As popular opposition to the new law amending the Indian Citizenship Act intensifies within the country, the external costs are also coming into view. To be sure, the postponement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s annual summit meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, that was to take place in Guwahati, might only be a temporary setback. It will almost certainly be rescheduled to some other city, or in Guwahati, when the situation returns to normal. But the story on other diplomatic fronts is a lot less reassuring. The biggest negative impact is on India’s relations with Bangladesh, which has, in recent years, become one of Delhi’s most productive partners. Beyond Bangladesh, India’s long-standing reputation as a constitutional democracy is taking a big hit and the loss of goodwill and admiration is not easy to estimate.
The question of illegal immigration has always been a deeply divisive issue between India and Bangladesh. Managing this bitter legacy of Partition and the subsequent movement of people across the long border has been an enduring foreign policy challenge for Delhi. In recent years, Delhi and Dhaka were learning to limit the salience of the issue by deepening their partnership and resolving long-standing issues like the boundary dispute and cross-border terrorism. But in framing religious persecution of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh as one of the motivations for the amendment and repeatedly affirming that Muslim migrants from Bangladesh will be “thrown out”, as Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said, Delhi was inviting trouble from Dhaka. Although it deeply resented Shah’s statements that put the Sheikh Hasina government in a spot at home, Dhaka has been willing to believe private assurances from Delhi that the issue of the amendment to the citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens were purely domestic issues with no bearing on bilateral relations. Until now. Dhaka’s forbearance has finally snapped. That it chose to cancel the visits of two of its ministers to India suggests that Dhaka can no longer keep quiet and will be under increasing pressure to stand up to Delhi.
If the citizenship amendment law and the NRC have pushed India’s best partnership in the neighbourhood onto a slippery slope, they have also begun to create problems for India’s most important international partnership with the United States. The State Department’s reaction, urging Delhi to respect religious freedom and stay with India’s constitutional values, was articulated in a polite manner. But US and Western criticism could get a lot tougher as Shah rolls out his plans for an NRC across the nation. The idea of India as a thriving democracy, and its strong commitment to civic nationalism as well as religious pluralism, have been important pillars on which India’s strategic partnerships with the US and the West have been built in the last two decades. The government may be seriously underestimating the weight of India’s shared political values with the West and the many real and intangible benefits it brings. The costs of that miscalculation could be quite serious and could be evident a lot sooner than Delhi thinks.