Delhi-Dhaka diplomatic overtures to ease tension over India’s new Citizenship Law

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Bangladesh did not take the Indian home minister’s statement very well

In the wake of escalating tension between India and Bangladesh over India’s controversial new Citizenship Law, bilateral diplomatic efforts are underway to ease the situation. India has expressed its firm belief that religious minorities have enjoyed full safety and protection under the present government in Bangladesh. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed on December 9 by the Indian parliament, opens a legal gateway for such persecuted religious minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians — but not Islam — to acquire Indian citizenship.

Over the past several days, Dhaka has been receiving diplomatic wires of strong support and re-assurance from the Modi government. Meanwhile, India says that the new citizenship law will not be applicable to fresh refugees from Bangladesh entering Indian territory. The new citizenship law will only be applicable to those refugees who have taken shelter in India for at least five years. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has said that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the new Citizenship Law are India’s internal matters. 

Earlier on December 9, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha amid clashes and protests in different parts of the country, mainly the Northeast. The Bill that seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from the three neighbouring nations, faced stiff protests in Parliament even as Amit Shah tabled it.

The Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Bill with 293 votes in favour and 82 against. While introducing the Citizenship Bill in the Lok Sabha, Amit Shah argued the Bill was not against Muslims or minorities in India.

However, following two weeks of media reports and television interviews involving officials, leaders and diplomats representing both Dhaka and Delhi, it was apparent that the existing ties between the two friendly neighbours had begun to run into a certain sort of discomfort.

Defending the Citizenship Bill, Amit Shah said: “In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis and Jains have been discriminated against. So this Bill will give these persecuted people citizenship. Also, the allegation that this Bill will take away the rights of Muslims is wrong.”

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, the Indian minister’s statement on the citizenship bill came under blistering criticism. Bangladesh rejected outright Amit Shah’s remarks on the condition of religious minorities in the country. In a swift response, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said that religious minorities in Bangladesh had never been subjected to persecution and repression. 

Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Dr Momen said: “What they are saying with regard to repression of Hindus is unwarranted as well as untrue. There are a very few countries in the world where communal harmony is as good as in Bangladesh. We have no minorities. We are all equal. If he [Amit Shah] stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see the exemplary communal harmony in our country,” he added.

Soon after, the Foreign Minister cancelled his visit to India. He was scheduled to visit India from December 12-14. The visit was called off amid Bangladesh’s raising strong objections to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was passed by the Rajya Sabha on December 12.

A K Abdul Momen said the Citizenship Bill could weaken India’s historic character as a secular nation and rejected allegations that minorities were facing religious persecution in his country. “India is historically a tolerant country which believes in secularism (but) their historic position will be weakened if they deviate from that,” Momen told reporters. 

Across the border in India, officials realized that Amit Shah’s remarks in parliament were not taken lightly in Dhaka. Reports in Dhaka made note of the fact that BJP politicians had also demonized Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers, including calling them infiltrators, to gain electoral support.

However, as part of a diplomatic overture, India continued its ‘damage control exercise’ in the face of Dhaka’s apprehensions over the new law with India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar reassuring Bangladesh of the safety and security of India’s minority community. 

In a weekly briefing in Delhi, on December 12, Raveesh Kumar, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said that the Indian administration were aware of the fact that the religious minorities in Bangladesh were well protected. As he put it: “We know that minorities are protected in Bangladesh under the current government.”

“Indeed, I would say that the Sheikh Hasina government has taken many solid steps for the benefit of religious minorities,” he said.

Kumar also said: “The religious persecution that our government is referring to in Bangladesh took place during the rule of its military governments and the past BNP government.” 

Despite a clarification by the Indian government that no bill could impact India-Bangladesh ties, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan too on December 13 called off his visit to India. The home minister was expected to travel to Meghalaya at Tamabil in Sylhet at the invitation of Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.

Home Ministry Public Relations Officer Sharif Mahmood Apu said the minister 

had been scheduled to attend a number of events related to the liberation war.

Bangladesh was learnt to have been upset following the roll out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam around four months ago even though India had conveyed to it that the issue was an internal matter of the country.

Senior government officials on condition of anonymity said that Indian Muslims were deeply unsettled. They see the new measure, called the Citizenship Amendment Bill, as the first step by the governing party to make second-class citizens of India’s 200 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and render many of them stateless.

The officials further said that the citizenship bill was part of the campaign to identify and deport Muslims living in India for years. It laid out a path to Indian citizenship for migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they could prove they had been in India for at least five years and subscribed to the specified religions. In such circumstances, Hindus living in Bangladesh, in particular, could face an uphill battle in terms of realizing their economic, social and religious rights. 

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution says, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” Given this stipulation, many opponents of the bill say the citizenship legislation is patently unconstitutional.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said on December 20, that the citizenship law did not encourage any fresh influx from Bangladesh, but those who had fled the neighbouring country and moved to the state decades ago due to religious persecution would be able to apply for Indian citizenship.

Allaying fears of the state’s indigenous population, who are wary that the law would threaten their identity, Sonowal said “not a single person of Bangladesh will get to enter Assam through CAA”.

“Only those people who have been living in Assam for decades, having fled religious persecution in Bangladesh, will be able to apply for Indian citizenship,” he told reporters at a press meet in Guwahati.

Subsequently, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, on December 21, reiterated that the NRC and the Citizenship Act were squarely an internal matter of India. 

Meanwhile, on December 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly spoke about the unrest in India around the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. 

He said “lies and rumours” were being spread on the topic. 

PM Modi said the citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens had nothing to do with Indian Muslims. A lie is being spread that this government had brought the law to snatch people’s rights away, the prime minister said.

Modi made it clear the law would have “no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”.

He also blamed the opposition for the protests, accusing them of “spreading lies and rumours” and “instigating violence” and “creating an atmosphere of illusion and falsehood”.

Critics fear the controversial law undermines India’s secular constitution, and say faith should not be the basis of citizenship. 

Following an initial mix-up, top Bangladeshi officials have begun to describe the new Citizenship Law in a rather conciliatory tone.  Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader told reporters that people from religious minorities had gone to India “due to persecution” only after the BNP-led four-party alliance came to power in 2001. 

“We will take them back if they want to return,” Quader, also the road transport and bridges minister, said in reply to a question at a press briefing at his secretariat office.

A series of softening remarks from the Indian and Bangladesh sides have further normalized relations that became apparent on December 24, when Indian Border Security Force (BSF) announced plans for a pre-scheduled meeting between BGB and BSF. The talks will begin from December 26 at a Border Security Force (BSF) camp in south-west Delhi. 

The BGB DG is likely to meet India’s Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah at a program. The conference will end formally through a signing of a “joint record of discussions” by the two sides on December 29.