How Bangladesh is viewing the developing situation in its neighbouring Indian state of Assam? The Bangladesh government and its press have accepted that the NRC is an “internal matter” of India. But behind this formal position there lurks a fear about the possible next move of India. Will the Indian authorities really herd lakhs of people on the Bangladesh border and try to push them in?

The Bangladesh press has maintained commendable restraint on the way the ‘Bangladeshi’ issue is being handled in India. But the press has expressed concern that it is the Bengali-speaking Muslims who are being ‘unfortunately’ branded as “illegal Bangladeshis.” The Independent has commented that “Bangladesh has nothing to do with the issue.” But The Daily Star was more forthright in expressing its concern. It said the development (NRC and its fall out) may have “dangerous implications like that of the Rohingya crisis.”

Indeed, the political storm over driving out ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’ has burst in India at a time when the government of Sheikh Hasina is going through trying times. The recent student protests in Dhaka against killings of pedestrians by speeding vehicles and the strong-arm methods adopted by the Awami League government to suppress the movement in an election year have alienated the people, especially the students, from the government.

It started on July 29 when two schoolchildren in Dhaka – a boy and a girl – were run over and killed on the spot by two speeding buses trying to overtake each other for picking up passengers. Such accidents are regular in a big city like Dhaka but this accident evoked mass protest from the student community. Tens of thousands of school students poured on to the streets of Dhaka, stopping all vehicles and blocking the main thoroughfares. Life in the capital city came to a standstill.

The police used their usual methods to break the movement. The students, the public and the press also complained that members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League and the ‘goons’ patronised by the ruling party had also set upon the students and beaten them up. Matters came to a head when Shadhul Alam, a photojournalist, was picked up by the police on August 5, allegedly for giving an interview to Al Jazeera TV in which he strongly criticised the Bangladesh government for the ham-handed way it had dealt with the protesting students. Shahidul’s arrest further inflamed the students and came in for sharp criticism by the media.

All these developments in an election year cannot but be a matter of grave concern for the Sheikh Hasina government and her party, the Awami League. In such a situation when the leaders of the BJP, including Amit Shah, repeatedly talk about their intention to drive “all illegal ‘Bangladeshis” back to Bangladesh, it cannot but embarrass Sheikh Hasina. Her political opponents – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Khaleda Zia, the Jamaat-e-Islami and all fundamentalist forces – have dubbed her and her government as stooges of India.

The situation created in India over the Bangladeshi issue has come in handy for these elements. Every statement by BJP leaders on sending back Bangladeshis is used by her opponents to weaken her position.

The Bangladesh issue has a wider implication. The Modi government’s foreign policy during the past four and a half years has seen most of our neighbours slowly drifting away from us and veering to China. Nepal has not forgotten the five month long blockade by India (India said it was done by the Madheshis of Nepal) which brought its economy on the verge of collapse. The present government in Nepal headed by Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli has made it clear that his government will maintain “strict neutrality” between the two big neighbours, India and China. The ‘tilt’ is definitely away from India and forging closer ties with China.

Among our other neighbours, Maldives is positively hostile to India. Seychelles refused permission to India to build a naval base in one of its islands. In Sri Lanka, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party are gradually recovering lost ground. His pro-China inclinations are well known. It is because of the stiff opposition of his party in the Sri Lankan parliament that it took a long time for Colombo to hand over the operations of the Mattala airport to India.

Even tiny Bhutan is insisting that it be allowed to establish direct diplomatic relations with Beijing.

In the circumstances, Bangladesh remains our only neighbour with which we have excellent friendly relations. Constant talk about driving lakhs of alleged ‘Bangladeshis` into Bangladesh can only turn Bangladesh against India. The myopic leaders of the BJP, who see every issue through the communal prism, may not understand the larger implications of the Bangladeshi bogy. But the Prime Minister is expected to be aware of the sensitiveness of the issue. Two years ago, Bangladesh acquired two submarines from China. It sent alarm bells ringing in Delhi. It also sent a message to India – Bangladesh cannot be taken for granted. (IPA Service)