Authors: Champa Patel, Chatham House, and Rudabeh Shahid, University of York
Bangladesh is a country often subjected to the whims of its geography. Being surrounded by India and Myanmar means that ensuring good relations with its neighbours is paramount to maintaining regional cohesion but these relations are coming under strain as India’s and Myanmar’s majoritarian impulses resonate across their borders.
Myanmar is being heavily criticised by the international community for crimes against humanity, including ethnic cleansing, that have seen one million Rohingya flee to Bangladesh — the latest in a series of similar displacements. But despite international attention, there are still no long-term solutions — whether for resettlement or voluntary repatriation let alone addressing citizenship and nationality issues — and the Rohingya continue to be stateless.
Although negative public perceptions towards Myanmar are evident from increased societal distrust and pressure on the Bangladeshi Buddhist community, the Rohingya crisis has not yet adversely affected other aspects of Bangladesh–Myanmar bilateral relations.
Despite Bangladeshi authorities’ frustration with Myanmar, the two countries have still settled maritime disputes through the demarcation of proper maritime boundaries. In November 2017 — right after the latest refugee crisis erupted — an instrument of ratification was exchanged between Myanmar and Bangladesh demarcating the land north of the Naf River that separates the two countries. On the trade front, when cross-land border trade was abruptly suspended in 2017 amid the crisis, a 12 per cent devaluation of Myanmar’s currency actually boosted bilateral trade. Both countries are also preparing to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
On the other hand, Bangladesh’s current antipathy towards India may seem a surprising contrast given India’s pivotal role in Bangladesh’s War of Independence against Pakistan in 1971.
Tensions in the India–Bangladesh relationship are becoming apparent on numerous issues. These include accusations that India did not fairly allocate joint water-sharing arrangements between the two countries, the perception of unfair trade practices such as India raising non-tariff barriers against Bangladeshi traders trying to export to India, and the alleged border killings of over 1100 Bangladeshi citizens from 2000 to 2018 by India’s border security force.
Despite these issues, the two countries have so far maintained a largely cordial relationship due to the mutual economic benefits of trade. A new agreement between India and Bangladesh allowing the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports to facilitate greater trade is one example.
Yet bilateral relations may change considerably with India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in the north-eastern state of Assam. The process has been marred with controversy for its discriminatory approach to identifying citizens, with overt hostility to those it deems ‘foreign’ — such as Bengali Muslims.
The first version of the register left almost 4 million people at risk of statelessness, while the revised register still affects almost 2 million people. Local politicians and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders exhort that they will expel all foreigners to Bangladesh with thousands already in detention camps. Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah has even stated in recent speeches that ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’ will be detected and thrown out.
Bangladesh has categorically stated that the NRC is an ‘internal matter of India’ and those that are deemed ‘foreign’ in the NRC are not Bangladesh’s concern. But India’s aggressive approach could come at a cost and risk its bilateral relations with Bangladesh.
India has a much greater stake than Myanmar regarding international trade, connectivity, and remittances in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is India’s eighth biggest export destination with US$8.8 billion exported in 2018, and the fourth largest remittance source — worth US$10 billion in 2017. Deteriorating relations also undermine India’s attempts to deepen security cooperation with Bangladesh to tackle cross-border insurgent groups in its north-eastern states.
If there is a push to deport people from Assam to Bangladesh, non-Muslim communities in Bangladesh may too face difficulties. For example, such a move may hurt India as its citizens living and working in Bangladesh could face hostility. It would also be counter-productive for India’s geopolitical ambitions as Bangladesh would actively look for alternative trade partners in the region. In the long-run, the winner may well be China should Dhaka look to Beijing for expanding trade and investment for its development needs.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be aware of this risk and assured his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina that the NRC is an ‘ongoing process’ and an ‘internal matter’. But this verbal assurance is of no use if the BJP maintains its incendiary rhetoric. India’s ruling party wants to have it both ways by reassuring Bangladesh that NRC is an internal process while also claiming that Bengali Muslims are ‘foreigners’ that will be expelled. These two positions are irreconcilable.
Any attempts to push people to Bangladesh will have serious negative consequences. While there is limited international attention on the Assam issue, Bangladesh — already one of the most densely populated countries in the world — cannot be expected to host another major displaced population alongside the Rohingya.
Bangladesh risks becoming subjected to its neighbours’ majoritarian impulses with no long-term solutions in sight. This would be an untenable situation in an already sensitive part of the world.
Champa Patel is Head of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House, London.
Rudabeh Shahid is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Department of Politics, the University of York.