Bangladesh concerned about fallout from India's citizen register

Party supporters gather as President of the Bharatiya Janata Party Amit Shah addresses a mass gathering in Kolkata on Oct 10, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - India has sought to reassure Bangladesh that the move to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the eastern Indian state of Assam is its "internal matter".

However, it has failed to allay Bangladesh's concerns over potential bilateral and domestic repercussions of the controversial exercise, which may see some of those eventually declared stateless crossing over the border into Bangladesh.

The NRC figured in bilateral discussions when Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India from Oct 3 to 6.

The country's foreign secretary Md Shahidul Haque told reporters in New Delhi during the visit that "our relationship is best of the best at present. But at the same time, we are keeping our eyes quite open (on NRC)."

The final NRC list published on Aug 31 has left out around 1.9 million individuals in Assam. These suspected foreigners have to now approach Foreigners Tribunals to prove they are Indian.

It is an effort to detect undocumented migrants in a state that has faced illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh over many years. It has been mandated and monitored by the Supreme Court and the Indian government has described it as a "non-discriminatory process, which leaves no room for bias".

But across the border in Bangladesh, perceptions of the NRC exercise are different.

"There is widespread apprehension among Bangladeshis that the NRC process is essentially geared towards expulsion of Muslims living in India who are unable to prove their nationality," Mr Tariq A. Karim, a former Bangladeshi high commissioner to India, told The Straits Times.

Many in Assam share a common language with Bangladeshis, and are of the same ethnicity and religion.

It is widely believed that a majority of those excluded from the final NRC list are genuine Indians, including Hindus, who have failed to prove their citizenship because of inadequate documentation.

Top federal and state leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have publicly promised to help non-Muslims left out of the NRC through a proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill that will offer citizenship for non-Muslim minorities who have come to India seeking refuge from three Muslim-majority countries - Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

No such offer has been made by the BJP to Muslims left out of the NRC.

In one of her addresses in New Delhi, Ms Hasina urged South Asia to shun the "majority-minority mindset". "We should be able to celebrate South Asia's regional, ethnic and linguistic diversity. This is fundamental," she said.

Referring to this speech, Mr Karim said the Bangladeshi PM had "forcefully voiced her misgivings".

"Bangladesh has this time upped the ante in its diplomatic interlocution with India," he added.

Besides being detained, there is no clarity yet on what will happen to those declared stateless.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that individuals who have spent more than three years in detention can be released under some conditions, it is not known what rights they will have as "illegal foreigners" in India.

There have been unofficial suggestions indicating that they be given work permits, but their right to vote, own property and enjoy state benefits may be withdrawn.

Deportation has been ruled out because of lack of evidence to prove that these individuals are Bangladeshis.

Between 2015 and 2018, the government deported only four of 46,000 illegal foreigners identified in Assam.

A recent right to information application filed by Indian website revealed that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had not held any talks with Bangladesh about the deportation of those declared foreigners in Assam.

The Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi did not respond to a request for comment on this matter.

But fears that some of the stateless individuals could end up on the other side of the border have not been dismissed.

"Perceptions of tepid Indian response and reluctance to pressurise Myanmar (on the Rohingya issue) has reinforced Bangladeshi perceptions of Indian insensitivity and intentions vis-a-vis the plight of Muslims in India as well the emotion of Muslims in Bangladesh," former diplomat Mr Karim said.

"This is increasingly fuelling fears that India too will follow suit, at least in forcibly attempting to push into Bangladesh their unwanted Muslim nationals in Assam and elsewhere," he added.

In a rally speech in West Bengal in April, Mr Amit Shah, now the Indian Home Minister but then the BJP president, described Bangladeshi illegal immigrants as "termites", saying a BJP government would "throw them into the Bay of Bengal".

Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, who teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka and is the director of its Centre for Genocide Studies, said that if the NRC crisis spills over to Bangladesh, it could create more problems for India.

"It may sound odd but India needs Bangladesh more than we need India. It has more cards to play in the relationship," he said, referring to how the Hasina-led government has helped India deal with insurgency in its north-east and could choose to rely more on China than India for development.

"If you (India) make the lives for those declared foreigners really unbearable in Assam and if the bulk of them end up being Muslim Bengalis and if they start telling stories that this is how we were treated... don't forget, there is a sizeable (Hindu) minority in Bangladesh," Prof Ahmed added.

"This will create space for communal forces in Bangladesh. Why would Delhi carry out politics which will empower the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh and knowingly put its minorities into trouble? It doesn't make any sense," he told The Straits Times.

There is a sizeable anti-Indian constituency in Bangladesh that believes their country has not been given a fair share in the relationship with India, including Islamic fundamentalists opposed to India.

"The only thing that makes sense in all of this, in Amit Shah calling people termites is that they want to use the NRC issue to remain in power. It is an easy communal card to play," Prof Ahmed said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.