By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, March 13

The March 11 notification on the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (CAA) has already triggered an agitation in Assam, shaking the foundation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government there.

And if the CAA is pursued seriously as Home Minister Amit Shah has indicated, it has the potential to spoil India’s relations with Bangladesh and weaken its only friend there, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

The CAA is meant to fast-track applications for citizenship from Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians who had sought refuge in India due to religious persecution in Islamic Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Those who entered India after the CAA’s cut-off date of December 31, 2014 would be deemed illegal immigrants.

Muslims have been left out of the reckoning in the CAA even though some sects of Muslims are also subjected to discrimination like the Shias and Ahmediays in Pakistan – the later not even recognized as Muslims. This is an invidious distinction quite out of place in India which has a secular constitution.   

However, in practical terms, the CAA is meant to accommodate Hindus from Bangladesh, there being very few Hindus or other non-Muslim communities left in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Opposition parties in India and Chief Ministers of non-BJP ruled States have opposed the CAA and declared that they will not implement it in their domains. There is a widespread feeling that the CAA caters only to the BJP’s communally divisive agenda and its electoral aims.  

The constitutionality of CAA is also widely questioned. Under the Indian constitution, religion cannot be a criterion for granting or denying citizenship.

The Modi government thought that it could notify the 2019 Act now because the Prime Minister’s political stock is high as per the media and opinion surveys. The BJP’s thinking is that if the iron is struck while it is hot, the Hindus and other non-Muslims would vote for it massively in the Lok Sabha polls that are round the corner.

Repeat of 2019 Agitation  

But the notification of the CAA now could well trigger street protests on the lines of those which took place in 2019-20 in Delhi and other towns of India. The prolonged sit-ins in Delhi by Muslims, especially the women, in Delhi in 2019-20 ended only when they were attacked by BJP goons with the aid of the police.

But seeing the determination of the protesters and the way the international media publicised it, the government developed cold feet and postponed the implementation of the Act.

In 2019, the stunning victory of the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls in May emboldened the government to enact CAA. Come 2024, the adulation that Modi enjoys is considered an opportune moment to notify the Act. But this calculation could go wrong too, given the all-round opposition to the CAA.

Assam’s Rises

Assam has been the first State to take up the cudgels against the CAA. The Act has rekindled the Assamese sub-national sentiment, which in the 1970s, had wrought havoc in the State. A prolonged agitation against illegal migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh brought life to a standstill and triggered Ahom separatism. Finally, it was the Assam Accord of 1985 that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi worked out with the agitators, which ended the unrest. March 25, 1971 was set as the cut-off date for determining illegal immigration.

But now the Assamese find that under the CAA, the cut-off date is December 31, 2014. The Assamese fear that this will open the floodgates to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.

The population of Hindus had dwindled sharply in Bangladesh before Sheikh Hasina came to power. Bangladesh’s military dictators in collusion with Islamic radicals used to hound Hindus and drive them out. But Sheikh Hasina put an end to all that. There has been no migration to India under her watch though Indian politicians routinely allege that the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is two million.

However, there is reason to fear that Sheikh Hasina’s exist from power could lead to the Hindus being forced to flee to Assam, as before.

With feelings running high in Assam, the BJP Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, asked the agitators to appeal to the Supreme Court to get the CAA shot down. He ruled out parliament’s withdrawing the CAA. But to remain in power in the face of the people’s opposition, he has put Assam under strict surveillance.  

Bangladesh’s Take

The CAA is primarily meant to accommodate Hindus from Bangladesh as there are virtually no Hindus or other non-Muslim communities left in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bangladeshis feel insulted when the BJP and Ministers of the Government of India brand Bangladesh as anti-Hindu. Home Minister Amit Shah publicly described the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites”.      

Though Bangladesh is yet to react to the March 11 notification on the CAA, there was great turmoil there when it was enacted in December 2019. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s media advisor, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, expressed distaste about Bangladesh being compared to Pakistan and Afghanistan, nations known for religious bigotry and terrorism. 

“The Act clearly brought into the open how the BJP government of India views Bangladesh. Such negative depiction has been an affront to the people of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan did not go to India in protest against the NRC/CAA,” wrote C.R.Abrar, a Bangladeshi academic and rights worker.

“Indian news website ThePrint on December 30 noted that Bangladesh had sought a written assurance from the Hindu-nationalist Modi government that it would not expel illegal immigrants across the border,” Abrar added.

National Register of Citizens

Perhaps due to the strong reaction in Bangladesh, India did not deport those who could not prove their Indian citizenship when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated in Assam in August 2019. The objective of the NRC update was to identify people who migrated to Assam from Bangladesh after 24th March 1971.  

But Amit Shah kept up the chant that the NRC will be done across India, instilling fear among all Indians. Many States opposed the NRC even at that time because in a country like India where documentation is negligible, it is difficult for poor, illiterate and rural folk to produce documents to prove Indian citizenship. The inability to produce documents could lead to selective harassment of people, particularly Muslims. In the initial round of the NRC survey in Assam in 2018, 40 lakhs were left for lack of documents.   

With the NRC triggering panic among the Muslims of Assam in the period 2018-2020, there was an increase in infiltration into Bangladesh from India. Bangladeshis fear that the CAA and NRC across India could lead to an influx from Assam and other parts of India. And this will be disastrous for Bangladesh when it is already burdened with two million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

Emon Kalyan Chowdhury of the Chittagong Independent University writes that renewed pressure from India could drive Bangladesh into the waiting arms of the Chinese. China is deeply entrenched in the economy and defence forces of Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh is now strategically balancing its relations between India and China. Greater pressure from India in the form of refugees will draw Bangladesh into the Chinese camp,” Chowdhury wrote.

India should therefore focus on building better relations with Bangladesh in order to compete with China and not upset the applecart for short term political gain.

The tendency to disregard implications for foreign relations, especially with India’s neighbours, could cause heavy damage to India’s stature in the neighbourhood.