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International relations

Bangladesh fears Rohingya-like crisis over India citizenship law

Tensions mount as many Indian Muslims fear detention or deportation

Two months after meeting with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a new citizenship law that threatens a mass exodus of Muslims to Bangladesh.   © Reuters

DHAKA -- India's contentious new citizenship law has strained relations with neighboring Bangladesh, which fears a flood of refugees streaming into the country in a repeat of the Rohingya crisis, analysts say.

Bangladesh's Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam last week became the latest government official to cancel a trip to India. His move comes a month after Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan nixed visits as relations between Dhaka and New Delhi sour.

The shutdown of mobile phone networks along India-Bangladesh border on Dec. 29 and the voluntary return of more than 400 Bangladeshi illegal migrants from India have fueled the uproar over India's Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA.

Fears over the CAA being a prelude to a broader national citizen registry appeared well founded last August, when India's northeastern state of Assam updated its list of citizens, excluding in the process nearly two million Bengali-speaking people.

The CAA came into force in December, prompting nationwide protests in India that have claimed more than 20 lives.

Indian demonstrators against the new law in Kolkata protest the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the state of West Bengal on Jan. 11.   © Reuters

Under the law, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains who fled persecution in neighboring Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan have an expedited path to citizenship. The law applies to refugees who arrived in India before 2015.

But the CAA excludes Muslims, angering and worrying India's 200 million-strong Muslim population.

The recent spate of canceled visits by Bangladeshi ministers is indicative of "tensions in relations," said Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, professor of international relations at Dhaka University.

The controversial legislation deeply worries Indian Muslims, he says, who out of fear of detention or other reprisals may stream into Bangladesh, which is already hosting roughly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. "Where will they go except Bangladesh?" he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

An immigration check post between India's northeastern state of Tripura and the eastern town of Akhaura in Bangladesh. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

Touhid Hossain, a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh, warns that the CAA will be a "sword of Damocles hanging over Bangladesh," adding that "It may pose a problem anytime."

But Mohammad Sarwar Mahmood, a director general of the South Asia department at Bangladesh's foreign ministry, downplayed fears.

Mahmood said he feels "reassured" by the pledge Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made to his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, referring that Bangladesh would not be affected by any national register of citizens.

Still, he says, "We're monitoring the situation."

The Assam incident was further exacerbated by remarks from India's powerful home minister, Amit Shah's, who hinted at introducing a national register to kick out "illegal" migrants, who he described as "termites."

An official of Bangladesh's home ministry told media that recent attempts to deport people from India had been prevented by Bangladeshi border guards. Still, he said about 445 Bangladeshis who had previously entered India illegally returned home last year.

Other officials have said that the number of returnees has increased since November.

Bangladesh's telecom regulator cut mobile communication service on Dec. 29 along a 1-km stretch of border, citing security concerns -- a move that affected nearly 10 million cellular phone users. The restrictions were lifted on Jan. 1.

To Hossain, New Delhi's actions are stoking anti-Indian sentiment among Bangladeshis, who fear another refugee crisis.

Calling the issue a potentially mini-Rohingya crisis, opposition journalist union leader Syed Ali Asfar says that while Indian Muslims may try to sneak into Bangladesh, Bangladeshi Hindus may seek citizenship in India.

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