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Indian parties indulge in Bangladesh bashing

Political rhetoric against Bangladesh on the issue of illegal migrants may strain relations between Dhaka and New Delhi.

Last updated: 10 May 2014 14:43
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BJP's Narendra Modi has pledged to deport Bangladeshi immigrants from India if he comes to power [File - EPA]

India's marathon political campaigning is set to conclude on Saturday, but one country that has been at the receiving end of political rhetoric is its eastern neighbour - Bangladesh.

The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a front-runner in the parliamentary elections, has been joined by a host of regional parties in attacking Bangladesh - from sending illegal migrants to asking for too much water - during the country's staggered elections that end on May 12.

BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, started it all when he came down heavily on 'illegal immigrants' from Bangladesh during his election rallies in the northeastern state of Assam in March.

The issue is an emotive one in Assam, where Muslims with ancestral roots in what is now Bangladesh have been regularly attacked by groups representing indigenous communities.

More than 40 Muslims died last week in attacks by the suspected Bodo separatist rebels. 

"Modi was trying to consolidate the Hindu vote for his party, but the way he raised the issue provoked many," says Assam Congress leader, Pradip Dutta Ray.

How can Modi who wants to become India's prime minister say something so preposterous. This can only add to tensions between the two countries which will be exploited by religious leaders on either side of the border.

Suranjit Sengupta, Senior leader of Bangladesh's ruling Awami League

The BJP's prime ministerial nominee said that Hindus who flee Bangladesh deserved shelter because they were running away from persecution, but Muslims who came to India were economic migrants and should be pushed back.

During rallies in eastern West Bengal state, Modi added fuel to the fire when he said that "illegal Bangladesh migrants would have to pack and leave India on May 16 (the day election results will be announced)".

Provocative statements

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hit back at Modi, asking the Election Commission to 'have him arrested for provocative statements that could lead to communal disturbances'.

"If one Bengali-speaking person is affected anywhere, Delhi will face mayhem," Banerjee said.

Thousands of Bengali Muslims were hounded out during the last BJP-led federal government in the early 2000s on the pretext that they were Bangladeshi nationals.

"We hope nothing like that starts off again," said Toufique Imrose Khalidi, a senior journalist based in Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

Bangladesh's ruling Awami League government, which has tried to cultivate good relations with its influential neighbour, is worried over such possibilities.

"How can Modi who wants to become India's prime minister say something so preposterous," said Suranjit Sengupta, Awami League's senior leader and former minister.

"This can only add to tensions between the two countries which will be exploited by religious leaders on either side of the border," he said.

India's veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, however, feels Modi's poll rhetoric will not translate into policy.

He told a panel discussion in Dhaka recently that "Modi will realise the value of friendship with Bangladesh and not do anything to rock the boat".                                                                                                             

Narendra Modi's vows to deport Bangladeshi immigrants

Political implications

But many in Bangladesh are not sure about the political implications in the event of Banerjee's Trinamool Congress party joining the next federal government. Banerjee has said and done enough to complicate relations with its eastern neighbour.

In one election rally after another, she has attacked the ruling federal government for trying to push a deal for sharing the waters of Teesta river and to implement the land boundary agreement India and Bangladesh signed in 2010.

"Delhi is conspiring to deny us and give much of the Teesta waters to Bangladesh," she told an election rally in Dinhata in north Bengal.

"We will also lose much land if the boundary agreement is signed," she said. 

That raised the heckles in Dhaka where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had placed much hope on the Teesta water sharing deal and the land boundary agreement to placate her own countrymen who believe she has done much for India without getting anything in return.

 

"Unless these agreements are implemented, Hasina will not be comfortable at home. She has done much for India by cracking down on rebels from India’s northeast and Muslim armed groups inimical to India. She has also promised connectivity between Indian mainland and its northeast," said political analyst Ashis Kumar Biswas.

In late April, opposition leader Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) hit the roads for a 'Long March to Teesta river" to flag the Awami League government's failure to "secure our national interests on the waters issue".


Opinion: Complexity and conflict in Assam's 'Bodoland'


BNP insiders say their chief is keenly awaiting the results of the Indian elections.

"There is an expectation that a non-Congress government will not play favourites in Dhaka. And if it plays up the illegal migration issue, it will embarrass Hasina and help Muslim armed groups in Bangladesh to unsettle her," says Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, an expert on India-Bangladesh relations.

After what Hasina [Bangladesh's prime minister] has done for India, we should be ever grateful and do nothing to embarrass her.

Dev Mukherjee, , Former Indian ambassador to Dhaka

National interest

He says both "Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi have embarrassed India's friend Hasina".

"They must realise the cost to India's national interest for their complete lack of responsibility," he said. "This election campaign has ruined our relations with Bangladesh."

Dasgupta said that the next government in Delhi - whoever it is - must do nothing to reverse the present government's Bangladesh policy.

"After what Hasina has done for India, we should be ever grateful and do nothing to embarrass her," says former Indian ambassador to Dhaka, Dev Mukherjee.

India's present envoy to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, has gone on record to say that a regime change in Delhi will not lead to any change in India's Bangladesh policy.

"Regimes change in a democracy, but interests are permanent," Saran told at a discussion in Dhaka recently. 

The current government in Bangladesh will hope that remains true because if it does not, in the words of diplomat Rajiv Sikri, "the opposition in India's most important neighbouring country’ will find quite a stick to beat Hasina with."

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