Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently alleged at a poll rally in West Bengal, that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had not come out in support of the UN declaration of Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’. “Why Didi, because this will upset your vote banks,” Modi had thundered with a mischievous smile.
The prime minister was obviously insinuating that Muslims in Bengal (and perhaps in India), had perhaps not welcomed Azhar’s listing as a global terrorist.
Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.
“That is a huge insult,” said a senior leader of Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party. “Please remind your PM that we Bengalis – mostly Muslims – broke up Pakistan after sacrificing the lives of 25 lakh people, and suffering dishonour for half a million women,” he said. I am not naming the leader because he fears that, making a political statement on Indian soil in the middle of an election, may lead to denial of an Indian visa – which he needs – to get his mother treated in this country.
‘The Bengali Muslim Would’ve Never Accepted West Pakistan’s Rule’
I have to agree with my friend from Bangladesh, and not with my prime minister. In 1971, the Bengalis (Muslims, Hindus and other faiths) revolted against Pakistan under the leadership of the charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and suffered one of the most brutal genocides of contemporary history, before Bangladesh was liberated with Indian political and military support.
Subhas Chandra Bose is credited by many historians for expediting the end of British rule by fomenting revolt in the Indian ranks of the British army. Similarly, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is credited with the break-up of Pakistan, Britain’s parting gift to South Asia.
The farsighted Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had seen this coming in 1946 – that the Bengali Muslim – with an overwhelming numerical majority, and his province more richly endowed the Western wing – will never accept West Pakistan’s dominance, he had warned in an interview with a Lahore-based editor.
Mujib’s daughter – and Bangladesh’s current PM – Sheikh Hasina is India’s strongest ally in South Asia.
Her government has delivered on all of India's security and connectivity concerns in her ten years in power – from cracking down on Northeast Indian insurgents, to allowing transhipment of Indian goods to the Northeast through Bangladesh, using its ports and roads. Bangladesh holds the key to the success of India's ‘Act East’ policy, because we need to first connect to the Northeast through Bangladesh, before using it as a land bridge to connect to Southeast Asia via Myanmar.
The ‘Problem’ Of Migration
India has failed to deliver on Bangladesh’s concerns, like the sharing of the Teesta’s waters. But it could at least spare our friendly neighbour the humiliation of hostile saffron rhetoric led by BJP President Amit Shah (who described Bangladeshi migrants as ‘termites’), and Modi, who now implies that Bengali Muslims could be pro-Masood Azhar.
And this, when Bangladesh has refused to even accept the credentials of Pakistan’s ambassador-designate Saqlain Syedah, following which Pakistan-Bangladesh relations are at an all time low.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh (and East Pakistan) is a historical fact, fuelled by the poor economic conditions of East Bengal due to its ruthless exploitation by Pakistan's military junta, and then, by the lack of development under Bangladesh’s own military rulers who negated the spirit of 1971, after Mujibur was killed in a military coup.
The trend of migration began in colonial times because Bengal was perhaps the most exploited of British provinces, suffering successive famines like the one in the 1940s which killed nearly three million people. But it is also a fact that Bangladesh's amazing economic turnaround, especially in the last ten years of Sheikh Hasina's rule, has also brought down the flow of people from Bangladesh into neighbouring Indian provinces, whose economic and human development indicators are far below that of Bangladesh.
Awami League Worried About BJP’s Communal Politics
Hasina's government has also streamlined labour exports by formalising it as far as possible, because, as her former labour minister Nurul Islam told me once, illegal migrants don’t send back money; legals do. Remittances from expatriate Bangladeshis is the second largest source of foreign exchange for the country, after readymade garments. Bangladeshis, like Indians, go abroad to make money – and they would prefer places they can make more money in, than is possible in poor Indian border states.
A proud nation, driven by its secular and syncretic Bengali identity, would naturally resent the expletives hurled at it by the saffron brigade.
Many Awami League leaders, among the best of India's friends, are worried because they fear the BJP's politics of communal mobilisation. And making Bangladesh the target of its hostile rhetoric will boost the anti-India forces of hardline Islam, who have been marginalised by Hasina, but not wholly decimated.
They are also worried that the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill may provoke Hindu migration into India, that the Awami League wants to avoid, because the nearly ten percent Hindu population are its strongest vote bank, and influence results in at least 50 of the 300 parliament seats.
Hindutva Brigade’s Attempt to Paint All Muslims As Villains, Will Cost India Dearly
Oppressed minorities in Pakistan, beginning with the Bengalis, have always looked up to India as the ultimate democratic role model that their own country should have become. From the Baloch and the Muhajir people, to the supporters of GM Syed and the Pashtuns (whose leader ‘Frontier Gandhi’ opposed Partition, and requested Congress leaders to not “throw us to thewolves”), Indian democracy became a more acceptable model than Pakistan's military rule. And we better not forget how the Kashmir Valley Muslims sided with the Indian Army during Pakistani-sponsored incursions in 1947-48 and 1965.
Since all these nationalities value their religious identity as much as their ethnic roots, the broad-brush approach of the Hindutva brigade to paint all Muslims as villains, is going to cost India useful allies in the region.
We must wait until 23 May to figure out how far this religious polarisation has helped them in electoral terms, but there is no doubt this Hindutva baggage is a huge foreign policy liability for India, and will cost it close friends in the neighbourhood. Modi's choreographed pujas at Pashupatinath Temple has not won ‘Hindu’ Nepal for us, and New Delhi increasingly worries about growing Chinese influence there. Let’s hope we don’t lose Bangladesh the same way.
(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)