India’s north-east on fire: Should Bangladesh watch out?

It is easy to split territories but not their people. Bangladesh and India have umbilical links which all three seminal events in their history — the 1905 Partition of Bengal, the 1947 Partition of India, and the 1971 Liberation of Bangladesh, and now even the border fences and the enclave-exchanges — have failed to stop.

Division does no good

Division does no good / REUTERS

As the theory goes, a nation which does not understand its geography is condemned by its history. India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan seem to be learning it the hard way. So at least I will love to think.
It is common knowledge that religion plays an important role in the politics of the region. But class, ethnic, and linguistic considerations too play their roles, sometimes with an even greater assertion. The Modi government is making the mistake of reducing its Assam policy to religion alone as is evidenced by its proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which sounds more like an anti-Muslim manifesto. 

It proposes that all Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who have migrated to India from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before December 31, 2014, would be entitled to Indian citizenship. The only religious category that is excluded from the list is Muslim. Since Muslim-majority Bangladesh is next door it is most likely that these flames will soon touch it. The bill is both bad politics and bad diplomacy.

It is faulty both constitutionally and politically. Constitutionally, it violates India’s secular commitment. The way it is being projected gives the impression as if millions of non-Muslim minorities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are seeking refuge in India.

India’s Intelligence Bureau says that there are only 31,313 such people. It is also not true that in these three countries only non-Muslims are persecuted. Millions of Afghan Muslims have taken shelter in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, there are thousands of “stranded Biharis” willing to be repatriated to Pakistan though they have been granted Bangladeshi citizenship.

A non-Muslim Sri Lanka had forced thousands of Tamils, mostly Hindus, to take shelter in India during its ethnic strife. Also, it is unthinkable that BJP does not know that scores of Indians routinely seek asylum in the West. In some countries, many Hindu Indians have been caught running “refugee smuggling” rackets.

Politically the citizenship bill has been a disaster for BJP in its newly conquered north-eastern turf, particularly Assam. Intoxicated by its success at the 2014 polls, which the BJP misread as its Hindutva victory, it thought that this one-size-fits-all strategy will work in Assam as well.

But in over-enthusiasm, it mixed up the two strands of the Assam movement, one anti-Muslim and the other anti-Bengali, as one and the same. In the process, it alienated the Assamese-speaking people almost entirely.

The same forces which were at the forefront of the Assam movement are once again on the streets which include such respected academics as Hiren Gohain. Once again, one is hearing slogans demanding Assam’s separation from the Indian Union.

The issue of illegal migrants or refugees from Bangladesh (Muslims, Hindus, and others) affects not only Assam but also other north-eastern states in general. For Arunachal Pradesh the existence of Buddhist Chakma and Hajong refugees on its soil is a permanent eye sore though they have been granted Indian citizenship with voting rights. 

A few years ago its then Chief Minister Gegong Apang told me in categorical terms how these settlers were threats to his state’s ethnic identity. To date, the same sentiments have not died down. All the governments of the north-eastern states have now sent notices to the Modi government to behave or face the music. One must not give too much importance to the fact that most of these regimes are pro-BJP. They have the record of changing their political alliances overnight.

A burning northeast is no good news for Bangladesh particularly because of its emotive content. It is naïve to think that a religion-laden socio-political controversy in one part of South Asia can be quarantined within its locale for a long time.

The region is a cultural whole and anything happening in one place has its ripples across borders. If the communities happen to share the same ethnicity or religion such chances are much more. Some of the statements of BJP leaders are outright provocative: “These crores of illegal Bangladeshis are like termites. They have devastated our nation by eating all our food and by grabbing the jobs of our poor. As soon as we win in the 2019 election we will see to it that each one of them is identified and pushed back to Bangladesh.” 

These words in Hindi thundered by BJP President Amit Shah in a Delhi rally on September 23, 2018, sounded much more vitriolic than what this sanitized English translation suggests — BJP has a record of displaying such hollow bravado. In the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition in December 1992, Delhi’s BJP chief Madan Lal Khurana had played the same card to win the elections and become Delhi’s chief minister — but could not evict a single Bangladeshi. He realized that governance was an altogether different ball game than street politics.

Migration is a complex phenomenon which only oppressive dictatorships can tackle, for their means are inhumane. Democracies, which cannot afford to disrespect human rights beyond a point, have no escape from living with this problem whatever they may say or do. When a powerful country like America cannot handle the issue, it is impossible for poorer nations like India. Just like water seeking its own level, no amount of political or physical obstacles can prevent the poor from moving beyond the borders to look for greener pastures. 

As the ruling party, BJP cannot afford to behave immaturely in an otherwise complex north-east, or for that matter anywhere. It must realise that Bangladesh politics also has a powerful Islamic fringe which thrives at the success of Hindu fundamentalism in India as was evidenced in the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition.

Whatever may be said in criticism of the current Bangladeshi government’s liberal and democratic credentials, it has at least kept the country’s fundamentalist forces in leash. The Modi government will be ill-advised to make her task more difficult. 

Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.



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