The CAA is not just an Indian issue, it is a South Asian issue
The Indian question has always had a role in Bangladeshi politics. Much of the political dialogue has been centred around the international relations between Bangladesh and India, but the latest Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), one that would specifically require Muslims to prove their citizenship through documents, or be stripped of it, will directly affect Bangladeshi politics.
We need to understand how that will pan out.
Firstly, the CAA is designed to push back “Bangladeshi intruders” into India, along with Muslims from other regions. The policy is constructed to strip Muslims from citizenship and to create a Hindu-dominated polity, which gives BJP an electoral advantage.
Also, there is rhetorical politics that BJP is keeping its early promise to restructure India into a Hindu state.
On paper, it says that it will protect persecuted minorities, but is selective about the identity of such minorities; the Rohingya being excluded, for example. But more importantly, it damages the state of harmony in the region by bringing religious divisions in the matter of access to citizenship.
The sentiments of Bangladeshis would be sharply affected by such politics over time.
Until now, there has been a fine line between pro-Bangladesh and anti-India sentiment and politics in Bangladesh. The CAA, along with other repressive laws and actions that took place under Modi rule, has continuously blurred that line.
Because people are becoming increasingly outraged by the atrocities of the BJP and its cronies, they are mixing up the Indian people with its government.
Some hatred already exists due to the Indian government’s actions regarding energy, environment, river water sharing, border tensions, and trade relations. So the direct attack on Muslims and labelling them as Bangladeshis may increasingly push Bangladeshis to view India as their enemy.
The sharp distinction between Hindutva-hooliganism and the liberal spirit of India may be forgotten.
India might soon be seen as a belligerent state towards Muslims if not directly towards Bangladesh. Because an exclusionary Hindu nationalism is on the rise in India, people may feel the need for an exclusionary Muslim nationalism in Bangladesh, which will directly play into the pockets of the BJP.
In terms of international relations between the states, the CAA may not affect India-Bangladesh relations in the short term.
The government seems happy to overlook the problem, for now. In line with BJP’s narrative, they claim there has been no push-ins despite evidences to the contrary. They have also accepted to take in those who “crossed the border illegally.”
There is no official renunciation of the structural persecution and de jure segregation.
The Bangladesh government did the very same during the Myanmar push-ins. First they denied, then they resisted the refugees, and then when international pressure and internal pressure mounted, they let them in. The same may repeat.
But will it affect the government’s meek approach with India? I do not think so, unless a massive movement makes the government submit to the will of the people.
The government has shown repeatedly that it would avoid taking steps to anger India. It is unlikely that it would take strong steps to counter what it claims to be India’s “internal matter,” even in the face of continuous strains in the borderlands.
However, as anti-India and anti-government sentiments grows, a sudden eruption or pressure may force Bangladesh to take a stronger stance. Bangladeshis are increasingly becoming anti-India, and for good reason. India has strong-armed Bangladesh on many issues, and the Bangladeshi government allowed it, mounting anger towards both the Bangladesh ruling party and India. The evidence is out on the streets.
The CAA, once its results start hitting our border, will amplify this crisis.
Many Bangladeshis are yet to realize how CAA affects Bangladesh’s interest, but the Bangladesh government’s silence has made it a target of public criticism. There is a strong view that the Bangladesh government is lenient towards India due to its history of dealings with the Indian government.
Therefore, many claim that an authoritarian identitarian party that can be a counterpart of the Indian Hindutva should take charge of Bangladesh.
The CAA is fanning on to the sentiment and encouraging those identitarian forces, which now can identify an enemy abroad.
This squeezes the space for reformist liberal democrats who cannot use rhetoric as illiberal as that of the identitarians.
Because the Indian government is playing identity politics in their state, there may be a rise in identity politics in ours, and the public sentiment may be lost from the liberal democrats. The citizens may become, in the future, increasingly identitarian in response.
Various brands of identitarians from both major religions are active within Bangladesh, who reinforce the Hindutva imagination that Hindus are natural to India and Muslims to Bangladesh and Pakistan.
It often feels like, while my work has somewhat informed some on the contrary, much of it has been fed into the identitarian machine that is working within the country to establish a mirror of the Hindutva narrative.
It is important for Bangladeshis to understand that the CAA is not an Indian issue. It is a deeply South Asian, and hence Bangladeshi, issue.
Not only could the bill push thousands of people through the borders of Bangladesh, the bill is innately inhumane and unjustifiable. This bill will set a precedent in the sub-continent that identity can be the basis of citizenship and that would be a dangerous concept of inter-identity harmony within the region.
In this era of sharply identitarian politics, it is easily imaginable that this rhetoric will be copied by many parties over the region in different brands. And showing India’s likeness, or showing a need to counter it, these authoritarian illiberal forces will gain strength and power.
This is an ominous sign for the health of democracy and harmony in the region.
We must speak out. Not only from the standpoint of our national interest, but from the standpoint of regional interest and our human interest.
Identity politics has never done any good for anyone. It has always been used as a tool for authoritarianism, and has paved the way to fascism. It must be resisted in all of its forms.
Anupam Debashis Roy is an editor of Muktiforum.