When Sheikh Hasina won a decisive election in 2008, her victory came with the promise that the close ties with India forged by her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, at the time of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, with military help from India, would be resurrected. Ties had suffered occasionally in the years of military rule and the resurgence of the right that followed Mujib’s assassination, the lowest point being in the period following 2001, when Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party had allowed its soil to be used as a springboard for insurgency in the Northeast. The legacy of the Awami League seemed to return with Hasina, and despite rough patches like the Teesta waters pact, relations between the two nations have been positive and constructive. Initiatives that had long hung fire were resolved, the most striking being the swap of chhitmahals or enclaves in each other’s territory, a rationalisation of borders which had been pending since Independence.
But now, with the uproar over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed countrywide application of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the India-Bangladesh relationship threatens to become less frictionless. Hasina and Modi had met bilaterally on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and in October 2019, when she visited Delhi for the India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum, she had said that she was satisfied with Modi’s assurance that the NRC in Assam would not affect Bangladesh. Now, however, in an interview to Gulf News in Abu Dhabi, Hasina has described the CAA as “not necessary”, and as a step whose purpose mystifies her. In response to the ongoing domestic agitation against the Act, the government has repeatedly explained that the specific purpose is to confer citizenship on minorities (read Hindus) fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is founded on the implicit premise that India’s neighbours, including Bangladesh, are engaged in the persecution of minorities, and a reaction from the neighbourhood was inevitable.
Hasina has phrased her criticism diplomatically, addressing the Indian state rather than the government or its chief executive, and terming the citizenship issue as its internal affair. But Bangladesh has officially denied any out-migration to India due to religious persecution, and Hasina herself has clarified that there is no movement in the reverse direction either. India had to hasten to clarify that persecution had happened before her term, yet the damage seems to have been done. At a time when regional geopolitics is changing rapidly, India cannot afford to alienate neighbours for the compulsions of domestic politics, or cause strain in a strong and necessary relationship.
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