THE bonhomie witnessed during the virtual meeting between PM Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina is a reaffirmation of the strong ties between the two neighbours. Hasina called India ‘our true friend’, while Modi said Bangladesh was ‘a significant pillar’ of India’s Neighbourhood First policy. The reopening of the Chilahati-Haldibari railway line, which had been defunct since the 1965 India-Pakistan war, is a sign of growing mutual cooperation and understanding.
This bilateral relationship is steeped in history as Bangladesh owes its creation to India’s resounding victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan. Both countries are expected to come even closer next year, when India will commemorate the golden jubilee of the war and Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of its existence. However, they need to guard against a possible twist in this picture-perfect tale in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). With the high-stakes West Bengal elections due in 2021, the BJP has indicated that the Centre could start granting citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan from January. The uproar over the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) had impacted Delhi-Dhaka ties a year ago. Hasina had dubbed the CAA and the NRC as ‘unnecessary’, even as Bangladesh did not take kindly to being perceived as a perpetrator of religious persecution.
While the BJP will inevitably bank on the refugee card to counter the TMC government in West Bengal, the exercise of weeding out illegal immigrants won’t find favour with Bangladesh, which is already saddled with Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. It’s here that the Indian government should tread cautiously. Flanked by China and Pakistan, two hostile neighbours, India needs the support of nations like Bangladesh and Nepal to maintain its pre-eminent position in the subcontinent and boost its credentials in the international arena. India must allay Bangladesh’s concerns about the CAA to ensure that a presumably all-weather friend remains firmly on its side.