For nearly half of its existence, since 1971, Bangladesh was barely discussed in India. The oft-repeated phrase in the diplomatic circle was: “Let them stew in their own juice.” Things changed since, so much so that a section of Indian intellectuals refer to Bangladesh to disprove the BJP government in Delhi.
Lost between these two extremes, the important questions on socio-political stability of Bangladesh and sustained rise of anti-Hindu religious-political forces, who form the core of anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh and are now looking exceptionally strong. Many say they were never as strong during the 30-years of (inconsistent) democracy.
This is a complex, dynamic scenario, which can throw a set of new challenges not only to India-Bangladesh relations (including economic relations) but, to the economic stability of Bangladesh. The rise and fall of Myanmar over the last 30 years is a case in point.
Yangon was reporting over six per cent growth since 1992 and emerged as one of the top FDI destinations before internal contractions dragged them down. Things started looking precarious since the 2017 Rohingya crisis. Growth was down to 1.6 per cent in 2019. Investors left the country en masse after military rule was imposed last year.
From this perspective, there is hardly anything new in violence against minority Hindus in Bangladesh. Atrocities are not uncommon during Durga Puja either. The primary aim is to scare them away. ‘Bharat Jao’ (Go to India), they say.
Population numbers (8.5 per cent in 2011, 9.6 per cent in 2001, 13.5 per cent in 1974, 22 per cent in East Pakistan 1951) prove, Hindus have been fleeing the country all through its history. While media attention is restricted to bigger incidents, it is the daily discrimination, harassment, localised threat perception that mattered the most.
Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University pointed out that 11.3 million Hindus left their homeland between 1964 and 2013 (Dhaka Tribune, 20 November 2016) due to religious persecution and discrimination.
The daily rate of migration was 705 in the East Pakistan days, 512 during 1971-1981, 438 during 1981-1991, 767 persons during 1991-2001 and around 774 during 2001-2012. The rate of migration might have slowed down in recent years but never stopped. The upper caste moved out first. The poor had been taking their time.
Not only Hindus, all minorities and non-Bengali ethnic communities suffered the same fate. Half of Buddhist Chakmas now reside in India. Barkat said 22 ‘adivasi’ communities vanished from the land.
Having said that, the scale of this year’s violence is noticeable. While there is an information blackout on official channels; unofficial sources confirm that nearly a week since it all began with the destruction of idols at Comilla – 58 km from Agartala in Tripura - in South-West Bangladesh; violence continued unabated and had spread to almost every corner of the country.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised stern action. In at least one incident, police opened fire, reportedly killing Muslims. But that didn’t change the ground reality. The attackers went on a rampage, arguably with more ferocity. Even Hasina’s former constituency of Rangpur, in north Bengal, was not spared. Her late husband hailed from the city.
Considering Hasina’s unchallenged status in electoral politics, such outcomes were unexpected. In the December 2018 election, her Awami League got 75 per cent votes, and the principal Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) got barely six out of 300 seats. Another front didn’t join the government, but they contested the election on seat-sharing arrangement with the League and won 22 seats.
In the past, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami coalition was blamed for conspiring such attacks and Hasina never spared them. Between 2009 and 2014 (when BNP was reasonably strong and had its coalition with Jamaat intact), law and order situations were nipped at the bud. That was arguably the best time for minorities in Bangladesh.
The BNP-Jamaat coalition doesn’t exist today. Jamaat is banned from participating in the election. BNP is in complete disarray. Party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of former army ruler late Ziaur Rahman, is rotting in jail. BNP is now keen on an image makeover. But the atrocities are rising.
Explaining Bangladesh is not easy. Unlike Pakistan, it is not an ‘Islamic republic’ and doesn’t use religion as an official weapon. It is caught between two extremes and that makes the life of minorities difficult.
To borrow from a famous Ajit dialogue, Bangladeshi Hindus are dumped in liquid oxygen (“liquid usko jeene nahi dega, oxygen usko marne nahi dega,” Ajit said). They are neither taken in nor asked to move lock, stock and barrel; as Pakistan did. Perhaps that explains why post-Partition Hindu migration has been so slow on the Eastern border as against an open and shut case on the West.
Bangladesh was born in 1971, after a bloody Liberation War against Pakistan. Both Muslims and Hindus sacrificed for freedom. In December 1972, it became the first constitutionally ‘secular’ republic in South Asia. It is said, former prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of Hasina, was against joining OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).
However, in the same year (1972), slogans were raised by a section (reportedly, followers of Maulana Bhasani) asking Hindus to leave for India, if they want to remain alive (“Hindu Jodi Banchte Chao, Bangladesh Chere Bharat Jao”). Vandalism was reported during Durga Puja. In protest, many Pujas were ended prematurely.
As time passed, the contradiction between the promise and reality became wider. Bangladesh joined OIC in 1974. In January 1975, Mujibur Rahman formed a front (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or BaKSAL) with Communist Party and a few others to convert the democracy into a one-party rule. All other parties were declared an outlaw. He was killed in the same year.
Jumpcut to Bangladesh Parliament since 2014 and the character is more or less the same. BNP didn’t contest the January 2014 election. Those who were outside the Awami League alliance were accommodated in the government, post-election. Even the ardent League supporter will tell, 2018 election was rigged. The local body elections were no exception to this design either.
All political parties want to retain power. But wherever they tried to monopolise power by choking democratic options, the opposition came through social rebellion, which is much difficult to suppress.
The Left Front suffered it in West Bengal. The anti-land acquisition movements were more about the opposition than land. In Bangladesh, it is probably riding on religion and, the atrocities during Durga Puja 2021, is an alarm bell.
Using religion in disguise
Bangladesh has strayed far away from its theoretical face of a democratic secular republic that promised to uphold “Bangalee (Bengali) Nationalism” in 1972.
Between 1975 and 1990, army rulers dropped ‘secular’ from the constitution, put "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah" and made Islam the state religion. Later, 'secular' made a re-entry in the constitution and has been cohabiting with the almighty and Islam.
Some commentators in Bangladesh want the constitution to return to 1972 status, but that might be an elitist dream. Even the country’s Supreme Court earlier avoided taking a call on the issue. It is also debatable if all ill lies with ‘state religion’.
There are countries (nine in Europe) with State religion, which offer defined space to believers in other faiths. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the first Hindu temple in Saudi Arabia, which had been an icon of Islamic intolerance.
The crux lies in making rules upfront and sticking to them, and not using religion as a shadow weapon. Bangladesh failed here and miserably. Barring 10 years – 1996-2001 and 2009-2014, both ruled by Hasina –religion was always an important tool to retain or acquire power.
Army dictators used religion to legitimise their stay in power. BNP enjoyed the fruits by officially tying up with Jamaat. Their rule was synonymous with the torture of minorities.
Hasina started with a difference, but as her moral grounds to stay in power became weak, she started cosying with Hefazat-e-Islam, a violent non-political force that controls madrasas and maintains close ranks with Jamaat. Hefazat is claiming its pound of flesh by ensuring a faster spread of fundamentalist values across the length and breadth of the society.
According to some observers, the Islamic religious lobby, led by Jamaat, is now at the peak of its strength in Bangladesh. In all probability, they will increase their stake in power, but whether they will take the driving seat or back seat will depend on local political manoeuvring as well as international politics.
End of the road
It is widely believed that Hindus are now around seven per cent of the population in Bangladesh and vote-share is around five to six per cent. Unless there is a political miracle, they seem to have lost the game, set and match.
They have been living on the edges for too long. Every election has been a nightmare. In the past, they were caught in the cross-fire between Awami League and BNP-Jamaat. With dwindling numbers, even the League is losing interest in them. Except in pockets, they are politically irrelevant and are left to lurch against the religious forces.
On the bilateral front, India has its hands tied. China-Pakistan-Taliban combo reduced the space for manoeuvring. For Delhi, Bangladesh is extremely important, both for export growth and mitigating security concerns.
Having said that, minorities left behind by the shameful act of partitioning the country based on religion, need to be taken care of. Asking them to migrate to India en masse is neither possible nor advisable. The only option is promising them easy citizenship on arrival. They need our empathy.
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