Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla yesterday said the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Indian parliament late last year was misunderstood in many senses.
"This is a proactive legislation that has been undertaken on humanitarian grounds. In other words, the people who were refugees or faced political persecution and came to India within a cut off time were allowed fast track citizenship," he told a seminar in the capital.
The seminar, Bangladesh and India: A Promising Future, was organised by Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) and Indian High Commission in Bangladesh at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel in the capital.
Shringla arrived yesterday on a two-day visit meant to prepare the groundwork for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit on March 17-18. Modi is coming to Bangladesh to attend an event observing Bangabandhu's birth centennial.
Shringla also held meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen and Roads and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader.
Shringla's visit comes against the backdrop of violence in Delhi that claimed over 40 lives and injured some 200 others since February 23 over protests in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The act created a pathway to get Indian citizenship for migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It excludes the Muslims.
Critics say the CAA violates India's secular constitution.
Responding to a question, Shringla said there were hundreds of thousands of homeless and stateless people in India. They will be allowed to apply for citizenship on fast track basis. This means, instead of waiting 10 years, they will get it in five years, he added.
"That does not mean in any way that other people are not benefited by the act. India has a normal process of application for citizenship."
For example, he said, about 5,000 nationals from Pakistan were granted citizenship in the last 10 years.
CAA is not targeted against any religion. Under the current government in Bangladesh, the minorities are taken care of really well, Shringla said, adding that Bangladesh had a secular constitution and laws were enacted accordingly.
Religious persecution took place in the post-1975 period when there was no spirit of secularism in the constitution of Bangladesh, he added.
Shringla repeated that the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) was an internal matter of India and would not affect Bangladesh.
It is being done under the guidance of Indian Supreme Court, and those who are not registered will have opportunities to appeal to the court, he said.
The final list of NRC published in August last year left out over 19 lakh people in Assam. They are allowed to appeal legally. But what happens to those who fail in the legal battle is not clear.
While addressing the seminar as chief guest, Prime Minister's International Affairs Adviser Dr Gowher Rizvi said Dhaka accepted the assurances of India on NRC, and had good reasons to believe that it had nothing to worry over the issue.
"Our commitment to secularism is absolutely central and we do not want to have any situation where our secularism will be threatened in any way," he said.
Bangladesh attaches high priority to protecting minorities and ensuring their welfare, he said, adding that the country would continue to work with India so "our secular society grows from strength to strength".
Rizvi said there was no way Bangladesh would look away if minorities were affected in any way.
DEAL ON SEVEN COMMON RIVERS
At the seminar attended by many politicians, academics, diplomats, civil society members, and journalists, Shringla said water sharing agreement of seven common rivers, including the Muhuri, Monu, Dharla, Khowai, Gumti and Dudhkumar, might be signed by this year.
India and Bangladesh have exchanged information on waterflow of the seven transboundary rivers, Shringla said.
"We need to expedite harmonisation of this data so that water sharing agreements can be finalised as early as possible, possibly within this year itself."
Water sharing agreements of the Teesta and the Feni were finalised in 2011. During Hasina's visit to Delhi in October last year, Bangladesh and India signed a deal, allowing India to withdraw 1.82 cubic feet of water from the Feni per second.
Teesta deal, which was supposed to be signed in 2011, was not finalised following objections from then West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
"Given our federal system, an agreement can only be finalised on the basis of consensus among stakeholders. We certainly want to show you that we are working on concluding the deal as soon as possible," Shringla said yesterday.
During the question-answer session Shringla said india wanted to bring border killing to zero, but the criminal activity along the borders and attacks on security forces of both the countries lead to the killings.
"There have been attacks on border guarding forces on both sides. Deaths on the border are not necessarily confined to the citizens of Bangladesh. There are equal number of Indian citizens."
Shringla said in 2019 alone, 12 Indian citizens were killed, four injured and 83 members of Border Security Forces of India were injured and one was killed.
The Daily Star could not verify the claim.
Shringla said modern fencing on the remaining 165 kilometres of Indo-Bangla borders would allow both countries to improve security and enhance cross-border trade.
INDIAN LINES OF CREDIT
Gowher Rizvi expressed frustration over the slow disbursement of Indian LoC.
"Despite all these lines of credit available to us, almost ten years down the road we have just about completed the first line of credit…. This truly needs serious attention," he said, referring to the about $7.5 billion Indian LoC.
Bangladesh managed to use $523 million of the $862 million of the first LoC and $14 million of the $2 billion of the second LoC.
"We need to find a way to remove these things quickly. Otherwise, the opportunity being lost is too costly," Rizvi said.
INDIA TO ADDRESS ROHINGYA CRISIS
India is committed to offering the fullest support for any mutually-acceptable solution that will enable the earliest possible return of Rohingyas to Rakhine state in a safe, secure and sustainable manner, Shringla said.
Apart from providing assistance to the Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar, India is also investing in housing and other socio-economic aspects of Rakhine. This will make sure there is an incentive for their return, he added.
"In other words, there is no difference between India and Bangladesh on the way forward in addressing this major humanitarian problem."
Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva Ganguly Das, BIISS Chairman M Fazlul Karim and BIISS Acting DIrector General Col Sheikh Masud Ahmed also spoke at the seminar.
Dhaka has asked about the recent Delhi violence during the meeting between Shringla and Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen.
Shringla said they were probing if the violence was instigated by any third party, a foreign ministry official told The Daily Star.