On Monday, India’s external affairs ministry announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had deferred a visit to Bangladesh planned for next week because the event that he was to attend had been postponed.
In a surprise move on Sunday, Bangladesh said it had postponed the event to inaugurate the birth centenary celebrations of its founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, scheduled for March 17 after three cases of Covid-19 had been detected in the country.
However, speculation is rife in Bangladesh that there was another factor at play: Modi’s presence itself. Last Friday saw large protests across several cities in Bangladesh, urging the Hasina government to cancel Modi’s invitation. According to the Dhaka Tribune, protestors also planned to gherao the Dhaka airport to prevent Modi from entering the city.
In view of this, the cancellation of the inauguration event has allowed the Bangladesh government to escape from a sticky situation.
Bangladesh is nowhere as intensely affected by the coronavirus pandemic as many other countries. Moreover, no other large gathering in the country has been cancelled due to this outbreak so far.
The protests were another indication of the damage the Bharatiya Janata Party government has caused to relations with its eastern neighbour. For decades, India has close ties with Bangladesh and enjoyed enormous goodwill among its people since it was the Indian Army that, alongside the Mukti Bahini, battled the Pakistan Army in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh. Since then, Delhi-Dhaka have moved even closer.
But now, there is now a spanner in the works. In India, one important plant of the BJP’s political rhetoric has involved claims that it will deport undocumented Bangladeshi migrants from the country. Though there is little hard data, the party claims that large numbers of Bangladeshis have crossed over into India. Home Minister Amit Shah has even referred to these Bangladeshi migrants as “termites”.
To tackle this claimed influx, the BJP has repeatedly promised a National Register of Citizens, an unprecedented country-wide survey of residents to identify undocumented migrants.
Adding to the tension, the BJP in December passed an amendment to India’s citizenship laws that allows non-Muslim illegal migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh a fast track to Indian citizenship. The reason for this, according to the BJP, was religious persecution of Hindus in these countries.
The heightened anti-Bangladesh rhetoric in India has, not surprisingly, put a severe strain on Dhaka-Delhi relations. In July 2019, for the first time ever, Bangladesh publically expressed fears over India’s NRC process. In response, India has repeatedly tried to assure Dhaka that the NRC process would not affect it.
The controversy about India’s citizenship initiatives comes at a bad time for the Bangladesh government. The country’s ruling Awami League is the party of the country’s independence, having midwifed its birth under the Bengali nationalist umbrella of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is Rahman’s daughter and depends on her father’s towering legacy for political legitimacy. As a result, Bangladesh had undertaken massive preparations for the centenary, with Dhaka city covered in hoardings for the event.
Yet, as is clear from this episode, the Hasina administration is now coming under fire for its closeness with India. It was in 2009 when the newly-elected Hasina government decided to take ties with India to a new level. Always close to India, the Awami League government did all it could to achieve India’s security goals. Hasina moved decisively against the banned United Liberation Front of Asom. It arrested its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and handed him over to India in 2009. In 2015, it arrested and handed over the ULFA’s general secretary, Anup Chetia. Most significantly, Bangladesh has frozen the vast majority of ULFA’s funds, rendering the once-feared organisation nearly comatose.
India returned the favour in 2014, when the Bangladesh general elections held under an incumbent Hasina government turned out to be little more than a farce. More than half the seats were decided without contest. Significantly, though, New Delhi backed Hasina and vouched for the election. This ensured that the Awami League was able to stay in office and murmurs from the United States and Europe about the new government’s legitimacy were shut out.
This arrangement held rather well till, of course, 2018, when the BJP started to push ahead with the issue of Bangladeshi migrants, queering the pitch for Hasina.