Before the pandemic, a wave of protests erupted across India against the BJP’s plans to implement a discriminatory citizenship law. At the time, there were fears that the BJP planned to deprive millions of Indians of their lawful citizenship through the draconian CAA-NRC-NPR.

The three initiatives involved are the Citizenship Amendment Act, which can be used to deny citizenship to Muslim inhabitants of India if they are accused of being illegal immigrants; the National Register of Citizens, which is being implemented in Assam as a controversial census; and the National Population Register, which seeks to replicate the National Register of Citizens on an all-India basis.

The National Register of Citizens stands out as the most dangerous exercise because it has been used to exclude an estimated 39% of Assam’s population from the census. This means that 13 million people out of a total population of 33 million in Assam are vulnerable to losing their citizenship in India. Under the National Register of Citizens, existing citizenship can be lost by default without the right to a fair hearing by the tribunal.

There are concerns that the BJP may revitalise the National Register of Citizens process as part of its political strategy for the 2024 general election in India. Bangladesh is scheduled to hold its general election a few months before the Indian election in either December 2023 or January 2024. If the National Register of Citizens resulted in an exodus from Assam, it would jeopardise the bonhomie between Dhaka and New Delhi.

Bangladesh shares a distinctive heritage with the Indian state of Assam. The Assam Bengal Railway once connected the highlands of Assam to the port city of Chittagong. Eastern Bengal and Assam was a colonial province covering all of Bangladesh and Northeast India between 1905 and 1911.

The Muslim population in Assam is a legacy of the sultanate period in Bengal. After taking Lakhnauti in 1204, the Muslim conquerors of Bengal proceeded to invade Tibet through Assam. The Tibetan invasion failed but remnants of Bakhtiar Khilji’s army remained in Assam. After Sylhet’s conquest during the reign of Shamsuddin Firoz Shah, the influence of Hazrat Shah Jalal spread to Assam.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the territory of the Bengal Sultanate included large parts of Assam, Arakan, Orissa and Tripura. Assam was integrated into the Bengal Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah, who was proclaimed as the conqueror of Kamrup and Kamata.

The oldest surviving mosque in Assam was built during the reign of Hussain Shah. It is also worth bearing in mind that Hussain Shah’s reign is described as an age of prosperity in Bengal historiography.

The Mughals attempted to integrate Assam into their Bengal province. Islam Khan I, who was the first Mughal governor to reside in Dhaka, mounted an invasion of Assam with mixed results. Assam was one of the few regions in the subcontinent which did not succumb to the Mughals.

During the colonial period, migration from Bengal to Assam grew exponentially. Given Bengal’s own high population density, sparsely populated Assam was a lucrative destination for Bengali agriculturalists. Between 1905 and 1911, Dhaka was the seat of government for Assam.

Even though the first partition of Bengal was annulled, Assam remained a separate province. The first partition was premised on increased opportunities for business and jobs in Eastern Bengal and Assam. The Muslim population in Assam grew from 9% in 1921 to 23% in 1941.

The bureaucrats of Assam introduced the Line System to segregate settlers from indigenous people. The policy reserved certain areas for settlers and certain areas for indigenous people.

It contributed to indigenous suspicion of settlers from Bengal, including Muslims and Hindus. In 1937, the Muslim League formed an elected government in Assam with Sir Muhammad Saadulla as prime minister. Maulana Bhashani also became the president of the Assam chapter of the Muslim League in 1937.

Sir Saadulla was incapable of dismantling the Line System, which Bhashani strenuously opposed. The line was viewed as detrimental to Bengali interests and beneficial to indigenous interests.

In 1947, Sylhet voted in a referendum to leave Assam and reunite with East Bengal in the new dominion of Pakistan. After partition, suspicion towards Bengalis in Assam continued. The National Register of Citizens was introduced in the 1950s against the backdrop of anti-Bengali sentiment by sections of the population.

Today, Assam is witnessing renewed prejudice towards Muslims and Bengalis. A small museum for the Bengali-speaking Miya community was shut down two days after it opened and its founder was arrested. Two others were also arrested along with the founder of the museum.

In Bangladesh, many hope that India’s judiciary will step in to prevent discrimination and any abuse of rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution.

In Bangladesh, the discourse on Assam has focused on potential opportunities for trade and investment, as well as anti-terrorism cooperation. But BJP policies like the CAA-NRC-NPR are detrimental to regional peace and stability.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.