Finally the tides of uncertainty and insecurity generated by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India have begun to strike the shores of Bangladesh. On December 30 under instruction of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the country’s mobile phone operators had suspended their network coverage within a kilometre in areas adjacent to Bangladesh-India border. The BTRC instruction issued on Sunday stated that the sanction would remain in operation until further instruction “for the sake of state security”. The BTRC in its turn informed that it was imposed “in view of the high-level directives of the government”.
Thus far there has not been any clear indication from the administration as to why such a measure became necessary. While the foreign minister and the home minister informed the media that they had no prior knowledge about the directive, the Chair of BTRC stated that the step was taken to stop the circulation of rumours in the region. “There are reports frequently circulating… that Bangladeshi people have been killed here and there in the border area with the potential to cause law and order problem… We have suspended the mobile networks there to control the rumour”, he informed a foreign wire agency. Such reasoning does not hold water. Although 2019 witnessed a three-fold increase in incidents of border killing over the previous year, linking the telecom ban with such killing is somewhat outlandish. It is believed by some that the prohibition is tied to the likelihood of further influx of Muslims from India in the wake of the adoption of the NRC.
The decision to restrict telecom has resulted in the closure of around 2,000 base transceiver stations in 32 districts that share border with India and Myanmar. It has adversely impacted millions of subscribers. Those people were out of voice, internet and other online services for an indefinite period. “Shutdown to services within one-kilometre area means that people of the additional half-kilometre area will get weak network,” observed an industry official. Therefore, for three days the move deprived more than 10 million people out of mobile network causing immeasurable hardship in pursuing their livelihood, accessing services including emergency healthcare and education, and maintaining social relations. On January 2 the decision was revoked.
The restriction came into force after border crossings from the Indian side were reported in the media. In early December the Bangladesh home minister stated that there had been attempts to deport people from India and the border guards of Bangladesh had detained 238 Indian citizens who illegally entered Bangladesh through Jhenaidah district border.
In its effort to make India a Hindu dominated state the BJP leadership pursued a policy of changing the special status of Kashmir and securing the Babri mosque site for a Hindu temple. To whip up right-wing support it ceaselessly engaged in securitising the so-called illegal migrant issue.
The NRC controversy has been brewing for years. BJP General Secretary Amit Shah, also the home minister, has been unambiguous and persistent in his diatribe against what he terms as “illegal Bangladeshi intruders”. In almost every party and public meeting the ruling party stalwarts drum up anti-immigrant sentiment. Terming the so-called migrants “termites”, the second most powerful leader of India, Shah, declared his resolve to chase and drown all of them in the sea.
Such persistent emission of anti-Bangladeshi vitriolic statements of the Indian ruling elite triggered little concern in Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh appeared to be oblivious to the stirring up of anti-Bangladesh sentiments. Until quite recently, the statements of the ministers, advisers and senior functionaries gave the signal that the government was quite comfortable with the Indian assertion that the NRC was indeed an “internal matter” of that country. Dhaka seemed to be satisfied with the “assurances” of “the friendliest state” that Bangladesh would not be adversely affected by the NRC fallout. The high ups in the foreign office found no reason to critically examine, let alone contest such commitment. After all, in its assessment the “very-sweet” Bangladesh-India relationship has now reached “the golden age”.
The partisan stance of the mainstream civil society in Bangladesh has precluded it from taking a stand against the NRC and CAA. There is little debate about the possible ramification of those exercises for Bangladesh in the public domain. While the students, trade unions, professional and learned bodies, rights organisations and other civil society organisations have mounted a resolute challenge to the NRC and CAA in almost every nook and corner in India, their counterparts in Bangladesh appear to be content with the official explanation. The intellectual luminaries of Bangladesh who have been vocal against the Rohingya influx a couple of years ago appear to have little appetite to engage with an issue that may trigger inflow of a far greater number of aliens to this land. Young activists of Dhaka University under the Vice President of Ducsu and members of left groups who dared to protest the Indian moves were brutally silenced by the goons of the student wing of the ruling establishment and those belonging to Muktijoddha Moncho (freedom fighters’ platform).
Such unsuspecting trust on the neighbour suffered a major setback in the adoption of the CAA in India in early December. The law paves the way for the Indian government to confer citizenship on members of non-Muslim communities fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In the law Bangladesh was banded with Afghanistan and Pakistan as a nation that oppresses its religious minority. The Act clearly brought into the open how the BJP government of India views Bangladesh. Such negative depiction has been an affront for the people of Bangladesh. Two ministerial visits to India were cancelled following the adoption of the amendment. Indian news website ThePrint on December 30 noted that Bangladesh had sought a written assurance from the Hindu-nationalist Modi government that it would not expel illegal immigrants across the border.
The rolling out of the NRC and the application of CAA are likely to have grave consequences for Bangladesh. Even if India refrains from officially deporting those who would fail in the NRC test, millions of Muslims who would be unable to prove their claims to Indian citizenship and secure protection under the CAA in all likelihood will cross the border and seek shelter in Bangladesh. They would do so to avoid languishing in detention camps in atrocious conditions. The recent border crossings from the Indian side and the concomitant telecom network suspension in Bangladesh may signal the beginning of a difficult time for the country. It is time for those at the helm of the state to discard the rhetoric, take stock of these developments and collectively develop a national strategy to face the likely challenge.
CR Abrar is an academic and rights worker with an interest in refugees, migrants and the stateless.