Bangladeshis worried about Modi

Ashis Biswas
There is a sharp dissonance between the official Bangladeshi reaction to the election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister and the response of the country’s social and general media.
Officially, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has congratulated Modi on his victory, hoping for stronger Indo-Bangla relations in the days ahead. Describing Bangladesh as Modi’s ‘second home,’ she has suggested that bilateral relations be further strengthened through dialogue, no doubt with her eye on the pending Teesta Water Sharing Accord.
The Indian Government has invited Hasina along with other SAARC leaders to attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Since she will be visiting Japan at the time, a high-level representative is scheduled to attend the New Delhi ceremony.
So far so good and diplomatically all is well. But there has been understandable concern in the Bangladesh media over a major announcement made by Modi during his election campaign, his plans to ‘send back illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ after he assumed power. For good measure, the former Gujarat Chief Minister announced this in meetings he addressed in Assam and West Bengal, the two States which have seen the bulk of such immigration over the years.
‘Broadly speaking, the defining tone of media reaction has varied between the anxious to the angry’, says a Kolkata-based analyst. ‘There have been even a few voices calling for a Bangladesh counter to make the country’s big neighbour think twice on the matter – send back Indians working there. But there have not been too many takers for the line, as the numbers perhaps are not big enough.’
In Dhaka and elsewhere, it is not surprising that there were worried faces among political as well as common people over Modi’s call even before his election as the new Indian Prime Minister became a settled fact. The post-election situation has brought Dhaka no comfort either. Modi has ordered a special department to be set up to handle this very sensitive issue, almost the very first step he has taken officially.
The situation spells grave concern for Hasina and her ruling Awami League party. Many in Bangladesh accuse her of being too pro-Indian already. Of late, she does not bother to dispute such a labelling, having allowed India partial transit facilities through her country’s land and rivers, clearing out anti-India insurgents and not over-reacting on the stalemate over the Teesta water sharing accord.
Naturally, her bête noire Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition pro-Jamat BNP, has pounced on this and started attacking her again. The BNP has been staging protest marches over the Teesta water issue. The BNP’s anti-Government protest programmes in Bangladesh always include a vitriolic anti-minority (read Hindu) campaign at the physical level. Its anti Awami League protests before the recent Bangladesh elections, too, were no different. Hindus, currently less than 10 per cent of the population, were attacked repeatedly along with their properties, their women and holy places specially targeted.
In case the new BJP government really begins to fulfill its pre-poll pledge in India, there is little doubt that the resultant mass backlash and communal fallout may prove well beyond the powers of the Awami League government to control in Bangladesh. It might even lead to a fresh Hindu exodus to India, analysts fear.
As things stand, economically and politically Bangladesh was never more dependent on India than it is now. The US and the European Union countries have not yet endorsed the outcome of the recent general elections, boycotted by the BNP. There have been threats of imposing economic sanctions against Bangladesh.
These fears have been considerably addressed by India, which was the first country to announce its total support for the victorious Awami league in a difficult post-election situation. In turn, Russia, China and Myanmar followed the Indian example, endorsing its stand. Significantly, this regional BRICS initiative has effectively silenced the West-inspired talk about sanctions, for now. The BNP’s continuing obduracy in staying away from general elections, too, is being questioned for the first time.
Modi’s move may bring several long-term results, including fresh tensions in Indo-Bangla relations. It remains to be seen how many illegal immigrants are eventually identified and deported, if at all, given Dhaka’s known hardline policy of not accepting its former citizens. The long term objective may be to increase India’s political leverage with Dhaka, surely an unnecessary exercise given the Awami League’s relations with Delhi.
In contrast, there will be an immediate short term reaction in Bangladesh. The fading BNP, its Jamat and Islamic fundamentalist allies will experience a new revival, a fresh boost that bodes ill for India. Worse and more worryingly, foreign backers of the Jamat-e-Islami including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE , Sunni extremist organisations and NGOs, would regain their lost footing in Bangladesh. With illegal arms and money pouring in again and the help of the Pak-based ISI, these forces will be in a strong position to destabilise India’s troubled Northeast and East regions, not to mention step up their attacks and terror strikes all over the country.
Given this background, Indian policymakers must ponder whether in these circumstances it would not be a wiser option to revive an old proposal from BJP leader LK Advani, suggesting that all illegal immigrants currently working in India be identified and given work permits. If nothing else, the procedure would help establish their provenance and quantify their numbers, on the basis of which a suitable dialogue could be launched with the countries of their origin. There must be a clear definition of their specific status, whether as refugees, infiltrators or economic migrants, etc. Such official ‘tagging’ of foreign labour has been undertaken in several European countries at the moment, where also there is much concern over the increase in the worldwide Muslim diaspora.
Having worked this out, it may be possible to enter into a structured, meaningful and effective dialogue with their mother countries. Disputes/disagreements can then be taken to the highest international level, if necessary.
As things stand, the incorporation of such a holistic approach will help considerably in the further cementing of Indo-Bangla relations, an end to which both the prime ministers, Modi and Hasina, it can be assumed, remain committed. It may also lead to long peace and stability in India’s troubled East and Northeast region. (IPA)

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