National

CAA exposed tensions with Bangladesh, but ties unaffected

Pratim Ranjan Bose January 30 | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 31, 2020

Sheikh Hasina. File photo

The enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), on December 12, by India might have embarrassed the Sheikh Hasina government in Dhaka. But, there is little evidence that it has affected the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

On the contrary, the development, or the series of developments over the last year, had tested the durability of the relationship and brought many undercurrents out in the open, which may help decision making in the days to come.

To start with, the CAA, didn’t come as a bolt from the blue to Bangladesh or any of India’s neighbours. This is due to the long political build-up over implementation of Assam NRC (National Register of Citizens) and the raging debate over the earlier version of the bill in early 2019.

Leaders of the two countries were in constant touch throughout this period and the Awami League government was consistent in describing the developments, including CAA, as India’s internal issues.

Long build-up

What had changed in the meantime were India’s strong response to the Pulwama terror attack in February last year; abrogation of Article 370 in the erstwhile State of Kashmir in August; and the Ram Mandir verdict on November 9.

Balakot airstrike didn’t please pro-Pakistan Islamists. They got an opportunity to come out in the open on Kashmir issue that had a wider appeal. Mass protests were staged in Dhaka. Social media, newspapers were full of anti-India commentaries.

The Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya added fuel to the fire. Ayodhya had always been a sensitive issue in Bangladesh. So much so that a fake news invited widespread violence on minorities, in 1990. It is noteworthy that nothing of that sort happened this time, indicating the strong grip of law.

Reverse migration

With emotions running high, CAA added a new dimension to the debate in Dhaka, as illegal Bangladeshis started fleeing India. Bangladeshi media referred it as “infiltration” from India.

Migration from Bangladesh to India has long been studied in global academic circle. Pew Research identified that contrary to Bangladesh’s official statistics, India was the largest source ($4.03 billion) of remittance to Bangladesh as in 2017.

However, Dhaka never accepted this open secret, until January 1, when Maj Gen Md Shafeenul Islam, director of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), reported apprehending 445 people who crossed the border illegally to return ‘home’ (Bangladesh).

BNP saw opportunity

Meanwhile Hasina’s Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party saw opportunity to make hay from the debate. They played on both fronts. On December 23 Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, referred to CAA as a threat to regional stability.

However, by mid-January, senior BNP leaders Amir Khusrau Mahmud Chowdhury and Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku met a set of Bangladeshi journalists, who report for Indian media, at the prestigious Dhaka Club.

Chowdhury is a businessman and manages India affairs for BNP. Tuku is a former minister. According to sources, during the meeting the leaders reiterated the party’s keenness in improving relations with India, which has suffered a serious jolt during the Khaleda Zia-rule between 2001 and 2006.

‘Unnecessary’ controversy

Apparently, what prompted BNP’s image building exercise to India was a late decision by Bangladesh’s junior foreign minister Shariar Alam to skip the privately organised, Raisina Dialogue (January 16-18, 2020) in Delhi and join Hasina for a trip to the UAE (January 16-19).

Since Alam’s decision came on the back of cancellation of a scheduled visit by Bangladesh’s senior foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, at the peak of anti-CAA protests, a wide cross section of media was quick to link it to CAA.

Sources close to Hasina rubbished such claims. According to them Alam was indeed needed to resolve long-pending labour issues with UAE that banned Bangladeshi workers for five years. The ban had hurt Dhaka as remittance is its second largest source of foreign exchange.

However, on January 18, within days of BNP’s pitch for Indian support, UAE-based Gulf News carried a report, wherein Hasina once again referred CAA was internal issue of India but added that it was “not necessary”. She also denied ‘reverse migration’ from India.

One interesting development during the whole period was China’s effort to improve connect with Bangladeshi media, particularly those reporting for Indian media.

China’s pitch

Observers in Dhaka feel it was coming considering the increasing presence of China in Bangladesh vis-à-vis India’s poor media strategy.

Most top Indian media houses, including government-run All India Radio, stopped sending Indian correspondents to Dhaka.

Bangladeshi observers are more critical of India’s failure in establishing strong business-to-business relationship. Complaints galore against Indian industry for lack of interest, leaving their Bangladeshi partners stranded.

The issue was pointed out by a professor of a reputed Bangladeshi university during a conference at Jagannath University in Dhaka last year. China, he said, established better relations with Bangladesh’s socially influence class, who are crucial to get contracts.

Published on January 31, 2020
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