The landslide victory for the right-wing BJP was a clear message by the people of India that they had rejected the poor economic performance and pervasive corruption that characterized the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. The Indian electorate has also given an unambiguous verdict against dynastic politics.
By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Via Dhaka Tribune
One fine morning around three decades ago, possibly in 1985-86, the residents of my hometown Naogaon heard a rumor about the sudden “escape” of a leading Hindu businessman who used to control the business in the northwestern district near the Indian border. The businessman, whose name I cannot recall, owned a huge palatial red building, adjacent to the Naogaon Pourashabha.
That was breaking news for the residents of the tiny town, still considered one of the more peaceful places in Bangladesh with no report of communal riots or violence. Despite being a boy of around 12 years, I joined the human flock that headed towards the four-storey abandoned rectangular house with a courtyard in the middle – a typical structure of a Hindu Brahmin house. The group of people reached the premises within 10 minutes.
The whole house turned into an apparent fair of curious people converging from all corners of the town, once dominated by Hindus, especially Marwaris. Everyone was discussing the same thing: “How could he escape so clandestinely? He smuggled his money and wealth to India. What would happen to the big house on this huge land in the heart of town?” They peeped through the windows and doors of the rooms. They never thought they would get the chance to look inside the house because of the Brahmins’ restricted lifestyle.
The interesting fact was that the master of the house took away all valuables, including the utensils, without the knowledge of the people having access to the house. A couple of days later, I came to know that the businessman had sold the house to a local Muslim, of course at a throwaway price, with the condition that they must not make the disclosure until they had crossed the Bangladesh border. The children of the middle-aged couple used to study in Kolkata – they used to send money there for their education.
More than 25 years later, in late 2012, a hotelier in Naoagon, Sudev, 55, sold his established restaurant at Muktir Morh, situated at the heart of the town, and left for India. The residents knew that all of his family members had left Naogaon much earlier and had settled in India already. Possibly his intention was to live the last days of his life on a land where his fellow Hindus were the majority, unlike the Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
These two stories of Hindu migration to India are linked with the pre-poll comments of India’s Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, who made the “intrusion of the illegal Bangladeshis” as one of the election issues, making the remaining Hindus in Bangladesh afraid of whether they would face another spell of violence by Muslim bigots as a reprisal of any probable attack on the Muslims by Hindu zealots in India. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Hindus constituted for 22% of the Bangladeshi people in 1951, which was then a part of Pakistan created for Muslims. The proportion dropped to 18.5% in 1961, and further dropped to 13.5% in 1974. It further came down to 12.1% and 10.5% in 1981 and 1991 respectively. After the 2001 general elections in Bangladesh, another spell of violence further shrank the number of the Hindus to 9.2%, and in 2011 it was 8.5%.
The reason for which Hindus leave Bangladesh is (an apparent sense of) insecurity coupled with inaction of the successive governments to protect our minorities. During and after the partition period in 1947, political leaders in India welcomed Hindus from Bangladesh, and helped them to settle on the new land. The wealth Bangladeshis transferred with them contributed to the Indian economy too. The other side of the coin is – the attackers here mainly want to grab the land and property of the minorities, and weaken the political opponents as Hindus apparently vote for the Awami League (Bangladesh ruling party).
Unfortunately, the state mechanism and the AL that enjoy the exclusive voting of most religious minorities have failed to put in place an environment in which they can feel secure from repression or intimidation. Now, the question is, is Narendra Modi’s comment justified or not? Was the Indian Supreme Court’s observation on “illegal” migration or “silent demographic invasion” right? Of course not, because Hindus who settled in India have integrated into Indian society, and they are no longer Bangladeshis.
Every country has the right to protect its territory from any unauthorized entry of foreign nationals and take action against intruders. Modi’s announcement that “illegal Bangladeshis must pack and leave India” involves huge risk of widespread violence against the targeted people, presumably the Muslims. He allegedly led such a program in his state of Gujarat in 2002. If he tries to push the (Indian) Muslims into Bangladesh terming them “illegal” without proper proof, then it will result in deterioration of its excellent relations with Bangladesh. Again, the Indian society that has nurtured diversity and accommodated Hindus from Bangladesh will ultimately protect them, albeit they apparently supported Modi’s anti-migration role.
Despite the AL government’s tough stance against the Rohingyas, local sympathizers have been sheltering the illegal Myanmar nationals, considering their economic usefulness and religious commonality. So, any purported repressive actions against so-called “illegal” Bangladeshis are sure to cause tension on both sides of the border. Are Modi and the BJP really ready to face that situation?
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune, a leading newspaper of Bangladesh.
The voter has given Narendra Modi a mandate to transform India, put the economy on fast track, initiate fundamental reforms and ‘improve governance with less government control’. His win has generated a new wave of enthusiasm among his millions of supporters who wanted a strong leader and also deep scepticism among his detractors who consider him divisive and a rabid Hindu nationalist. It is really the young voter who has been his main supporter.
Today, 50 percent of the Indian population is below the age of 35 and they are frustrated due to the lack of job opportunities and a sluggish economy. They see Modi as a pro-development leader with focus on the economy who will create jobs for them. At this time, he represents their aspirations and the expectation is that Modi will replicate his successful economic model of Gujarat on the rest of India. This would be a great challenge for him for he will have to deliver on the economic front and push through reforms, or the same surge of goodwill, that won him votes, could turn against him.
Modi is one of the most authoritarian leaders India has voted for after Indira Gandhi. With his style of governance, power will remain centralised. He can claim laurels in success but in the event of failure, the burden would be largely his. Modi is a very controversial leader who is feared by the minorities, particularly the Muslims, for his fierce Hindu nationalism and alleged involvement in the pogrom in Gujarat in which thousands of Muslims were burnt alive.
During elections, Modi also engaged in tough talk against Pakistan (and China) and has alluded to pursuing a muscular foreign and defence policy. Lately, he has been far more conciliatory in his public utterances. Considering that the main thrust of Modi’s policy is to concentrate on India’s sluggish economy is a form of pragmatism that dictates that he will try to maintain a peaceful posture towards Pakistan without showing any flexibility in resolving the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen and even Sir Creek. It is unlikely that composite dialogue will be revived, but selectively, matters of trade and commerce could move forward. And Islamabad may grant the over-delayed MFN status to gain goodwill and normalcy in relations. Demand by India for expediting conviction of perpetrators of the Mumbai incident, handing over of Dawood Ibrahim and reining in of the jihadi militants is likely to continue; somewhat similar to the erstwhile policy pursued by the Congress.
Any major bold initiatives to resolve issues or to expect that Modi would open a new chapter in relations with Pakistan would be premature. Any recurrence of the Mumbai-type incident would be very risky and could lead to unintended consequences. For this, Pakistan will have to tighten control over jihadi groups so that they do not embark on adventurism and create serious problems for our state. A major restraining factor on Modi to pursue his Hindu nationalist agenda will be India’s significantly large Muslim population and the priority that he accords to expanding trade and economic linkages with Middle Eastern countries.
More significantly, competition with China would also suffer if India gets embroiled in regional quarrels. Moreover, Pakistan, too, needs to take some tangible steps to show that it is genuinely committed to turning the page on its relations with India. The government, by tacitly allowing radical leaders, who are international pariahs, to frequently parade their militias on Pakistani streets as patriots, is throwing a red rag before the bull. Serious reservations of India aside, it is highly damaging for Pakistan’s interest and international image to embrace these regressive forces.
Irrespective of the pace at which the comprehensive dialogue moves, both countries should at least revive the strategic dialogue. New Delhi should seriously review the Cold Start doctrine that has been developed to respond to a potential terrorist attack from across the border as Pakistan is fielding tactical nuclear weapons as its deterrence. Now that Pakistan itself is the worst victim of militancy both countries need to address this common scourge through political and security cooperation rather than taking the risky military route of countervailing each other. The volatility on the Line of Control (LoC) also remains a flashpoint between India and Pakistan and could easily trigger tensions that can rapidly escalate.
Recurrence of violence on the LoC, with each side blaming the other for violation, makes matters worse in the absence of neutral UN observers to monitor the border. As progress on the resolution of the Kashmir issue seems not to be in sight, it is important that additional measures be undertaken to effectively stabilise the border. Pulling back forces a few kilometres on both sides and greater communication at the military-to-military level could contribute towards reducing such incidents. The withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the emerging situation provide both a challenge and an opportunity for both the countries. They could cooperate to stabilise Afghanistan or act as rivals playing proxies and undermining each other. With prospects of Abdullah Abdullah winning the final round and his close relations with India, Islamabad needs a more circumspect policy.
There are lessons in BJP’s victory for our political parties, and more so for the fringe right, that secular India was prepared to tolerate religious nationalism provided it can deliver on the economic front.
This article was first published in The Express Tribune, a leading newspaper of Pakistan.