Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India should have already been “prepared with their bags packed,” some 70 months ago. But Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, is still banging the same drum. “You can write it down,” he said in April 2014, that by May of that year all the Bangladeshi “illegals” in India would be gone. It was strange then that the small state of Assam has, in the last four years, spent 16 billion rupees on bureaucracy in order to find more of those illegal Bangladeshis. At yet even further expense, it is also building ten giant prisons for them.
The main problem is that when an enemy or problem is largely imagined, it is the search that is the most damaging. And just so, we are likely to see India’s current search for its imagined enemy creating many difficulties for Indo-Bangladesh relations and communal politics in Bangladesh.
To win the state of Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not only recruited clever local ethno-nationalist politicians like Sarbananda Sonowal but also attempted to align a singular, anti-outsider political movement in the Indian northeast with Hindu nationalism. It did this by building on peace deals and repeated legislative efforts to separate people into competing vague categories of “outsiders” and “indigenous”. And to maintain political resonance, this requires almost constant vilification and othering, often against the factual reality, along with the use of unfulfilled rhetoric of ultimate intent. So, just as Modi promised that all the Bangladeshis in India would have their bags packed by May 16th 2014, so has his loyal sidekick Amit Shah said that all those bag-packing Bangladeshis would again be gone by 2024, election year.
The constant, pathological need for an outside enemy, has seen Shah label illegal immigrants as “termites” — indeed, as scholars have identified, describing a group of people as subhuman is one of the classic steps in the process of laying the groundwork for genocide. This is inevitably hardening anti-India, indeed anti-Hindu, sentiment in Bangladesh. This is a basic fuel for religious extremists in Bangladesh seeking to create a religiously defined nationalism, which many years ago in 1971 resonated with the Pakistani army, as it sought to maintain the integrity of the two wings of Pakistan. Indeed, one of the the subsequent military dictators, General Ziaur Rahman, loved sharing his fears of a phantom Indian invasion with the US embassy during his rule, seeking legitimacy for military rule through the need for security against an imagined invasion.
Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, is fully and painfully aware of this anti-Indian, communal sentiment in Bangladesh. Moreover, she has proved that she is far more willing to pander to it rather than risk a challenge to her power. Indicative as well is the latest appeasement of Islamic clerics who demanded action against the baul singer Shariat Sarkar, who was recently incarcerated under the Digital Security Act. For the prime minister, the most tangible threat to power really comes from the hard-right, who are knee-jerk anti-Indian and against heterodox interpretations of Islam or so-called deviant identities — appeasing them, therefore, is an inconvenient necessity.
While this element is a grave threat to the distinct Bangladeshi culture, it is worth noting that these sentiments and movements also exist within the security forces. In the recent past, this has manifested with Bangladesh being used as a base through which secessionist struggle is waged in India’s northeast against the Indian state. For example, leaders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) movement, including Anup Chetia, took shelter in Bangladesh. This also gave them an unlikely affinity with the Islamists — since they both were against the Indian state. Chetia himself not only knew Abdur Rahman, the leader of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), from his time in prison in Bangladesh, but has also said he received support from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.
The Pakistani spies connected ethno-nationalist Indian separatists with the jihadis in their efforts to destabilise and expose the delicate fabric of the Indian union. This dynamic could soon be shared by the Bangladeshis again, given their co-religionists’ treatment in India where they are being stripped of their citizenship and rights as part of Assam’s latest implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). There exists the real possibility that repeated rhetorical attacks and legal harassment of Bengali speaking Indians could soon manifest with mass-deportation into Bangladesh. Ethnic cleansing, in other words.
While the BJP may claim success in harmonising ethno-nationalist parties in Assam with their own broader Hindu nationalist movement, the latest Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was approved in the parliament last year, may cause that harmony trouble, as ethno-nationalists fear non-Muslim incomers. The CAA allows preferential naturalisation for six explicitly non-Muslim faith groups from the Muslim majority countries in the region. This implicit castigation of Bangladesh implies that religious minorities in Bangladesh are not safe because of an inherent quality the country shares with Pakistan and Afghanistan, but does not with Sri Lanka. While deeply arbitrary this could become self-fulfilling.
There will be many in Bangladesh, from the pulpit to the barracks, who will feel deeply aggrieved by India’s communal politics. What Bangladesh saw with the Rohingya crisis, was Hasina going from a position of declaring the Muslims in Burma “not [her] problem” to one where she pandered to a pan-Islamic sentiment, letting groups who had fiercely opposed her into the refugee camps. Once belligerent groups like Hefazat-e-Islam went from calling her “lady Hitler” to having a fair degree of bonhomie, because the enemy was external. This was very expedient to ensure her own stay in power.
India’s hounding of Bengali Muslims may be simple electioneering but it also promises to awake old chasms which go beyond rhetoric. Just as Assam’s Bengali Muslims are feeling the real aggravated pressures, so too will Bangladeshis see opportunity to unite against a common enemy, which could well have geo-political ramifications.●
Joseph Allchin is an independent journalist and the author of Many rivers, one sea: Bangladesh and the challenge of Islamist militancy (Hurst, 2019).