by Rushali Saha 3 February 2020
The status quo of strategic stability between India and Pakistan has been threatened in recent times following a series of historic lows in bilateral ties, the most recent one being India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 which granted the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir special status. Nevertheless if the Kashmir issue is seen as diplomatic tussle between the two countries, with Pakistan insisting on internationalising the issue and India insisting it is a bilateral issue, it is the latter which emerged victorious. India successfully continued its neighbourhood diplomacy which got a great boost with PM Modi’s pragmatic and proactive “Neighbourhood First” policy. India’s diplomatic endeavours sought to leverage its unique position in the region, not only in terms of geography, also in terms of its population, GDP and a range of other factors to project itself as a leader in the region. However India might find it difficult to hide the inherent ‘anti-neighbour’ rhetoric in the controversial Citizenship Ammendment Act, (CAA) which grants citizenship to non-Muslim persecuted religious minorities from Bangaldesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which directly threatens India’s relations with her friendly neighbours and holds the potential of isolating India at regional forums in turn reversing her foreign policy achievements.
The Act explicitly states “The constitutions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh provide for a specific state religion. As a result, many persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities have faced persecution on grounds of religion in those countries.” In turn the Indian governments justification for the CAA is that it provides protection to such people facing religious persecution in these countries. Such a defence obviously rests on grounds of claims of illegal immigration and human rights violation in the region. India shares her borders with Bhutan, Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka which are also home to religious minorities, yet pointing fingers to selectively only these three countries has no sound rationale. It only portrays the Indian establishments perception of these countries being ‘anti-minority.’ While it is true that Pakistan’s track record as far as treatment of minorities is concerned has been dismal, with several reports of Hindu women being routinely forced to convert to Islam, especially in rural Sindh, in 2017 it passed the landmark Hindu marriage bill which allows Hindu women to get documentary proof of their marriage and thereby discouraging forced conversions. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, while there have been instances of persecution during the Taliban years, the present government has committed itself to liberating religious minorities from atrocities and made advances towards that. In fact, the Afghan ambassador in India expressed a rare criticism of India when he went public to voice his protest and insist that his government has been “respecting the minorities, especially our great Sikh brothers and sisters.” India cannot afford to disrupt its healthy ties with Afghanistan, following the latter’s appreciation of India’s stabilising role in lieu of its reconstruction efforts, at a time when geopolitical developments in the region holds significant economic, security and strategic implications for India. Such claims against Bangladesh, which is arguably the most important strategic partner in India’s neighbourhood policy as evident from Jaishankar’s statement “If there is one example where the neighbourhood first policy has yielded good result, it is in case of Bangladesh.” is almost blasphemous. Commenting on the Citizenship Ammendment Bill, Bangladesh’s foreign minister rejected claims about minorities being persecuted in their country and even prophesised that it could weaken India’s historic character as a secular nation. Then came the sudden cancellation of two scheduled ministerial, although the Indian external affairs minister stated that any connection with the bill was “unwarranted.” What is an even more dangerous is the apparent misreading of the complex situation in Bangladesh in the Act which naively clubs it as an ‘Islamic state’ along with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bangladesh came into being with a secular constitution but Islam has been the official state religion since 1988 with many activists trying to reverse it in a long drawn legal battle which ultimately upheld Islam as the state religion in 2016. Bangladesh’s secular credentials have nevertheless been strengthened by Sheikh Hasina’s governments efforts, which has reiterated its commitment to work to fulfil Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s vision of a secular state where everyone has equal rights. All three countries have constitutional provisions stating non-Muslims have rights and are free to practise their faith.
India has shown a traditional hesitation about automatically designating asylum seekers as refugees which took a more aggressive dimension following cases of deportation and forced repatriation of Rohingya Muslims in India. According to Bangladeshi authorities estimate over 1300 Rohingya refugees left India and sought refuge in its territory within a month of such deportations in early 2019 and tacking them has been a huge challenge for Bangaldesh. CAA which rules out possibility of citizenship to these refugees will only further ignite Bangladesh’s concerns about reverse migration. This together with the talks of having a country wide National Register of Citizens (NRC) which is all set to identify illegal immigrants in India threatening mass exodus to bordering Bangaldesh has ignited apprehensions which may no longer be alleviated by mere assurances by the Modi govt.
Invoking the criteria of religion in determining persecution is a deliberate misreading of the complex situation peculiar to South Asia. The discourse of ‘victimhood’ of minorities solely on the basis of religion, obscures the fact that they may have overlapping identities and risks the faulty assumption of internal homogeneity of these communities. By ignoring the question of caste, an institutionalised phenomena in South Asia, CAA ignores the reality that the Pakistani Christian community consists to a large extent descendants of converts from low-caste and untouchable backgrounds who sought to escape discriminatory practices in Hindu religious ideas. If the presence of minorities in Pakistan is an uncomfortable reminder of our colonial past, it also reminds us of the deep connections between Hindu’s and Muslims which can be seen even today. This is not to undermine the plight and traumatic experiences of minorities in a country built on a religio-political idea, but to argue that an ahistoric reading of minorities is contributing to the anti-neighbour rhetoric inherent in CAA and disrupts potential for future cooperation with neighbours.
CAA does not only affect bilateral relations with these three countries, but also with Sri Lanka and Nepal. India and Sri Lanka have developed a multifaceted and robust relationship after overcoming the thorny question of the future of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka through the 1964 and 1974 agreements. The Citizenship Act, which excludes Sri Lankan Tamils who form the largest refugee group in India and have been resident in the country for over 30 years, has been condemned by academics and activists alike from Sri Lanka. India’s stand is that CAA is an internal matter, just like the Sri Lankans emphasised the ‘Tamil question’ was an internal affair but nevertheless became a regional affair involving India, we cannot ignore the possibility that CAA has the potential to evolve into a thorny issue in India-Sri Lanka ties. Nepal is a Hindu-majority country, but a large population of Gurkha’s who have their roots in Nepal reside in India and over 1 lakh Gurkha’s were excluded from the NRC list in Assam. Such exclusions can aggravate some of the strains visible in bilateral ties especially after the unofficial blockade in 2015-2016.
Evidently CAA holds the potential to alter existing regional dynamics, which becomes all the more pertinent as China, which sees itself as a unipolar power in Asia, is eyeing South Asia, a region India sees as her traditional area of influence. China is Pakistan’s ‘all weather’ partner, China’s relations with Sri-Lanka are strengthening where the former now has full control over the strategic Hambantota port, Kathmandu has already agreed to the BRI plan which will strengthen communication links between the two countries, China is playing an increasingly important role in the Afghan peace process and Beijing has upgraded its economic cooperation to a strategic partnership with Bangladesh. Amidst this intense competition with China for influence in the region, CAA adds another layer of complexity. Now it stands to see how far domestic spill overs from this ‘internal issue’ will affect India’s regional influence and whether it causes irreversible damage to bilateral ties with these countries.