B Z Khasru
Dhaka-Delhi ties face test: But all these goodwill gestures may soon start
unraveling, thanks to an explosive claim by Modi’s hard-line government that the 40 million Bangladeshi illegal migrants must be sent back home. Modi’s party campaigned on this issue during the 2019 general election and won a landslide victory. Bangladesh initially dismissed the campaign rhetoric as domestic politics. But in August India’s hardline Home Minister Amit Shah, who is likely to succeed Modi, raised the matter with his Bangladeshi counterpart during talks in Delhi.
Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan flatly dismissed India’s claim. He told Shah that Bangladeshis do not stay illegally in India, because Bangladesh’s economy is at par with India’s, if not better. (Bangladesh will post 8 percent growth in 2019, against India’s 5 percent.) The matter became so acrimonious that the two sides failed to issue a joint statement after the talks ended. Upon his return home, Khan fumed over it. India, however, seems determined to push its agenda. It has started a campaign to round up Muslims unless they can prove they have lived in India since before 1971 when Bangladesh was born. They will be put in concentration camps, which ironically the migrants themselves are building now. India has classified nearly two million of its long-term residents as non-citizens, making them stateless.
Dhaka is nervous because India may seek to push at least the alleged Muslim migrants into Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated country with an area of 56,000 square miles, less than 5 percent of India’s size, just about the size of New York state. “India is keen to sign a pact with Bangladesh for deportation of illegal immigrants,” Press Trust of India news agency reported following the Shah-Khan talks, adding “Shah is known for his tough stand against unabated illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India.” Bangladeshis remember Shah as the notorious man who called them “termites,” provoking a sharp response. “Amit Shah has made an unwanted remark by describing Bangladeshis as termites. We, in Dhaka, do not give any importance to his statement as it does not carry the gravity of an official statement of India,” Bangladesh’s Minister of Information Hasanul Haq Inu lashed out.
Now, Bangladesh must. Shah, as Home Minister, is India’s official voice. Hasina and Modi discussed the issue twice, first at the United Nations in September and then in Delhi early October, with no apparent resolution. Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque minced no words to note that India’s position was “self-contradictory.” Modi says one thing, but his party and state leaders say another. Modi says it is India’s internal matter and will no way affect Bangladesh, but his cohorts are hell bent upon deporting the migrants. Bangladeshis will also fume over several deals Hasina signed early October during her visit to Delhi.. First, she agreed to give Feni River water and liquefied natural gas to India — both which are in short supply in Bangladesh — even though the long-standing dispute over sharing the Teesta River water remains unresolved. Second, she signed a pact on coastal surveillance radar stations to help India monitor China’s naval movements, which is sure to irk Beijing, a major investor in Bangladesh. Finally, she agreed to let India use Bangladesh’s ports to transport Indian goods without reciprocal benefit to Dhaka. All these agreements will be seen by her countrymen as a diplomatic failure of Bangladesh.
Cuba-type scenario possible: On top of all this, what makes Bangladeshis even more jittery and may keep them up at night is the fear that its neighbour might export convicted criminals dubbing them as illegal migrants, as Cuba sent mental patients and miscreants to the United States in 1980. Any such move by India would have a far-reaching consequence for its relations with Bangladesh. It will not only undermine Hasina’s government, but also give fodder to Islamic extremists whom she has largely kept under control. Another worrisome prospect is there may be a repeat of the bloodbath that followed British India’s partition in 1947. Any forced dumping of Muslims from India will be catastrophic for Bangladesh’s 20 million Hindus. Infuriated by India’s action, Bangladeshi Muslims will vent their anger on their fellow Hindu countrymen, forcing them to flee to India.
Such an exodus, in turn, will enrage the already psyched-up saffron soldiers of Modi’s Party, who will be more than pleased to turn Hindustan into an anti-Muslim battleground, just to avenge historical humiliation of the Hindus under Muslim rulers for a thousand years, if nothing else. If terrorized badly enough, India’s nearly 200 million Muslim citizens may start flocking to Pakistan, an outcome that orthodox Hindus wish for; alternatively, they may fight back the hyper-nationalist Hindus, as the British minorities did against the “skinheads” in the 1980s. This vicious cycle of communal hostility will push the region into chaos and misery, dimming its economic prospects for decades.— Concluded
—The writer is author of “Bangladesh Liberation War, how India, US, China and the USSR shaped the outcome.”