Developments pertaining to the issue of Indian citizenship for Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan have been the focus of both domestic and international attention in recent days. India has been admired across the world because of its ability to strengthen national unity while cherishing and retaining its rich ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity.
The issue of Indian citizenship for immigrants from our Islamic neighbors — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh — is complex, given the history of Partition, in 1947. The impact of these recent developments in our extended neighborhood, from Turkey to Indonesia, needs attention, study, and analysis. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we failed to recognize the possible security and international dimensions of the challenges ahead.
Some hard facts need to be understood. The most important is that the highest concentration of Muslims in the world today is in our extended neighborhood from Turkey to Indonesia, where an estimated one billion Muslims live. The countries where the largest Muslim populations in the world reside as citizens are Indonesia (268 million), Pakistan (200 million), India (195 million), and Bangladesh (153.7 million). One-third of the world’s Muslims live in South Asia. Developments within India, especially those which have a bearing on its neighborhood, will inevitably have fallout on political developments in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan.
We need to be clear that the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh is already under pressure from radical Islamic elements, duly backed by Pakistan, for allegedly being too pro-Indian. She has skillfully fashioned Bangladesh’s relations with India and China while ensuring that it remains on good terms with both. But, there is little of friendship between Sheikh Hasina and Pakistan, which still strives for and yearns to see the emergence of an Islamist government in Dhaka.
The Dhaka factor
In the eyes of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the emergence of an Islamist government in Dhaka will be ideal to tie up India significantly on its eastern borders. The most serious challenge we face is to ensure that Sheikh Hasina herself does not come under pressure from pro-Pakistani elements seeking to destabilize relations with India, by creating exaggerated fears of possible deportation of a large number of Muslims, whom India believes is from Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina has already sent us a strong signal of her distress and displeasure, by deferring a scheduled visit of her Foreign Minister to India.
With Pakistan already on the warpath over the alleged shutdown in the Kashmir Valley, one can be sure that it will also go on the overdrive, especially in Afghanistan, claiming that Indian policies are directed against Afghan Muslims also. There will also be a concerted effort by Pakistan in neighboring Islamic countries, across our Indian Ocean neighborhood, to run down India.
Pakistan has watched with alarm at the manner in which Narendra Modi has completely transformed India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He has focussed attention particularly on ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where over four million Indians reside and work.
Energy cooperation between India on the one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the other, is set to expand significantly. Saudi Arabia is envisaging investments amounting to over $100 billion in India, in energy, refining, infrastructure, minerals, and mining. The investments will primarily be in India’s value chain, ranging from oil supply, marketing, and refining, to petrochemicals and lubricants.
They are closely linked to Saudi Aramco’s global downstream strategy. A major project will be a $44-billion investment in a refinery and petrochemical project, on India’s west coast. The UAE will also be investing and cooperating in these moves for investments in India’s petrochemical sector. The Saudi and UAE investments will give a boost to India’s exports of refined petroleum products, which now amount to $42 billion annually.
Pakistan now appears to be going on an overdrive to promote and exploit misunderstandings about India’s recent legislation on citizenship. Its primary interest will be on claiming the Act is inherently anti-Muslim, as Muslims alone are being denied Indian citizenship. It would be a serious mistake for us to underestimate Pakistan’s capacity to develop doubts in the minds of not just governments, but the public at large, in a chain of Islamic countries.
While pathologically anti-Indian leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan or Malaysia’s Mahathir can be managed, one should not underestimate the capacity of the Pakistani diaspora in the Gulf region, to create misperceptions about where India stands. Our diplomatic missions, diaspora, and public figures visiting the Arab Gulf countries will have to be sensitized on what needs to be done, to clear such misperceptions.
We need to acknowledge that we have rarely experienced such adverse criticism from the media, think tanks, and civil society organizations from across the world on developments in India, as we are now facing. It could well be argued that we are not bothered about the misguided media and public abroad. But the essence of good diplomacy lies in correcting misperceptions and ensuring that governments think tanks, media, and civil society organizations across the world are persuaded to change course and understand developments in a correct perspective. We should not take all criticism abroad as being deliberately, or maliciously, hostile.
We know how to deal with people abroad who are inherently hostile. But it would be a folly to brush aside or disregard criticism from people in foreign countries who are not given to being inherently or habitually critical of India and its policies. What is at stake is the security of our north-east.
Most separatists in our north-eastern States have sought refuge and safe haven in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in the past. Sheikh Hasina effectively ended that practice, ever since she prevailed electorally over Khaleda Zia. The Myanmar army, likewise, has even undertaken joint operations with Indian forces, to eliminate separatist safe havens on both sides of the border. But, most importantly, it is our responsibility to ensure that our population along our north-eastern borders are at peace with themselves and the rest of the country.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan