Bangladesh-India 'golden chapter in ties' rocked by Delhi's new citizenship law

Protesters march against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Mumbai on Dec 13, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - India views its relationship with neighbour Bangladesh as being trouble free in a neighbourhood beset with multiple problems.

It is even said the two countries are enjoying a "golden chapter" in ties.

But that close relationship appears to have hit some turbulence, with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan at the last moment cancelling separate visits to India. These came just a day after India's passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that provides citizenship to persecuted Bangladeshi immigrants, among others.

The Bill, which sailed through Parliament with approval by the Upper House on Wednesday, became law on Friday with presidential assent. It provides citizenship to illegal immigrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsis and Christian faiths - but not Muslims - from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah had highlighted how the government was forced to bring in such legislation to protect persecuted minorities in the three countries including Bangladesh.

Mr Momen, who was to attend two conferences hosted by the Ministry of External affairs in a three-day visit starting on Thursday (Dec 12), had criticised the legislation.

He said the legislation, which has also faced criticism within India, "weakens India's historic character as a secular nation" even as he rejected assertions that minorities faced religious persecution in Bangladesh.

Muslims form an 89 per cent majority in Bangladesh, which also has people of other faiths including a large population of Hindus, numbering around 17 million, according to government statistics.

Mr Momen, according to the Bangladesh government, had opted to attend government functions marking Martyred Intellectuals Day (Dec 14) and Victory Day (Dec 16), key historic events that led to Bangladesh's independence in 1971.

Mr Khan had cancelled a visit to the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India, where violent protests have broken out, particularly in Assam, against naturalisation of illegal immigrants of any faith.

New Delhi swiftly went into damage-control mode, saying the cancellation of the visits should not be linked to the immigration law.

"Any speculation that this development is connected with legislation adopted by Parliament yesterday regarding the Citizenship Amendment Bill is unwarranted," said Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar on Thursday.

He also highlighted that Mr Shah had told Parliament that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had taken care of "religious minorities" and that India was making arrangements for the naturalisation of persecuted migrants from before her time as prime minister.

India and Bangladesh enjoy close ties, particularly under the leadership of Ms Hasina, who has been in power since 2009.

Ms Hasina, who studied in India and has many friends there, has pushed for stronger bilateral relations in spite of intense domestic opposition amid anti-India sentiments.

She has helped to contain insurgents based in Bangladesh who carry out attacks in India's north-east.

India and Bangladesh share a 4096.7km border, the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbours.

Analysts said that India needed to clear the air with Bangladesh to prevent any diplomatic fallout.

"In the present situation, it is not so much as to how Bangladesh is reacting to the Bill but to remarks during the passage of the Bill. That I think has somehow affected the sentiments of Bangladeshis," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

"We are actually in the best phase of relations with Bangladesh since 1971 and when we compare our troubled relations with most of our neighbours, this is one of the shining examples of good neighbourliness. The government should have made an extra effort to make Bangladesh understand. There is always turmoil in Bangladesh and it doesn't help India if (Ms Hasina) takes recourse to anti-India rhetoric to retain her popularity."

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