Sheikh Hasina during her interaction with Gulf News in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she did not understand the purpose of the Indian Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the lower house of Indian parliament, which meant to give Indian citizenship to minorities that faced “religious persecution” in neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.

“Why this bill…I don’t understand,” she told Gulf News in an interview in the UAE capital on Tuesday.

“Is it for election purpose?” she asked with a smile.

She said she never felt that the bill meant to blame Bangladesh for religious persecution of minorities in the country.

“I don’t think so. There is no such [religious persecution] in Bangladesh. Some incidents have happened. But we took immediate action,” the premier said.

Sheikh Hasina said religious extremism and terrorism are a global problem. “It is not in Bangladesh alone.”

She said her understanding was that people in India are also not happy with the bill. “I think they [India] should not do anything that create tension.”

Ahmed Kutty/ Gulf News

Common enemy

The premier said there used to be untoward incidents such as bomb blasts in Assam and other areas [India’s north eastern states bordering Bangladesh] but that do not occur anymore as her government had taken strict action against Indian separatists operating from Bangladesh.

“They should consider all these factors as a neighbouring country.”

She said South Asia has a huge population and poverty is rampant. “I have told my neighbours that we have a common enemy — poverty; and we have to fight it together”

The premier brushed aside concerns about persecution of intellectuals and activists in the country, stressing that no killings of intellectuals has occurred since 2016.

“The killing of bloggers and online activists appeared as a new phenomenon in [our country]. The people and government unequivocally condemned those attacks, and immediate actions were taken to arrest the perpetrators,” Hasina said.

Zero-tolerance police towards terror

She explained that a Special Task Group had been created to monitor social networking sites that create instability, and take legal actions when required.

In addition, police stations have been advised to maintain constant communication with individuals receiving threats.

Shaikh Hasina during her interaction with Gulf News in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

“Since 2016, no blogger or online activist has been killed, which manifests the effectiveness of the Government’s actions,” she said.

Bangladesh’s religious freedom also extends to a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorist activity.

“I will [also] not allow anybody to use our soil to create any problems for our neighbours or carry out terrorist activities, because this also affects the peace of my country. Our declaration is that we have ‘zero tolerance’ to any terrorist activity. [Only] if there is peace, you can achieve progress very quickly,” Hasina said.

What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to give Indian citizenship to minorities that faced religious persecution in India’s neighbouring counties.

The bill passed by Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, will enable illegal immigrants of Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to get Indian citizenship. They will be eligible for citizenship after seven years of residence in India instead of 12 years (as per the existing law), even if they do not have any documents.

Although the legislation was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8, it is unlikely to become a law without getting approval of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, within six months. Parliament will function only after general elections due in April or May.

Meanwhile, Indian media reports suggest that the government has quietly abandoned the bill due to protests from various quarters.

India’s North Eastern States witnessed widespread protest against the bill. Protesters alleged that non-Muslims who have come into India until December 31, 2014 will get citizenship, as the bill will invalidate the existing 1971- deadline.

It is also argued that the Bill, if made into an Act, will nullify the updated National Registration of Citizenship (NRC). The process of updating the NRC is currently underway in Assam.

NRC is a list of people who can prove they came to the state by 24 March 1971, a day before neighbouring Bangladesh became an independent country. Around 3.62 million of those left off the register have submitted claims for inclusion.

Thousands of students joined writers, artists and activists in regular protests against the bill, fearing that tens of thousands of Bengali Hindu migrants who were not included in the NRC would still get citizenship to stay on in the state.