Crossing the Line

The NRC’s threat to Bangladesh, and the India–Bangladesh relationship

01 September 2019
Halima Khatun poses with her election card in Darrang, Assam. Her 17-year old daughter committed suicide after discovering that her name was not included in the NRC list.
ZISHAAN A LATIF FOR THE CARAVAN
Halima Khatun poses with her election card in Darrang, Assam. Her 17-year old daughter committed suicide after discovering that her name was not included in the NRC list.
ZISHAAN A LATIF FOR THE CARAVAN

“While we should not be worried, there is some anxiety after reading news reports,” AK Abdul Momen, the foreign minister of Bangladesh, told a television channel in July. He was speaking of the National Register of Citizens, the Indian government’s project to define and identify legal residents of the state of Assam—and, more importantly, to identify and make stateless those who it claims are illegal immigrants. Last year, the NRC provisionally identified around four million supposedly “illegal” people—almost exclusively Muslims—who in the official Indian narrative have been branded “Bengali” infiltrators, from across the border in Bangladesh. Momen’s cautious statement was reported as the first public admission of concern over the NRC by the Bangladesh government. Those the NRC had singled out, he said, had been living in Assam for over 75 years. “They are their citizens,” he insisted, “not ours.”

India has not said what it plans to do with those the NRC tags as outsiders and renders stateless. But in Bangladesh, few have any doubts as to what the eventual goal is—and many raise warnings in sharper terms than Momen did. Shaheen Afroze, a research director at a think tank under the country’s foreign ministry, told me that the Assamese Muslims targeted by the NRC “are not only an internal issue of India anymore, because their intended eviction destination is Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh has seen this tragic charade before—across its other international border, with Buddhist-majority Myanmar. There too, a Muslim people, the Rohingya, are considered illegal though they have lived in the country for many generations. There too, they are being pushed out to further narrow domestic political ends, and are portrayed as “Bangladeshis.” Since 2017 alone, three quarters of a million Rohingyas have been pushed out of Myanmar by force.

“We are already in much difficulty with the 11 lakh Rohingya refugees, so we can’t take anymore,” Momen said in July. “The issue must be handled carefully and policy options to meet the future found,” Afroze told me. “We can’t have another Rohingya-like crisis.” Last year, a headline in the Dhaka Tribune asked, “Will 1.6m ‘non-Indian migrants’ in Assam become the new Rohingyas?”

The chances of the Rohingya returning safely to Myanmar are zero, despite the United Nations saying otherwise, and Bangladesh is resigned to hosting them permanently, though this has never been officially stated. Bangladesh is straining to pay for the refugees’ upkeep, despite international aid, and their presence has become a tricky political issue. It is clear that Bangladesh cannot afford a similar situation with refugees from India, yet the Indian government has not so much as spoken of the matter with Bangladeshi officials. The NRC threatens to cause a major crisis in Bangladesh—one much larger than the one caused by Myanmar’s eviction of the Rohingya. The powers in Delhi might not care much for how their domestic policies affect a neighbouring country, but even so their approach is short-sighted. The fallout from the NRC will unavoidably scar the ties between the two countries—almost the last relatively cordial relationship India has left with its neighbours—and the consequences could be counter to India’s own international interests.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and research scholar based in Dhaka.

Keywords: NRC Bangladesh Awami League Sheikh Hasina Indo-Bangladesh border Narendra Modi
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