The Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) has risen to be a delicate challenge facing Indian foreign policy. Following the passing of the law, several players in the international system have conveyed their reservations about CAA (1). While there is no doubt that CAA is an internal matter, it does have implications for actors beyond our borders.
Apart from the effects on domestic matters of political composition and social cohesion, this matter poses serious implications for India’s foreign relations. It would be objective to say that the possible implications of CAA go beyond just hurting India’s image on the global stage, touching even the most real and critical facets like that of trade with major partners as was evident with the proposed draft resolutions in the European Union parliament recommending human rights clauses to be associated with future trade deals (2).
However, the most immediate threat is posed to India’s relations with its smaller South Asian neighbours, especially the craftily balanced and revived ties with India’s most concerned adjacent state regarding the matter, Bangladesh. The last decade witnessed tremendous constructive growth in India-Bangladesh bilateral relations. There is a shift not only at the government or bureaucratic level but also in the perception of people of either country towards the other. The ties have moved from being marred with suspicion and virtual hostility to increased friendly cooperation across the entire spectrum and are widely believed to be peaking today barring the high of 1972.
As of today, it would be right to call Bangladesh as India’s most important immediate neighbor due to the ever-increasing and effective cooperation between the two countries ranging on various issues including security, trade and economy, and regional connectivity.
For years, one of India’s main concerns was anti-India forces using Bangladesh territory as an operating haven. This mainly had two dimensions. First, the Northeast insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) use the permeable border to evade Indian security agencies. The second being the operational space that existed for the religious radical outfits like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B).
Bangladesh under the Sheikh Hasina government ensured a sustained crackdown on extremists and insurgent outfits across the board. In 2015, Bangladesh handed over Anup Chetia, a top ULFA leader to India in exchange for Nur Hossain, prime accused of the seven murders in Narayanganj (3). This kind of security cooperation is of utmost importance to India to stabilise its volatile regions bordering neighboring states. On the economic front, Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia as bilateral trade stood at around USD 10 billion in FY 2018-19, with a trade surplus of USD 8 billion in India’s favor (4).
In October 2019, the two countries also signed various Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) including setting up of a coastal surveillance system in Bangladesh which will clear the way for a possible Indo-Bangladesh White Shipping Agreement (WSA) in future and will be particularly of use amid ever increasing piracy threats to merchant ships in the Bay of Bengal.
Another key MoU signed was for establishing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on the use of Mongla and Chattogram port for the movement of goods to and from India via Bangladeshi territory (5). This would reduce the distance, time and cost of logistics, especially for the North-eastern states of India and would help expedite infrastructure development there.
Some of these are significant concessions that have been made by the Bangladesh government despite the lingering Teesta river dispute. Bangladesh is also a key player in India’s Act East policy. It is a member of the BBIN (Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal) sub-regional initiative, as well as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which is a regional multilateral organisation with a potential passage to Southeast Asia for India. Under BBIN, a Motor Vehicle Act was signed by the four countries in 2015, and in 2018 India, Nepal, and Bangladesh gave their approval to the text of operating procedure for movement of passenger vehicles in the sub-region.
The success of both BBIN and BIMSTEC is critical for India as it moves to check China’s larger strategy of integrating smaller South Asian states economically to gain a strategic hold in the region, and thus active participation and cooperation of Bangladesh in these initiatives would be crucial (6).
The most public clubbing of Bangladesh with Pakistan, a country known for its religious fundamentalism and use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy, has not been well received by people left, right or centre in Bangladesh.
This doesn’t match the ‘Booming Bangladesh’ image being projected by the Bangladesh government to attract further foreign investment to boost its already fast-growing economy (7). This was well reflected when Bangladesh foreign minister A.K Abdul Momen and home minister Asaduzzaman Khan cancelled their respective visits to India while citing “scheduling” reasons for the cancellation (8). The Bangladeshi foreign minister, A.K Momen, as reported by Financial Express Bangladesh, asserted how he strongly contested the view that minorities are persecuted in Bangladesh, and how Bangladesh’s economy was growing much faster than India’s doesn’t leave any justifications for Bangladesh citizens to migrate to India for economic reasons.
These statements and gestures reflect an emblematic pushback from our eastern neighbor. There are also concerns in Bangladesh that those rendered non-citizens as a result of the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), those being Muslims and Bengalis speaking might be pushed into Bangladesh as they simply might be construed as illegal immigrants living in India. The single biggest shortcoming of the Indian foreign policy with regards to this matter has been the limited outreach to our neighbours, especially the people of these neighbouring countries.
Though assurances have been given to by PM Modi to PM Hasina that it is India’s internal matter, more public statements by several Indian leaders particularly pointing out to Bangladesh immigrants and often using derogatory statements, promptly picked up by Bangladeshi print and electronic news will shape the collective memory of the Bangladeshi people in a profound and lasting manner (9).
Such negative perceptions of India by the populous of a key partner will provide space for anti-India, religious and political, forces in Bangladesh to gain momentum once again as they would seek to play on the fears of the people to secure political gains. Even India’s staunch supporter, PM Hasina had to scram to balance the situation and go on a record with Gulf News to say while CAA was India’s internal matter, she couldn’t understand the need for such a law and that it was unnecessary (10).
Such sentiments can quickly take a sharp turn towards hostility with a shift in power or might even force the Sheikh Hasina government to arrest the increasing cooperation with India to secure its domestic political standing.
Such a change will have real possibilities of hampering the sub-regional initiatives like BBIN and BIMSTEC and cast doubt over India’s ability to manage and push regional integration as it seeks to be a regional as well as a global political and economic superpower. The need of the hour is perception management, not just focusing on Bangladesh’s government and bureaucracy but also the people of Bangladesh, and assuring them with effective communication on how CAA would not adversely affect Bangladesh’s national interest.
*About the author: Mohak Gambhir, Research Assistant Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Views expressed are the author’s own.