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India's migration politics will topple Sheikh Hasina's government.

Byline: B Z Khasru

_; India's migration politics asserting that 40 million Bangladeshi migrants are illegally living in India and must be pushed back can destabilise South Asia. -- ; India's migration politics asserting that 40 million Bangladeshi migrants are illegally living in India and must be pushed back can destabilise South Asia.

India's campaign to round up suspected illegal migrants and put them in under-construction concentration camps may give Hindu nationalists license to terrorise Muslims, forcing them to flee into neighbouring countries. To avoid detention, many non-citizens, especially those in Assam and West Bengal, will rush toward Bangladesh because of its proximity. India's most friendly but highly sensitive neighbour, Bangladesh, will refuse them entry, creating a humanitarian disaster.

Enraged by the plight of the Muslims at their border, Bangladeshi Muslims will turn against their Hindu countrymen. Any atrocity on Hindus in Bangladesh, in turn, will infuriate India's Hindus, who will vent their anger on Muslims in India. This sectarian tension could spiral out of control and spread through the region and beyond, perhaps to the Middle East and Europe. India will face an international public-relations nightmare, forcing it to divert attention from its most pressing task, fixing the economy.

India will get more than it is bargaining for if it pushes the alleged illegal migrants into Bangladesh: Violent anti-India street demonstrations will rock Bangladesh; the pro-Indian Hasina government will fall; and Hindus in Bangladesh will face the fury of Muslim mobs, forcing them to flee to India.

India's current migration politics has its roots in Assam, where local politicians have periodically incited violence over the past 70 years to drive out non-Assamese, both Hindus and Muslims, stoking regionalism for political gains.

The non-Assamese, mostly Bengali-speakers people from today's Bangladesh or West Bengal, routinely voted for Congress. Assam and Bengal were one administrative unit under the British, and people moved freely throughout the region.

After Britain divided India as well as Assam and Bengal in 1947, many East Pakistan-based Hindus migrated to Assam. This influx of migrants made indigenous Assamese angry and local politicians exploited this. A student group that waged a six-year-long anti-Bengali violent campaign captured state power in 1985 and 1996.

Then came Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, and Hindutva the anti-minority politics of his BJP followed. Modi swept to power with a promise of jobs and growth, downplaying his roots in the powerful Hindu-nationalist group RSS. After a heavy defeat later in Bihar, the BJP started spreading the sectarian venom that India is a Hindu nation, and blacklisted minority Muslims.

Modi's party does not target migrant Bangladeshi Hindus, rather promises them citizenship. But it seeks to deport Muslims. During his election campaign, Modi told migrants in states bordering Bangladesh to keep their 'bags packed'. But he waited until re-elected in 2019 to bring it up with Bangladesh.

If terrorised badly enough, India's nearly 200 million Muslim citizens may start flocking to Pakistan, which orthodox Hindus wish for; alternatively, they may fight back the hyper-nationalist Hindus. This vicious cycle of communal hostility will push the region into chaos and misery

Since Hasina returned to power in 2009, Dhaka-Delhi relations have improved remarkably to the extent that many Bengalis think India is the strongest leg of her throne. Indeed, Hasina has always been India's favourite. When Bangladesh became independent of Pakistan in 1971, Delhi played the midwife, and later stood by Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After his assassination in 1975, India sheltered a young, orphaned Hasina.

In 1981, India nudged the military-strongman-turned-president, Gen Ziaur Rahman, to ensure her safe return home, paving the way for her to capture power in 1996. Later, Delhi helped Hasina defeat the slain president's widow, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in the 2008 poll.

A grateful Hasina repaid by handing over an Indian separatist leader, signing a land boundary agreement, and allowing India to ferry food and grains to its landlocked Northeast through Bangladesh. On top of all this, she turned down a Chinese offer to help build a military base in Bangladesh.

To reciprocate, Modi in 2015 signed 22 agreements while visiting Dhaka, extended a $2 billion credit line and pledged $5 billion in investments. And, when Hasina visited Delhi in 2017, she signed two defence pacts, the first ones between India and any neighbour, enabling joint military exercises and training.

But all these goodwill gestures may soon start unravelling, thanks to an explosive claim by Modi's government that the 40 million Bangladeshi illegal migrants must be sent back home.

Modi's party campaigned on this issue during the 2019 general election and won a landslide victory. Bangladesh initially dismissed the campaign rhetoric as domestic politics. But in August India Home Minister Amit Shah, likely to succeed Modi, raised the matter with his Bangladeshi counterpart during talks in Delhi.

Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan flatly dismissed India's claim. He told Shah that Bangladeshis do not stay illegally in India, because Bangladesh's economy is at par with India's, if not better. (Bangladesh will post eight per cent growth in 2019, against India's five per cent.) The matter became so acrimonious that the two sides failed to issue to a joint statement after the talks.

India, however, seems determined to push its agenda. It has launched a campaign to round up Muslims unless they can prove they have lived in India since before 1971 when Bangladesh was created. They will be put in concentration camps, which ironically the migrants themselves are building now. India has classified nearly two million long-term residents as non-citizens, making them stateless.

Dhaka is nervous because India may seek to push at least the alleged Muslim migrants into Bangladesh, the world's most densely populated country.

Hasina and Modi discussed the issue twice, first at the United Nations in September and then in Delhi early October, with no apparent resolution. Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque after the Delhi talks noted India's position was 'self-contradictory'. Modi says one thing, but his party and state leaders say another. Modi says it is India's internal matter and will no way affect Bangladesh, but his cohorts are bent upon deporting the migrants.

Besides the setback on the migrant issue, several other Hasina-Modi deals will infuriate her countrymen. First, an accord to give Feni River water and natural gas to India when the dispute over sharing the Teesta River water remains unresolved. Second, the pact on coastal surveillance radar stations to help India monitor China's naval movements is sure to irk Beijing, a major investor in Bangladesh. Finally, the agreement to let India to use its neighbour's ports to transport goods without reciprocal benefits to Dhaka.

On top of all this, what makes Bangladeshis even more jittery is the fear that India might export convicts, calling them illegal migrants, just as Cuba sent mental patients and miscreants to the USA in 1980 as refugees.

Any such move would have far-reaching consequences for Indian relations with Bangladesh. It will not only undermine Hasina's government, but also give fodder to Islamic extremists whom she has largely kept under control. Another worrisome prospect is there may be a repeat of the bloodbath of Partition.

Any forced dumping of Muslims from India will be catastrophic for Bangladesh's 20 million Hindus. Infuriated by India's action, Bangladeshi Muslims will vent their anger on their Hindu countrymen, forcing them to flee to India, as they did in 1971. Such an exodus, in turn, will enrage the BJP's already psyched-up saffron soldiers, who will be more than pleased to turn India into an anti-Muslim battleground, to avenge Muslim rule, if nothing else.

If terrorised badly enough, India's nearly 200 million Muslim citizens may start flocking to Pakistan, which orthodox Hindus wish for; alternatively, they may fight back the hyper-nationalist Hindus. This vicious cycle of communal hostility will push the region into chaos and misery.
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Author:B Z Khasru
Publication:Pakistan Today (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Oct 11, 2019
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