Ever since Sheikh Hasina took power in Bangladesh in 2009, India’s ties with its eastern neighbour has progressed rapidly. In fact, apart from Bhutan, the one good friend India has in the neighbourhood is Bangladesh. The Prime Minister’s critics have accused her for giving more to India than getting back from Delhi. She has dismissed the charge. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to endorse the Teesta water sharing pact has been a bitter pill for Bangladesh to swallow. During Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to Kolkata, though she met the chief minister, there was no forward movement on the Teesta. Delhi’s hands are tied, unless West Bengal comes on board, there can be no progress. But another larger storm is brewing in the neighbouring state of Assam, which could impact ties with Bangladesh.
The BJP government has so far succeeded in insulating relations with Bangladesh from the domestic issue of sending back thousands of alleged Bangladeshi migrants. Dhaka is willing to take back its citizens, if there is evidence that they entered Assam illegally. Unfortunetely, poor illiterate migrants have no papers to prove the citizenship of either India or Bangladesh. High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali confirmed recently that Delhi has not briefed Dhaka on the issue of illegal migrants. He said a mechanism was already in place between the two countries “… to take back criminals and others like citizens, who have overstayed”. But, the issue of illegal migrants is hotting up in Assam and can later spread to the other north eastern state. It has been an ongoing problem. It is a political hot potato and has been used by the BJP to slam the previous Congress government.
Right from the days of the students’ agitation against influx of Bangladeshis into the state in the late 1980’s, the BJP had been one of the first national parties to support the All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the movement. BJP stalwarts of that time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and Jaswant Singh, travelled often to Assam, addressed meetings and gave all round support to the movement. The RSS found Assam fertile ground to promote its anti-Muslim agenda. The students as well as the majority Assamese Hindus firmly believe that the influx was changing the state’s demography, and the local Hindu Assamese would soon be reduced to a minority. The Congress party was blamed for turning a blind eye to immigrants and using them as vote banks.
The movement came to an end with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The State and Centre promised to throw out illegal foreign nationals residing in the state. The agreement laid down that all alleged Bangladeshi’s, who entered Assam before midnight of March 24, 1971, would be accepted as Indian citizens. The cut-off was chosen because on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army had started operations in Dhaka, marking the start of the Bangladesh War. All those who came after that date would be considered illegal and deported back to Bangladesh.
Updating the National Register of Citizens was part of the accord. These issues are now again coming to the fore. Though the student leaders formed a political party: the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and won a landslide victory in elections called in 1985, the process of detection and deportation of illegal foreigners did not happen. Some hundreds did go but by and large not enough to satisfy the public.
During the 2014 national elections, candidate Modi not only promised ‘vikas’ but also tapped on the latent fears of the Assamese of being engulfed by Bangladeshi immigrants. In election rallies both in Assam and West Bengal (which also has large immigrant settlers), Modi promised tough border control and said that illegal migrants would have to pack their bags when his government came to power. “You are concerned about infiltrators and not your own people…they must go back, they are robbing the youths of India of their livelihood,” Modi thundered at an election rally in West Bengal, which borders Assam.
Modi’s rhetoric swayed the people and the BJP was able to win seven of the 14 seats. And in state elections in 2016, the BJP for the first time, was able to form a government in Assam. The BJP and AGP are coalition partners. Modi followed this up with governments installed in Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal.
But the chicken has come home to roost for the BJP. The Supreme Court had ordered the Assam government to implement the National Register of Citizens which has 1971 as the cut of date for citizenship. This is creating panic among Bengali speaking Muslim settlers many of whom do not have the papers to prove when they entered India. So, once the alleged foreign nationals are identified, where do they go? Dhaka is not willing to accept them back without identification. Will the Bengali Muslims of Assam now face the same fate as the Rohingyas of Myanmar? Once the process is completed, what will be the fate of these hapless people? Will they now remain forever stateless and be confined to camps. Will Dhaka be persuaded to accept some of them?
That will backfire in Bangaldesh for the Awami League government.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.