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Why Citizenship Bill has Evoked Strong Response from India's 'Good Friend' Bangladesh

File photo of Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi (Image: PTI)

File photo of Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi (Image: PTI)

While it is true that the two countries have reflected utmost bonhomie since Sheikh Hasina returned to the helm of affairs, amidst the friendliness, tough and tricky questions have also been asked away from the public glare.

The fact that Bangladesh is India’s friend has been reiterated several times in the recent past both in words and gestures; the latest being Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s presence at the historic pink-ball Test match in Kolkata between India and Bangladesh. Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said it was most appropriate that the first day-night test match in India be inaugurated by a “good friend of India”.

The press release after PM Modi’s meeting with Hasina in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA summit on September 27 described the state of bilateral relations and cooperation as “excellent”. During this meeting, an invitation was extended to PM Modi to visit Bangladesh in March next year for the birth centenary of Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In less than 10 days, on October 5, Hasina met Modi again for bilateral talks in New Delhi. Sources described the visit as reflecting “irreversibility of a partnership that was uniquely positioned”.

While it is true that the two countries have reflected utmost bonhomie since Sheikh Hasina returned to the helm of affairs, amidst the friendliness, tough and tricky questions have also been asked away from the public glare.

In the September 27 meeting in New York, Hasina raised the issue of the National Register for Citizens in Assam. According to Bangladesh, she was reassured by PM Modi that NRC would not have a bearing on the country. However, despite this reassurance, the Bangladeshi premier raised the matter again when she came to Delhi. Sources confirmed to News18 that the matter did come up and she was explained that “it’s an ongoing, court mandated process”. Hasina was told that a decision would be taken depending on the course the issue takes.

The question of why Hasina raised the issue twice in a matter of one week despite getting an assurance from the prime minister himself was left unanswered. But here’s what transpired in India in those seven days.

In a rally in Bengal on October 1, Home Minister Amit Shah said: “Before bringing NRC in the country, CAB will be passed in Rajya Sabha by BJP-led government at the Centre. We will give citizenship right to all the refugees, including Matuas, who have been thrown out from different countries. Refugees from other countries — Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Christian." The omission of Muslims was unmistakable, especially for the neighbouring country that has been concerned about the impact on them.

Recently, at the IK Gujral memorial lecture, former foreign secretary and NSA Shiv Shankar Menon also warned against the risk of derailing the relationship with a friendly country if the matter was not dealt with sensitively. He said, “Bangladesh is contributing positively to India’s security. But if you start calling (illegal) immigrants ‘termites’ or start reflecting a very negative attitude, you run the risk of derailing a relationship that matters.” Shah has used the word termites to describe illegal immigrants and had said if the NDA returned to power at the Centre in 2019, they would ensure infiltrators are ousted.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh foreign minister who was to landing in New Delhi on Thursday evening and meet External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Saturday, cancelled his visit. He also rejected allegations of persecution of minorities in Bangladesh. India's former High Commissioner to Dhaka, Veena Sikri, said such misunderstandings with a valuable neighbour should immediately be clarified.

She explained that the period being referred to was the regime of Khalida Zia and much was written about it then. Sikri served as India's envoy to Bangladesh entirely under Zia between 2003 and 2006. She said if there were apprehensions in Dhaka, they should be discussed at the highest level or certain elements in Bangladesh could create a negative impression to adversely affect the situation.