negative impact on domestic politics.

Bangladesh cannot be called a “theocratic state”, nor can it be equated with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its predominantly Muslim population is not the same as those in the other two countries. Sufi Islam and Bengal’s rich culture and heritage make the difference.

However, isolated attacks on religious minorities by religious zealots, who often slam the minorities for blasphemy, cannot be denied. But the truly secular Sheikh Hasina government has taken prompt action against the perpetrators. The law enforcement agencies, political leaders and the vibrant civil society remained vigilant against the bigots to resist the vandalism of minorities’ properties and desecration of temples.

What comes as a shock to the proponents of secularism in Bangladesh is the branding of the country along with some theocratic states. They ask: Can or should India bracket Bangladesh with Pakistan or Afghanistan—historically, culturally, politically and morally?

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