Indian squeeze on a secular Bangladesh
tactics towards Dhaka cast light on secularism's decline
by Philip Bowring
SCMP January 13, 2003
The ramifications of post-September 11 continue to reverberate through
the Indian subcontinent, with negative consequences for both domestic
stability and relations between the nations of the region. The latest
country to feel some heat from issues that never directly concerned
it is Bangladesh. The world's third most populous Muslim-majority nation
has responded to its predicament not by trying to enhance its links
with Muslims to the west but by reaching out towards its mostly non-Muslim
neighbours to the east.
Bangladesh may be very much part of the subcontinent geographically.
Its only border other than with India is with Myanmar and even that
runs through an area populated by hill tribes who are small minorities
in both countries. But Yangon and Chiang Mai are only an hour's flight
from Chittagong, Bangladesh's second city and main port. Kunming is
not so far either. At the same time, Bangladesh is beginning to think
it could have more to learn about economic development from Thailand
than India, and friendly ties with China provide some political counterweight
to India and a promise of aid.
This was the backdrop to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's
visit last month to Beijing, returning an earlier one by Premier Zhu
Rongji, and of a visit to Bangladesh by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin flew back to Chiang Mai with Begum Zia, inaugurating
an air link with Chittagong.
Relations with India will always dominate Bangladesh diplomacy. But
with subcontinental strains high and the economic co-operation that
was supposed to emanate from the South Asian Association for Regional
Co-operation proving illusory, Dhaka needed new and preferably non-Muslim
Traditional strains between supposedly secular India and Muslim Pakistan
were escalated by the war in Afghanistan. It contributed to a near-confrontation
over Kashmir, with India taking advantage of the "global war on
terror" and its closer relationship with the US to step up pressure
on Pakistan to stop aiding violent separatists and Islamic militants
Then came the communal violence in Gujarat that left some 2,000 people
dead - most from the Muslim minority. Although this had local origins,
in the climate of an international divide between Muslims and non-Muslims
it has achieved a significance that it would have lacked but for the
aftermath of September 11, and the perception that Kashmir is now as
much an issue of Muslims against non-Muslims as a territorial one between
India and Pakistan.
Most recently, Gujarat has been the scene of a state election won by
the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through a campaign centred on
exploiting communal tensions. The party is likely to repeat this nationally.
The rise of Hindu fundamentalism is not specifically related to international
events. However, Hindu extremists have taken to implying that India's
own Muslims - 100 million or so - may be disloyal and represent a Pakistani
fifth column. This is a dangerous allegation which demeans the Indian
leaders who have failed to condemn their supporters. Indian Muslims
have been conspicuous by their silence on issues such as Afghanistan
and Palestine and failure to join the jihadis.
Hindu-conscious India has now turned some attention to Bangladesh,
which, despite its history of war for liberation from Pakistan, its
secular constitution and Bengali identity, is sometimes bracketed with
it as a Muslim and, thus, suspect nation. India has been alleging that
Bangladesh is a centre of al-Qaeda operatives working with Pakistan's
intelligence agency and harbours camps for terrorists operating in India.
This has been taken up by certain Western media anxious to find al-Qaeda
in every mosque. One particular tale of a shipload of jihadis arriving
in Chittagong made a big splash in Time magazine. It was so fanciful
that the US ambassador in Dhaka felt obliged to issue a statement saying
the article "appeared to contain numerous unsubstantiated allegations".
India's claims may be for domestic consumption or to find foreign excuses
for the disorder in its troubled northeastern states. However, Bangladesh
has suffered internationally from such allegations, despite the secular
nature of its politics, the moderation of its Islamic traditions and
the density of population which makes it hard to hide anything, let
alone a camp for al-Qaeda. The presence of a small Islamist party in
Begum Zia's coalition government - led by her secular, nationalist Bangladesh
National Party - has also been used as a stick to beat Bangladesh, as
though Islamists had pushed through anti-secular or discriminatory legislation.
In fact, women's rights have been making good progress in Bangladesh.
India's latest pressure tactic has been to allege there are 20 million
Bangladeshis illegally in India who ought to be repatriated. There may
be some, but the figure of illegals is improbably large. Taken seriously,
it amounts to a threat to India's own Muslims as much as to Bangladesh
itself. The numbers quoted very roughly correspond to the number of
Muslims in the districts of West Bengal and Assam that adjoin Bangladesh.
These areas were Muslim-majority at the time of partition but were given
to India to provide a hinterland for Calcutta and a corridor to northeast
Indian states. Is the BJP now implying that these Muslims are not real
Indians and should move out? Ethnic cleansing is certainly an objective
for some of the party's followers.
India has always had difficulty treating its neighbours as equals,
or in offering small countries the concessions on trade, water rights
and other issues which would spur regional co-operation. But recent
months have seen increased difficulties linked to communal politicking
by an otherwise unpopular BJP government. They threaten India itself,
and its smaller neighbours, more than they threaten Pakistan. India
badly needs a reaffirmation of its secular polity.
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