The influx of people from India crossing the borders to Bangladesh in the past weeks warrants the attention of Bangladeshi policymakers. Unfortunately, the foreign minister’s recent statement that he has seen the news of “push in” from India in the media but wasn’t informed officially, is not very reassuring in this regard. Those who have entered Bangladesh in the past weeks have reportedly said that they have left India because of the fear of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and various other pressures. This emerging phenomenon has two contexts; both need to be considered in understanding the trajectory. These two contexts are: Indian domestic politics and the Bangladesh-India relationship.
After the final list of the NRC in Assam was made public on August 31 there was an apprehension that this would encourage a slow and steady migration to Bangladesh from India, especially those who are left out of the list and those who are afraid that they might become the target of persecution. It was noted that India will not officially force people to Bangladesh, but a fearful situation will emerge, particularly for the Muslims; they will try to find refuge in Bangladesh. The Indian government’s position would be that it will neither force nor encourage anyone to cross the border. The actions of the Indian government in recent days provide a different impression, however.
The drive to arrest “illegal Bangladeshis” in Karnataka in the past weeks is nothing short of creating fear in the wake of the ruling party’s insistence on a nation-wide NRC. Not only have “illegal Bangladeshis” allegedly been arrested but they have been transported to West Bengal to be “pushed in” to Bangladesh (“NRC pushback: 60 Bangladeshi migrant workers brought to Calcutta for deportation”, The Daily Telegraph Online, November 24). Indian human rights activists have raised concern about “due process” while euphoric BJP leaders of West Bengal have said that “fear of NRC” has started to work (“180 Bangladeshis arrested while fleeing India, NRC listed among reasons”, Hindustan Times, November 24).
The BJP has now raised the spectre of the NRC through the country, completely ignoring the fact that the NRC process in Assam had a particular context. The six-year long (1979-1985) agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union, and the Supreme Court’s instruction in 2013 were not meant to be for anything beyond Assam. But now the BJP leaders, especially Narendra Modi-Amit Sha duo, is on a mission to make India the “Hindu Rashtra” and the NRC has become a tool to achieve that goal. Their “new India” is destined to make the Muslims permanent second/third class citizens.
On one hand, the BJP is demanding that the Assam NRC be scrapped while announcing that there will be NRC in all the states. The NRC in Assam was intended to disenfranchise Muslims and subsequently identify them as “illegal Bangladeshis”, “infiltrators”. The Assam NRC delivered only a partial victory to the BJP. The “xenophobia” or “Islamophobia”, engineered and propagated over the past years, has now become legitimised.
As the possibility of the national NRC looms large, Muslims are now in a dilemma as to what they should do. There is a suggestion that Muslims should boycott the entire NRC process and engage in civil disobedience (“Citizenship Tangle”, scroll.in.com, November 23). The next step in the Muslim disenfranchisement agenda is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB. Proposed in 2016, this was stalled. But the election victory, success in abrogating Article 370 and having the Supreme Court verdict in favour of Ram Mandir, have boosted the confidence of the BJP to proceed with two goals—the CAB and the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code. The nationwide NRC will precede CAB, said Amit Shah; which implies that those who will lose their citizenship claim due to NRC will have the opportunity under the CAB, except for the Muslims.
These domestic political intrigues have engendered the influx to Bangladesh. The number may swell after the CAB is passed. The impact of the CAB is unlikely to remain within Indian borders. The BJP is not unaware of the possible consequences, especially the possibility of a mass migration to Bangladesh. But the Indian government and the ruling party is not concerned because of the current state of the India-Bangladesh relationship. This is the second context of the current rise of migration from India.
The Indian government has repeatedly said that Bangladesh has nothing to worry about from the NRC. The assurance has satisfied the Bangladeshi prime minister (Indian Express Bangla, October 4); this was echoed by the foreign minister even after the recent influx (The Daily Star, November 26). Bangladeshi officials and ministers are speaking in a language that is no different from their Indian counterparts. For more than a year BJP leader Amit Shah has been describing the so-called illegal migrants as “Bangladeshis”, comparing them with “termites” and threatening to throw them into the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh government has maintained silence about these statements. Similarly, there was no reaction when General Bipin Rawat, chief of the Indian Army, claimed that there is an ongoing planned migration from Bangladesh, as a proxy war against India by Pakistan with the support of China (“Illegal immigration from Bangladesh planned”, The Hindu, February 21).
In the past decade, the Bangladesh-India relationship has become very close. Some has described it as the golden era. Despite such closeness, the balance sheet of the relationship seems disproportionately in favour of India; economic, political, geo-strategic, whatever prism is used. There is a widespread perception that Bangladesh has conceded more than what it received from India, as Ambassador Humayun Kabir mentioned in 2015 (“Changing Relations Between Bangladesh and India: Perception in Bangladesh,” India and South Asia: Exploring Regional Perceptions, ed. Vishal Chandra, New Delhi: IDSA and Pentagon Press, 2015. p. 38). One of the dimensions of this relationship is political—India has extended unqualified support to the ruling Awami League for the past decade. The AL’s political dependence on India has increased since 2009.
Despite such an intimate relationship between these two countries, often Bangladeshis have to rely on the Indian media regarding news as to what is happening between these two countries. Take, for example, the recent report on the Bangladeshi prime minister’s visit to Kolkata in the Ananda Bazar Patrika on November 24. The report titled “Cold Reception to Ally Hasina: Delhi is on the Dock” suggested that the PM’s reception in Kolkata in November and in New Delhi in October were inconsistent with the protocol and the relationship both countries often highlight. While the PM was accompanied by a large contingent of journalists from Bangladesh on both occasions, these discrepancies were not reported by any of them. Were the Bangladeshi reporters thinking that such a “negative” report would harm the bilateral relationship? Were they under the impression that the Bangladesh government wouldn’t like such a portrayal of the relationship? This only demonstrated the “super sensitivity” of the Bangladeshi media towards news about the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. In the following days the Ananda Bazar Patrika’s report was reprinted, in some variation, in almost all the major media outlets in Bangladesh
The official relationship between the two countries and political dependence of the ruling party is well-known; and they are guided by political considerations. But there is no legitimate explanation for the media’s “super sensitivity” and avoidance of inconvenient truths except to suggest that they are acting at the behest of the government. Even if those in the media may not be able to comprehend it, the perception among citizens is as such. This is not a single incident that we can simply brush off; there are other instances. For example, until the Indian media reported the issue of a possible military agreement between Bangladesh and India, the Bangladeshi media remained silent. This is hardly a matter of incompetence or weakness of the media.
The absence of a balanced discussion on the Indo-Bangladesh relation in the media shouldn’t provide an impression that the official narrative is being accepted as the only perspective. The influx, as a result of the NRC, whatever the extent of it, will bring the broad issue of the relationship into the public discussion. The question is, can the Bangladeshi media allow the space to have this broad question debated along with the recent events?
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, USA. His recent publication is titled Voting in Hybrid Regime: Explaining the 2018 Bangladeshi Election (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).