Unprecedented protests against the two-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
to Bangladesh have led to police baton-charging and firing on protestors across the country, causing nine deaths. He was invited to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence, coinciding with the centennial celebration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth. The protests indicate a widening gap between the excellent functional relationship between the two governments and the perception of the people of Bangladesh.
Moreover, the protests have come at a time when the relations between the two neighbours could not be better. The invitation to Prime Minister Modi to deliver the keynote speech at the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations was a recognition of the importance Dhaka
accords to the bilateral relationship apart from the acknowledgement of India’s critical role in Bangladesh’s liberation struggle.
Indian policy makers must not blame the antipathy against India in Bangladesh on Islamic fundamentalist groups. Undeniably the most active group organising the recent protests has been the largest non-political Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam with its countrywide network of madrasas. But protests have also been spearheaded by the Left-wing Bangladesh Students’ Rights Council headed by Nurul Haq Nur, a former vice-president of the Dhaka
University Central Students’ Union, Juba Adhikar Parishad and other non-political groups. It is noteworthy that no political flags were allowed in the protests.
In his address in Dhaka
on Friday, Prime Minister Modi gave an assurance of resolving all outstanding differences. He said that both sides were aware of the “sensitivity” of the tasks ahead and the need to make “meaningful effort” towards their resolution. The effect of such friendly expression of intent on the public mood is, however, uncertain.
The most intense protests on March 26, unsurprisingly were in Chattogram, where Hefazat is headquartered. In Brahmanbaria, protestors attacked the deputy commissioner’s office, burnt tyres on roads and set fire to the railway station – one youth was shot dead on the first day of the Modi visit and five on the second. In Dhaka, protestors began a march from the country’s largest Baitul Mukarram National Mosque, shouting anti-Modi slogans and holding shoes in the air to show disrespect. They were confronted by police as well as helmet-wearing and baton-wielding activists of the ruling Awami League. Protests at Dhaka University left 20 students injured after protestors were attacked by the Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League.
Although leaders on both sides have not let irritants in bilateral ties influence the relationship adversely, three issues irk most Bangladeshis. The inability of the two countries to come to an agreement on Teesta River water sharing, the Border Security Force (BSF) shooting Bangladeshi citizens (whom the BSF claims to be smugglers) along the 4000-km shared border; and the perception that after providing initial humanitarian help India did nothing to help Dhaka deal with the 130,000 Rohingya refugees it has been forced to look after.
However, new elements have impacted public perception under the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) government. Its anti-minority image and use of religion for electoral gains worries Bangladeshis. While Hindu illegal Bangladeshi migrants are eagerly accommodated as Indian citizens by the Citizenship Amendment Act, Muslim illegal migrants are dubbed “termites” to be identified and detained by compiling a National Citizens’ Register. This has seeped into the public consciousness in Bangladesh, leading to a negative public sentiment about India.
In an unprecedented development, the people of Bangladesh are keenly watching the state Assembly elections in the bordering states of West Bengal and Assam. They have earlier seen Assam elections contested through religious polarisation and now see the strategy repeated in West Bengal.
As in India, many in Bangladesh are irked by Prime Minister Modi’s detour adding Orakandi, 190 km from Dhaka, to his formal itnerary. Orakandi is the birthplace of Harichand Thakur, founder of the Matua sect of the Namshudra Dalit community. Matua migrants from Bangladesh have a significant presence in West Bengal and are said to determine electoral outcomes in more than half a dozen Assembly constituencies. They voted for the BJP in the previous West Bengal assembly elections but are unhappy at the delay in implementation of the CAA, which would have hastened the citizenship process for more recent migrants.
There is also a significant section of Bangladesh’s intelligentsia that looks askance at Prime Minister Modi’s record as the chief minister of Gujarat and his party’s current position on pluralism, its policies in Jammu & Kashmir, its push for amendment of citizenship laws and the handling of communal riots. A senior Bangladeshi politician told this correspondent that people have begun seeing the BJP as a party “weaponising religion” against Muslims, including Bangladeshis. “This has polarised public opinion
against India. This was not the case earlier, even though there were differences of opinion
about Indian hegemonic ambitions, trade issues, border disputes and water sharing,” he said.
While the BJP and its government cannot be expected to jettison their policies to assuage Bangladeshi sensibilities, many opinion-makers there believe that India can course-correct by resolving the thorny bilateral issues and investing in people-to-people relations. Perhaps it was to provide tangible benefits at the level of the people that Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Dhaka announced one thousand Suborno Jayanti Scholarships for Bangladesh students and invited 50 Bangladesh entrepreneurs to connect with India’s start-up ecosystem.
Public perception is also likely to become more wary of India as it becomes a frontline player in “the Quad” formed to counter growing Chinese influence. Bangladesh is reluctant to be drawn into any big power competition. It is a major beneficiary of infrastructure investments under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese companies are involved in all the big infrastructure projects in the country from construction of the Padma Bridge, Payara deep-sea port, the Dhaka-Chattogram high-speed railway, and the tunnel connectivity project under the Karnaphuli River in Chattogram. Therefore, apart from the ideological issues, perception of India among the people of Bangladesh is likely to become even more complicated as India takes on a bigger role in the Quad.