Keeping Bangladesh happy is one of India’s foreign policy goals. But the BJP’s Hindutva politics across borders runs counter to that objective.
In the past few days, Bangladesh has been rocked by communal violence which targeted the Hindu minority celebrating the festival of Durga Puja. Several people were injured in the riots after rumors spread on social media about the desecration of a book of the Quran at a puja pandal.
During a speech to devotees at Dhaka’s most prominent Hindu temple on Thursday, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina promised that those responsible for the violence would be “hunted down”. This was an unusual statement in South Asia, where the top authorities often ignore the effects of majoritarian violence.
The Prime Minister has also inexplicably placed some of the blame for her nation’s domestic problems at the door of India. She said that our neighboring country should also cooperate with us [in the fight against communalism]. In India, they must take care to ensure that no harm is done to our Hindu community or to our country.”
India’s official response was polar opposite; it took care not to infringe on Bangladeshi rights. The Indian capital praised Dhaka. Observing that Bangladesh’s government handled the crisis promptly, the Modi government on Thursday said the country’s law enforcement agents had been deployed to manage the situation.
The difference between Hasina’s point of view toward India and Delhi’s praise for her is the result of significant changes in India-Bangladesh relations in recent years. The two countries have enjoyed excellent relations for more than a decade. Currently, there is a clash going on between BJP’s Hindutva politics – which often claims to speak for the Hindu community in Bangladesh – and the Indian state’s foreign policy, which aims to keep its close ally, Bangladesh, in power.
BJP under pressure
According to Suvendhu Adhikari of the BJP, the riots should be discussed with the Hasina government. It was mentioned in Adhikari’s letter that Bengal has a large population of Hindus of Bangladeshi descent, which is a strong BJP vote bank, and the Modi government should use its its resources and influence in Dhaka with the purpose of safeguarding the Hindu minority in Bangladesh.
In addition to Bengal, another state with large numbers of Hindus of Bangladeshi heritage, Rajdeep Roy, the MP and Vice President of BJP Assam, expressed a similar sentiment, “we think it is absolutely the best time that the Government of India should addresses the issue of persecution of minorities and rampant vandalism of Hindu temples and puja pandals in Bangladesh”, he said in the tweet, appealing to the United Nations for assistance.
More than 500 houses have been destroyed in Rangpur, a state on the border with India. In India, was this not the ‘stern message’ that India’s media and Ministry of External Affairs praised the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for?
There is an Indian Twitter handle targeting Bengali Hindus who criticize the soft stance taken by the government of Prime Minister Modi toward the Bangladesh violence.
It is understandable that the Hindu community in Bangladesh is even more indignant because Delhi praised Dhaka. As reported in news reports, the Indian government has praised Bangladesh’s efforts to control the situation, according to a tweet from Iskcon, the Bangladeshi arm of the international religious organization. “Who says the situation is under control?” the tweet asks. Are Indians blind? Never expected [this] from India.”
The rioting in Bangladesh resulted in the attack of an ISKCON temple, which killed one of its devotees.
The pan-Hindutva movement
A significant part of the expectation that India would speak up for the safety of Bangladeshi citizens can be attributed to the BJP focusing on a form of Hindutva that transcends national borders. In fact, this politics places special emphasis on the Hindus of Bangladesh, particularly in Assam and West Bengal, both of which host large populations of migrants from Bangladesh.
During Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, he said that Hindus from Bangladesh would be welcome to come to the country. The government later passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, which allowed non-Muslim migrants to apply for citizenship regardless of whether they had crossed over illegally.
The majority of the political rhetoric has, however, focused on Bangladesh despite the law’s application to Afghanistan and Pakistan too.
Assam’s Supreme Court in 2013 also ordered that a strict citizenship test be conducted to identify Bangladeshis living in Assam as part of the National Register of Citizens. Amit Shah, as the BJP president at the time, argued that Bangladeshi migrants were “termites” who would be caught and disenfranchised. In its manifesto, the BJP promised to expand the National Register of Citizens established by the Supreme Court to every state in the country.
Foreign policy versus politics
The pan-Hindu nationalism of the BJP, however, runs contrary to India’s foreign policy interests in Bangladesh. The relationship between India and Bangladesh has improved steadily since Hasina’s election as prime minister in 2009. In part, this is due to Hasina’s party, the Awami League, which has traditionally sided with Delhi after India helped it secede from Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War.
Nonetheless, the present-day give-and-take is also a big part of it. Hasina has broken down militant groups in the North East, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom. As a result of Bangladesh’s assistance, militant activity in the North East has virtually disappeared.
In return, India supported the results of the 2014 general elections in Bangladesh. India’s approval of the election, where more than half the seats were decided without a contest, was critical to Hasina returning to power because it sparked the perception of the election as largely rigged.
The undercutting of Hasina
It is India’s internal politics, however, that use “Bangladesh” to attack the Muslim community, which puts Hasina in a weak position as an ally of New Delhi. Due to this situation, the Awami League has publicly criticized India for the past few years. The NRC has been a point of concern for the government in 2019 as well. After more than a year, Hasina herself criticized the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Despite the statements, the rise of anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh seems to have been little affected by them. The March protests against Modi’s visit to India turned violent, killing 13 people and attacking Hindu institutions in some cases. A recent round of violence also saw rioting mobs chanting anti-India slogans and attacking Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, accusing her of working closely with New Delhi, according to the Associated Press.
It was in an effort to head off some of these allegations – now escalating dangerously – that Hasina pointed the finger at India as the culprit for the acts of violence that took place within Bangladesh.
Offering a helping hand
Right now, Modi’s government is not exerting pressure on the Bangladesh government. The country has instead prioritized its foreign policy commitments by backing Hasina wholeheartedly. It has been reported by both the Indian Express and Hindustan Times that Indian authorities are investigating the role played by Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing party that was banned by Bangladesh in 2013 for opposition to the Awami League.
As part of this balance act, India ignored the statements made by some Bangladeshi Hindu leaders who talked about the Awami movement being responsible for the violence. As reported in the Daily Star, Rana Dasgupta, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, charged “leaders of the Awami League” with “conducting the attack” – an argument that Amrita Iskcon Bangladesh also supports.
It is also known that some activists within the ruling party are involved in such heinous crimes at some locations, Iskcon Bangladesh General Secretary Charu Chandra Das Brahmachari informed the Dhaka Tribune.
Indian foreign policy goal has been to keep Hasina happy at all costs, so India ignores Hindu voices that complain that Awami leaders are responsible for the violence.
The Indian government has ignored Hasina’s criticism of it, going ahead and praising her response to the riots as part of this strategy. It was made despite the fact that the violence did not stop after Hasina’s address on Thursday, and has worsened, spreading throughout the country.
Because Bangladesh is geographically surrounded by India on three sides, its ties with New Delhi will always be close. Nonetheless, the raging communal majoritarian sentiments in both counties make this obvious foreign policy choice extremely tense at the moment.