By Khawaza Main Uddin
DHAKA, Bangladesh : If India’s latest move to strip around 2 million people of citizenship in northeastern state of Assam affects any country, it is hard to doubt Bangladesh will be its pawn.
Even before publication of the final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on Aug. 30 that excluded 1.9 Bangla-speaking residents of the Indian state of Assam, they were being targeted as “illegal Bangladeshis” who authorities claimed came there after March 24, 1971.
Troubled by the presence of the single largest group of stateless people from Myanmar, in its southeast corner, Bangladesh is facing threats of deportation to its territory of a similar number of people from its other neighbor, India.
The densely populated country of 165 million has housed the world’s biggest refugee settlement, giving shelter to more than 1 million Myanmar nationals of Rohingya Muslims.
According to UN refugee agency, UNHCR, about 12 million people worldwide might be “victims of statelessness” in 2018, whereas India’s action presented such status to 1.9 million in a single day.
Dhaka denied the allegation of migration of any Bangladeshis to Assam in its northeast border, but India’s ruling party leaders insisted they went there after Pakistan’s military crackdown on Bangladeshis on March 25, 1971 that led to the country’s war of independence and victory on Dec. 16 the same year.
Critics say most of the people were living there before.
During Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war, 10 million Hindus and Muslims took shelter in Hindu-majority India — mostly in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya states — but almost all returned home after the war.
India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allegedly planned to change the demographic distribution in Assam where one-third of its citizens are Muslims.
Muslims account for 90% of the population in Bangladesh, a Bangla-speaking country.
“Researchers in India have pointed out that many of these people went to Assam from West Bengal, a Bangla-speaking Indian state,” said professor Imtiaz Ahmad, director of the Centre for Genocide Studies at Dhaka University. He said many of those excluded from the NRC list are Hindus who would be eventually accommodated.
Despite having a friendly regime in Dhaka which considers the NRC issue as India’s internal affairs, Indian leaders such as Assamese Minister Pramila Rani Brahma reportedly said the “illegal immigrants” would be deported once their appeal is disposed.
However, Ahmad referred to Indian External Affair Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s statement during his recent visit to Dhaka that the NRC was India’s domestic issue and that Bangladesh had nothing to worry about it.
Kamal Ahmed, a Bangladesh journalist living in London, believes the stateless people from Assam may not be deported shortly but authorities may not take much time either to start the process.
“It cannot be assumed that these people would be repatriated to the West Bengal. There is no likelihood that they would be taken to India’s borders with Pakistan or China. So, it is Bangladesh which will have to face even the spillover effects of making people stateless,” he said.
History observes there was a change in the demography of Assam, a multiethnic state, during the reorganization of colonial administrative states beginning in 1905. Then-Governor-General of the British India Lord Curzon made Dhaka the capital, merging erstwhile East Bengal, which is currently Bangladesh, with Assam, a hinterland.
When the British left the subcontinent, dividing it into Indian Union and two wings of Pakistan in 1947, the world witnessed the largest migration in human history of 15 million people.
Emerging as an independent country through a bloody war and suffering a huge refugee crisis including the internal displacement of 20 million people, Bangladesh has been once again on the receiving end of a refugee crises.
More than thrice since the late 1970s, Myanmar authorities forced Rohingya to leave their homeland where they have been living for hundreds of years, terming them Bengali.
Bengalis are Bangla-speaking people living in Bangladesh and Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. Like India’s NRC case, Myanmar, too, has deprived the Rohingya of citizenship by framing a law in 1982.
Bangladesh, once considered a demographic time bomb for a high density population, has been widely applauded for its economic growth of 6-8% in recent decades.
Now, the Rohingya refugee crisis is being called another time bomb for Bangladesh.
Apart from stresses on local resources, Dhaka sees declining funding for the Rohingya refugees. The official update shows only $330 million out of a requirement of $920 million for support during the remaining months of 2019 is available.
When Bangladesh’s big neighbor, India, has disappointed Bangladeshis with a lukewarm policy response to the Rohingya issue, the NRC issue created further apprehensions inside Bangladesh.
In both cases Bangladesh feels helpless about how heartless politics of creating stateless men and women make it pay a price yet to be measured.AA
*The writer, a journalist based in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, is winner of the UN Millennium Development Goals Award, DAJA Award, and WFP Award. He has master’s degrees in both journalism and international relations.Views are personal.