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CAA-led narrative on religious persecution ignores political specificity, nuance in neighbourhood

India’s new official narrative is, at complete variance with the understanding that has informed Indian foreign policy so far. If Hindus were equally persecuted in East Pakistan/Bangladesh both before and after it broke away from Pakistan, why did India even bother to intervene in the war of liberation?

Written by Sanjib Baruah | Updated: January 22, 2020 11:53:56 am
bangladesh on caa, citizenship amendment act, bangladeshi immigrants, bangladeshi hindus, caa protests, caa protests news Protestors hold national flags and placards as they raise slogans during a demonstration against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, at Red Fort in New Delhi, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019 (Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

What is remarkable about statements by ruling party politicians on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is that they attribute the purported persecution of non-Muslim religious minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to a fixed and unchanging reality. At all times in their recent history, the three countries have presumably been alike. This ideologically laden narrative defines the three neighbouring countries in essentialist terms — they are Muslim majority countries; that’s all there is to know about them. There is no need to understand history, and the dynamics of political change. The ideological predilections of governments in Muslim-majority countries make no difference to the way religious minorities are treated. The implicit contrast is with Hindu-majority India, which by definition, is inclusive and tolerant — no matter the actual treatment meted out to minorities.

Thus, in neighbouring Bangladesh — if one follows the logic of this perverse revisionism — the persecution of religious minorities has occurred under all governments: The first post-liberation government led by Mujibur Rahman, the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hossain Mohammad Ershad, the democratically elected Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government led by Khaleda Zia, or the Awami League governments led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed.

But was life for the Hindu minority really the same in the Bangladesh of the early 1970s, when “Joy Bangla” dominated political life, as in the 1990s, when “Allahu Akbar” and “Bismillah” became popular election slogans? Was the removal of secularism in 1977 as one of the four fundamental principles of the Bangladeshi Constitution, or the declaration of Islam as the state religion in 1988, of no consequence to the situation of the Hindu minority in that country?

India’s new official narrative is, of course, at complete variance with the understanding that has informed Indian foreign policy so far. If Hindus were equally persecuted in East Pakistan/Bangladesh both before and after it broke away from Pakistan, why did India even bother to intervene in the war of liberation? Was India’s decision to intervene in Bangladesh’s war of liberation, where Hindu Bengalis were both major players and targets of the Pakistani crackdown, then a failure of historic proportions?

If the persecution of Hindus has been a persistent feature of all Bangladeshi governments, what explains the very different quality of its relations with India when the country has been ruled by governments with different ideological orientations? Were previous Indian governments unconcerned about the condition of the Hindu minority? Or did they pursue a more pragmatic and realist approach than the current government? After all, putting non-Muslim citizens of the three countries on a path to Indian citizenship — as the CAA effectively does, despite the asserted cut-off date of December 2014 — amounts to a significant surrender of India’s sovereign prerogatives to set immigration policies to its smaller neighbours.

This new narrative is, of course, oblivious of the way inter-faith relations in India, or the state of bilateral relations with India, affect the security and confidence of the Hindu minority. According to the Bangladeshi scholar Meghna Guhathakurta, who has written extensively on the conditions of the Hindu minority in that country, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 had “resulted in a backlash against the Hindu temples, life and properties all over Bangladesh. Even Christians and Buddhists were not spared.” Attacks on Hindus and their property in Bangladesh also took place after the Gujarat riots of 2002.

The seven decades of the subcontinent’s post-Partition history make it abundantly clear that there is no better guarantee of peace and security for religious minorities in the CAA-covered countries than better inter-faith relations within India, and relatively peaceful relations among South Asia’s three post-Partition states.

Not surprisingly, people in all three CAA-covered countries — including leaders of minority organisations — reject the new Indian narrative. Some have sounded the alarm on the danger that this narrative — and the Indian policies accompanying it — presents to South Asia’s future stability. While the Indian media has focused mostly on Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s criticism of these policies, the reaction of the other two countries that enjoy friendly relations with India, merits no less attention.

Afghan and Bangladeshi officials have set aside diplomatic niceties to criticise the new Indian narrative. Afghanistan’s ambassador to India Tahir Qadiry has publicly rejected the charge that his country persecutes religious minorities. Afghans of all ethnicities and faith, he said in an interview with India Today, have been victims of the four decades of war that his country has suffered. However, since the fall of the Taliban, the Afghan government has tried to fashion policies beneficial to the country’s Sikh and other minority communities. There are now Sikh members of the Afghan Parliament, and Sikhs are represented at the presidential palace as well.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen also rejects the “allegations of minority repression in Bangladesh.” Important voices in Bangladeshi civil society, such as Professor C R Abrar of the University of Dhaka, have been highly critical of the “anti-Bangladeshi vitriolic statements” coming from the “Indian ruling elite.” Categorising Bangladesh “as a nation that oppresses its religious minority,” he writes, is a deliberate insult to the people of Bangladesh. Despite India’s much-repeated assertion that the NRC and CAA are India’s internal matters, Abrar warns that their consequences for Bangladesh are likely to be “grave.” There will be millions of Muslims unable to prove their claim to Indian citizenship under the rules of the NRC who would not get the protection of the faith-based amnesty that the CAA now provides. While India may not deport them as a matter of policy, in coming years many of them may choose to cross into Bangladesh in order “to avoid languishing in detention camps in atrocious conditions.”

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The Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council) fully echoes the concerns of the protesters in Assam and the rest of Northeast India regarding the CAA. The Parishad, formed in response to the Eighth Amendment to the Bangladeshi Constitution which had made Islam the official state religion, has expressed its “deep concern” that the CAA would “encourage minority people to leave Bangladesh.” The organisation’s adviser, Nitai Roy Chowdhury, has expressed fears that because of the NRC and the CAA, “Hindus will want to go to India, meanwhile Muslims from India will try to enter into Bangladesh which could create a dangerous situation.”

India’s many friends and well-wishers in Afghanistan and Bangladesh now have ample reasons to wonder: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 22, 2020 under the title ‘Three as one’. The writer is professor of political studies, Bard College, New York.

P B Mehta writes on the CAA: Hope this generation does a better job of navigating the struggle than the one that came before

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