India and Bangladesh at 50

The recent violence that took place in Bangladesh against Hindus started in response to a young Bangladeshi Hindu’s critical Facebook post about General Mawlana Mufti Mamunul Haque’s speech. As a result of this post, hundreds of supporters of a hardline Islamist group in Bangladesh attacked and vandalised 70 to 80 houses of Hindus in the country’s northeastern Sylhet division. This incident took place a few days before the arrival of Prime Minister Modi in Bangladesh on the occasion of the 50 years of independence of the nation.

Protests amidst celebrations 

A series of protests, demonstrations and rallies took place before the arrival of PM Modi in Bangladesh condemning the invitation that had been extended to him to join for the 50 years celebrations. The protesters accused the PM of committing crimes against humanity during the Gujarat riots, imposing anti-Muslim policies in India and for the significant interference in Bangladesh’s internal politics and demanded the withdrawal of the government’s invitation.

The peaceful protest turned violent when supporters of the ruling Awami League along with law-enforcement agencies attacked the protesters, causing several deaths in the last 10 days of March. A protest that was launched by progressive student organizations including the Bangladesh Students Union, Bangladesh Sadharon Chhatra Odhikar Songrokkhon Parishad, and the Socialist Students’ Front, was later joined by the Islamic group Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh that was strongly critical of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for inviting Modi on this occasion. 

The protests were gaining momentum in the days preceding the Independence Day celebrations and intensified after the arrival of the Indian leader in Dhaka. Immediately after Jummah, on March 26, many demonstrators started chanting slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi near the south gate of the mosque protesting his arrival in Dhaka. This prompted the police to fire rubber bullets and charge batons on them, resulting in massive clashes where nearly 60 people, including two journalists, were injured. In Chittagong, the situation spiralled out of control as the protesters attacked the local police station and also tore down the National Day banner hanging outside the police station.

The violence that ensued only escalated after the return of the Indian Prime Minister. At Narayanganj, in an ominous development Hefazat-e-Islamist member chanted “action, action, direct action”. This bears a striking parallel to Jinnah’s call in 1946 for ‘Direct Action’ that later led to the partition of Bengal and the mass killings of Bengali Hindus. In response to this call, many Islamist activists marched down the streets across Bangladesh. Hundreds of members of a hardline Islamist group attacked Hindu temples and a train in eastern Bangladesh, besides setting fire to several government offices, including the land office, a government-sponsored music academy and two buses in the western district of Rajshahi on March 28. Hundreds of protesters clashed with the police in several places, pelting them with stones. There was widespread violence and protest in the country both before and after the visit of the Indian leader which included an attack on the Hindu minority’s places of worship as an expression of resentment by the Islamist groups.

Thaw in the frost

India assisted in the liberation of East Pakistan by dismembering it through military action in the decisive 1971 war with Pakistan. The euphoria around the creation of Bangladesh as an independent, sovereign nation was punctuated by the assassination of the founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 and the country lapsing into a cycle of martial law and Islamist politics thereafter. Despite attempts by India, the relationship with Bangladesh has remained frosty on many counts: issues around the 4096 km border, the Teesta river, and domestic political concerns in Bengal and Assam.  

The Prime Minister visited Bangladesh’s National Martyrs’ Memorial to commemorate the fallen soldiers who were a part of the 1971 Liberation War. Thereafter, he met with the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister to reflect upon strengthening their all-encompassing and strategic bilateral partnership based on sovereignty, equality and trust. He later took part in the celebrations where he posthumously awarded Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the Gandhi Peace Prize for 2020 and announced the Swarna Jayanti scholarship for the youth of Bangladesh, while inviting their entrepreneurs to come to India.

PM Modi also gave Bangladesh 1.2 million free doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine and 109 ambulances upon the completion of his two-day tour of Bangladesh on the occasion of the 50th independence anniversary. This visit is considered significant because it is PM Modi’s first international trip since the onset of COVID-19 and has in certain ways helped reaffirm the historical relationship between the two countries, which had suffered during the CAA-NRC protests.

Domestic politics & Orakandi Thakurbari

During his two-day Bangladesh tour, PM Modi visited the Matua temple in Orakhandi, Gopalganj from where he addressed the people of the Matua community and said “Today, I share the same feeling which lakhs of Matua brother and sisters living in India experience after coming to Orakandi.” It has been argued that domestically this visit holds great significance since it coincided with the commencement of voting in the eight-phase assembly elections in West Bengal where 1.5 crore voters from the Matua community impact results in around 30 assembly seats. 

Critics have accused the ruling party of using diplomacy to influence a state assembly election. Addressing a rally in the West Midnapore district on March 27, Banerjee said: “When elections are on, he (Modi) has gone to Bangladesh and is making speeches in West Bengal. This is a violation of the election code of conduct. Law cannot be discriminative. A film star named Ferdous came here during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He went to one of our rallies to express his best wishes. The BJP moved the Bangladesh government. The Indian government cancelled his visa so that he cannot come here anymore.”

Possibilities 

Kolkata based professor of economics and political analyst Sarthak Roychaudhury said: “Modi’s Bangladesh visit is a strategic one…It seems he wants to strengthen ties with Bangladesh given the situation in Myanmar, the Rohingya problem and India’s relation with China.” Given the vicissitudes in the India-Bangladesh relationship, the visit of the Indian Prime Minister marks a watershed for many reasons. Firstly, it seeks to reaffirm the ties between the neighbours that are a product of both history and geography. Secondly, it signals the importance India presently attaches to Bangladesh among the countries in its immediate vicinity. Thirdly, it also underscores India’s support to the present Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has been generally accommodative to Indian concerns notwithstanding opposition by local radical Islamist groups. Fourthly, it also marks the almost seamless integration of foreign policy and domestic politics. Therefore, viewing the Prime Minister’s Bangladesh visit through a narrow unidimensional prism may just be myopic; it is only a wide-angle that offers a proper view of the kaleidoscope of outcomes.   

Amisha Singh is a second-year undergraduate student currently pursuing a bachelors in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

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