There seems to be some kind of in-house competition within the BJP to rubbish neighbours to gain domestic mileage. This could have disastrous impact on the conduct of foreign policy and India’s long-term interests will suffer. For which the BJP will have to take all the blame.
No one expected the saffronites to turn friendly with Pakistan in the run-up to the 2019 polls and the violence on the Line of Control (LoC) came as a godsend to play it up to intensify the politics of communal polarisation without which they cannot win the next parliamentary elections.
But the senseless verbal tirade unleashed against a friendly Bangladesh defies all imagination. It can dangerously impact on bilateral relations at a time when the upswing was visible and delivering on all key concerns of security and connectivity for India without much of a payback for Bangladesh.
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Initially, the Narendra Modi government appeared reasonable, trying to assuage Dhaka over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam, describing it as an internal exercise with no adverse fallout for Bangladesh.
But then out of the blue, BJP president Amit Shah went ballistic, describing Bangladeshi illegal immigrants as “termites”. He also threatened to throw them out of India in much the same way Modi had warned them before the 2014 Parliament polls with his pack-your-bags remark.
Dhaka’s measured reaction through information minister Hasanul Huq Inu’s description of Shah’s remarks as unwanted and not reflecting Delhi’s official policy was followed by strong Indian media criticism of the BJP chief with all major dailies hauling him up for his irresponsible remarks.
But that would do little to calm frayed tempers in Bangladesh, a very proud nation which has been so friendly to India in the last one decade.
In fact, Shah’s termite slur has upset Indian Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims alike, because millions of them now face exclusion in Assam. The BJP ‘s repeated promise to defend Bengali Hindus appears to be mere rhetoric because almost half of those excluded from the draft NRC in Assam are Hindus. Shah welcomed the NRC exercise as the first step to eliminate the “termites” – meaning both Hindus and Muslims.
Across social media, Shah faced vitriolic attacks, with one Bengali on Facebook reminding the BJP president that fraudsters from his state (Gujarat) such as Nirav Modi were the “real termites’’ eating into the vitals of the Indian economy.
Another asked him to check the list of detenus in Andaman’s Cellular Jail and find one person from Gujarat. More than 80 percent of those detained in this jail during the anti-colonial struggle were from undivided Bengal. Graffiti has appeared in Kolkata, saying “Hindu Muslim bhujina, Bangali chara janina” (we don’t care about Hindus or Muslims, we are only bothered about Bengali interests).
The dust over BJP Shah’s termite slur had hardly settled when BJP’s loose cannon Subramanian Swamy let fly a real bloomer. In Agartala, he threatened that India will have to consider conquering Bangladesh if atrocities against Hindu and Buddhist minorities don’t stop.
Though Swamy holds no position of importance in BJP, he is a regular on Indian television channels, some of which specialise in neighbour-bashing. And he represents his party in Parliament.
This is the limit. Atrocities against minorities in Bangladesh are much less than in India and the threat of conquest can only be construed as madness.
But beneath this apparent madness is a worked-out plan to intensify communal polarisation in India’s eastern states. This Bangladesh bashing is part of the nefarious design to provoke communal tensions in border states like West Bengal where local BJP leaders are demanding Assam-style NRC, leading chief minister Mamata Banerjee to dare the BJP to try that in Bengal.
This is playing out nicely for Banerjee. The exclusion in large number of Bengali Hindus in the Assam NRC has lent substance to Banerjee ‘s allegations that this exercise was aimed at Bengalis and not against Muslims alone.
This helps her play up Bengali victimhood in a way that can negate the politics of religious polarisation played by BJP and blunt their challenge in West Bengal.
But the Shah-Swamy kind of mindless rhetoric is doing much damage to bilateral relations and harming Indian interests in the long run. There can be no Act East for India unless Bangladesh plays ball. Hasina has delivered on all Indian concerns—from security to connectivity—without much of a payback. It is true that the Teesta water sharing treaty could not be delivered because of Mamata Banerjee ‘s intransigence. But issues of access to the Indian market should have been handled by the federal government to the satisfaction of stakeholders in Dhaka. Modi has not delivered on a simple request by Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers for a logistics hub for their products in Gujarat.
But the least the saffronites can do for a trusted ally is to show enough respect and not make the mistake of equating Bangladesh with Pakistan. They need to get their history right.
They need to stop this mindless rhetoric on illegal immigration and remember that half-a-million Indians now work and make money in Bangladesh in an increasingly burgeoning economy which is performing better than India on some fronts.
With Nepal and even Maldives showing the thumb to India, New Delhi should realise that Bangladesh must be handled with care. A hostile government in Dhaka can make things real difficult for Delhi at a time when hostility in the West is peaking.