Author: Rudabeh Shahid, Atlantic Council South Asia Center
Bangladesh continues to struggle against the forced migration of Rohingyas from Myanmar. The wages of day laborers have fallen, organized crime activity has increased and the clearing of 2,500 hectares of protected forest to shelter refugees has degraded the environment.
Dynamics similar to those that led to the Rohingya refugee crisis are currently brewing in India – and both cases reflect systematic state violence, deprivation of citizenship and the threat of statelessness against an imagined “foreign” population. .
In May 2022, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said that Rohingya migrants use brokers to enter Bangladesh from India. The porous 4,000 kilometer border has been a source of contention for decades, but the two governments have worked to resolve the issue by swapping border enclaves and controlling cross-border militant groups in the northeast. Yet anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric continues to dominate Indian domestic politics, with the political establishment claiming that there are 20 million undocumented Bangladeshi migrants living in India.
According to Momen, some of the Rohingyas who migrated to India to escape persecution in Myanmar come to Bangladesh because of the “good facilities provided in Cox’s Bazar”, a coastal region in southeast Bangladesh. Yet India has adopted a draconian policy under which many Rohingya have been forcibly deported to Myanmar where they face genocide. This fear of deportation drives Rohingyas in India to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
This development is part of a growing hostility in India towards those deemed “illegal” and unworthy of citizenship. The controversial Bangladesh-India cross-border movement has fired the Indian national imagination towards the proposal of two amendments to citizenship laws in 2019. These proposals led to the creation of a national citizenship register, known as the name National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – a law allowing non-Muslim foreigners to become Indian citizens.
The roots of the NRC go back to Assam, a state in northeastern India where the pursuit of racial purity took on dangerous forms. The Assam NRC dates back to the Assam movement of the 1980s when it was used as a tool to categorize “illegal immigrants” for deportation. Substantial progress on the register was made after the 2016 Assam state election victory by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as part of a broader anti-minority agenda. The BJP introduced the CAA in 2019 to protect those deemed more “worthy” and “valuable” to their conception of the Indian nation.
Observers note that the CAA and NRC bear disturbing similarities to Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. Myanmar’s junta government at the time ruled that anyone without ancestry from the “135 indigenous groups” of pre-colonial Burma was an illegal immigrant. This law shapes Myanmar’s public imagination of Rohingyas as undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, just as the NRC and CAA can shape India’s public imagination of Bengali Muslims.
During the 2014 national election campaign, then-candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi made the deportation of “Bangladeshis” – a term that often refers to Bengali-speaking Muslims in border states – an election promise. . During the 2019 election campaign, Amit Shah, then BJP president and now interior minister, called the group “termites”, citing the same dehumanizing language used by Radio Rwanda in the early 1990s. Ruling BJP members defended this statement on international media platforms.
State violence against Bengali-speaking Muslims continues despite national and international advocacy efforts by civil society groups. In September 2021, local Bengali Muslim residents of Assam resisted forced eviction and eviction by police, tragically ending in the brutal murder of Moinul Haque by police. Violence against Muslims in border states is emerging in Tripura – a state with no history of post-partition religious violence.
Bengali Muslims in Mumbai were persecuted under Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena administration in the 1990s, but the violence was mostly limited to border states or Indian citizens.. In April 2022, many shacks and businesses in the Jahangirpuri area of Delhi owned by Bengali Muslims (from West Bengal who later settled in Delhi) were reportedly demolished by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. Over the past year, police raids in Bangalore have intensified in a bid to track down “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, who face harassment and even imprisonment.
Bangladeshi transit visa holders in India have become the target of harassment from a right-wing local TV reporter whose show was shared about a Delhi-based politician Twitter account. The tweet referred to them as undocumented Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingyas.
Rising hate speech against Muslims by extremist groups at religious events in India threatens bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. While Dhaka and New Delhi enjoy bonhomie, Bangladesh has seen outbursts of anti-Indian government sentiment and grievances being voiced about Indian government policy by sections of the intellectual and foreign policy elite of the Bangladesh in closed meetings.
Bangladesh hosts many Indian businessmen, students and professionals. It was the fourth largest source of remittances for Indians in 2017 – and the informal figure is estimated to be much higher. But hostility against Bangladeshis in India can jeopardize the security and livelihoods of Indian expatriates in Bangladesh.
While Dhaka remains silent on these issues, the denaturalization and defamation of Bengali Muslims in India may encourage the entrenchment of anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh, negatively affecting bilateral relations.
Rudabeh Shahid is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.