Bangladesh has emerged as India’s most consequential neighbour and friend in South Asia, in the economic sphere and politically.
Restraint marked Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s response in an interview last week to Dubai’s Gulf News daily to a question on this country’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, but the fact that she chose to address the issue, rather than side-step it, points to uncertain times in our neighbourhood diplomacy. This can only affect us negatively in the wider world.
Answering questions, Ms Hasina noted that the CAA and the related NRC were an “internal” matter of India. But she wondered why India had chosen to go that route. She thought the exercise was “unnecessary” and was causing problems within India. She couldn’t have put across her concerns in more tellingly. The Bangladesh leader recalled PM Narendra Modi’s assurances to her that the NRC had no bearing on Bangladesh. It is now clear those assurances were not meant seriously, as the enactment of the CAA — with which the NRC (and the NPR) are intrinsically tied — shows.
Bangladesh has emerged as India’s most consequential neighbour and friend in South Asia, in the economic sphere and politically. Wounding the self-pride of a regionally rising country which India helped create is a stunning own-goal. Its ripples are apt to be felt across South Asia, and are likely to embolden many of our smaller neighbours in no longer concealing their criticism of us and to more openly court China, perceiving — rightly — that India’s capabilities and potential to help them, or to restrain them, had lessened. A range of New Delhi’s policies over the past three years, in the economic and political arena, cannot but have created any other impression.
In Bangladesh, the CAA — and the nationwide protests against it within India already lasting more than a month — could also give leverage to the pro-Pakistan extremist and religious parties which had been pushed on the backfoot through Ms Hasina’s secular policies and perceived pro-India outlook.
In South Asia, can we have a hostile Bangladesh, in addition to an openly hostile Pakistan, a just about friendly Nepal, a Sri Lanka that would like others to cut India to size, an Afghanistan which has so far kept its cool on the CAA question but is known to resent the measure?
The amendment to our citizenship law, aside from making a marked departure from the basic premise of our Constitution, offers instant citizenship to non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they seek it on grounds of religious persecution in those countries.
In other words, the present establishment in New Delhi accuses those countries of practicing religious persecution of its minorities — which is a well-defined and codified concept in international protocols — without offering a shred of proof, and relying instead on stray incidents to extract propaganda mileage in the domestic sphere. Alas, the external affairs ministry has been made to play a dubious role in drumming up this aspect.
Only slightly farther afield in Asia, Malaysia’s PM Mahathir Mohamed, a stalwart in his own right, has publicly criticised India on the recent developments in Kashmir and on the CAA question, pointedly noting that we had departed from our secular polity. We have sought to punish Malaysia by cutting imports from it. But whose image stands dented is clear to see. India badly needs a course-correction.