Indian squeeze on a secular Bangladesh

Delhi's bully 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 friends.

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 in Kashmir.

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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