Bangla Thursday, August 13, 2020

Modi has legitimized majoritarianism in South Asia

India and Bangladesh have remained friends through the last 50 years. But that is now being tested. This is not like the Khaleda Zia/Bangladesh Nationalist Party era tensions but wider and non-political caused by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is steering her boat in troubled bi-lateral waters.

The CAA and NRC directly affect Bangladesh. The Indian and international media have both reported that the Narendra Modi government hadn’t expected the reaction it got within India. And it is not Muslims alone who are resisting. Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, all are all resisting with equal vigor.

Two significant groups which are also unhappy are the poor and the activists, old and young. So Modi has sent his party activists to slums (now anxious and puzzled because few have documents) to tell the poor that the CAA and NRC will not affect them.

Allaying fears would have been better if done before the laws were enacted. Disgruntled public opinion has already been mobilized by the opposition parties. Pro-poor (Dalit) activist groups like the Bhim Army are also active.

Activists have been challenging the state for a while ideologically and have now found a cause that has a multi-class social support. The Muslims of course feel threatened by the CAA and NRC but are into collectively protesting without denying their faith identity which has given the problem a clear religious color, something India doesn’t need. As a 200 million plus strong group, Muslims can’t be ignored either.

It is not just an internal problem either, because India’s neighbors, close and far, are unhappy too. It comes when the Indian economy is at the lowest ebb in the last 45 years. While its international image and trade with certain groups like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will suffer, with Bangladesh, the implications are multiple.

Bangladesh angle

Of the three countries named in the CAA, Bangladesh is the one which matters since Pakistan and Afghanistan have only a small Hindu population. It has therefore become an accusation of oppression against Bangladesh. This has been supported by some scholars. Bangladeshi minority expat groups also have made claims of large scale forced migration.

Persecution of religious minorities is common all over South Asia. Most governments however try to strike a balance between various groups but the CAA has damaged that working model. Thus, Modi has legitimized majoritarianism in the South Asian region.

India was the regional upholder of the “social balance’ model which has now been jeopardized. CAA will make minority repression more acceptable in South Asia.

On the impact on Bangladesh, Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan says, “The collateral damage would be three-fold:“First, anti-Indian sentiment would rise. Second, anti-government sentiment would rise, as this would give a fillip to those who claim that the Bangladesh government is in the Indians’ pockets. And, finally, it could have a really negative impact on Hindus living in Bangladesh. For me, the last is the most serious concern.” (Crossing the Line: The NRC’s threat to Bangladesh, and the India–Bangladesh relationship, Afsan Chowdhury, 1st September 2019, The Caravan, Delhi, India)

Hence,pressure on Sheikh Hasina will mount to take steps to counter the impact. A few push-out cases have been reported already and media has given it coverage. The Bangladesh government has said that it will accept only genuine Bangladeshis and return the rest. It is therefore alive issue.

Strategic issues

Two issues may also gain prominence if the situation affects Bangladesh adversely. One, a major area of unrest in India will be the seven sister state zone or the North East. These areas are anti-Bengali as well. If they restart militant protest and face hostile crackdowns by the Indian Centre, they may look at Bangladesh as traditional providers of sanctuary. This has been denied to the North East militants after Hasina came to power which made Delhi happy..

While officially Bangladesh will not offer sanctuary or support, elements within the country may be tempted to do so, and that will have public support. That will impact on Indo-Bangla relations. Bangladesh will not provide sanctuary to Islamic militants because they are also enemies but North East militants may be a different kettle of fish.

Class and China

Since, the lower class are more into border crossing for work and the middle class for shopping and medical assistance, the demand for accessing “India” may be a problem. While the poor go to earn, the middle class is increasingly an anti-Indian class even as they go there to spend.

The Indian visa regime is extensive now but if Bangladesh become a “non-friendly’ state, this policy may be changed as India is becoming more emotive at the policy level than ever before. If it squeezes, the chances of exploring alternative sources for Indian goods and services may emerge in Bangladesh. India is already not the number one trade partner. It is China which is at the top.

Indian policy may end up doing what India hates most, that is, make China gain. China isn’t doing much but Indian policies have made it more influential in the region. China’s stock is bound to rise by default and India will have to figure out what to do with the reaction to its policies by both friends and foes alike.