Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a meeting in New Delhi on October 5, 2019. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Those who will not reason are bigots, those who cannot are fools, and those who dare not are slaves. – Lord Byron

Recent political developments in India have opened up a Pandora’s box, to say the least. These developments are overtly targeting the country’s largest minority, Muslims. With an increase in hate crimes particularly against Muslims in recent years, there is fear that India, long known as the world’s largest democracy, has become dangerously intolerant under the ruling Bharatya Janata Party (BJP).

For the Awami League government in Bangladesh, which shares a border with India on three sides, India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were regarded as “internal matters,” or so it was declared to the people of Bangladesh. However, this nonchalant stance has become a denial too immense to continue for the Awami League.

Last October, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned from India after signing seven bilateral treaties with her counterpart Narendra Modi, an act that proved to most disappointed and infuriated Bangladeshis that they could not expect their leadership to look out for the interests of their country. Each and every treaty was seen as benefiting Bangladesh’s larger neighbor against its own interests and well-being.

Commenting on Facebook regarding this issue even resulted in the murder of engineering student Abrar Fahad by the Chhatra League, the student wing of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. If there was ever any doubt that Bangladesh had lost its sovereignty because of the pro-India priorities of its ruling party, these treaties sealed the conviction in the minds of Bangladeshis that sovereignty and independence are merely words in their constitution.

At a time when anti-India sentiments are profound among Bangladeshis, New Delhi assured Dhaka that the NRC and CAA would not affect Bangladesh. However, there are genuine concerns and apprehensions in Bangladesh that the NRC and CAA might unleash an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and Muslims attempting to escape persecution in India. After having taken in nearly a million Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, Bangladesh cannot take in any more.

Many analysts feel, rightfully so, that the denial of Indian citizenship to tens of thousands of Muslims in Assam and most certainly elsewhere in India will trigger strong reactions from Islamist parties in Bangladesh, which would present serious challenges to the secular Awami League. Although Sheikh Hasina has a proven track record of complete intolerance to any form of dissent, freedom of speech and expression, an uprising of Islamist parties would most certainly cause friction in the Awami League’s relationship with the Hindu right-wing BJP, a predicament that the Bangladeshi PM always tries at all costs to avoid.

The BJP in India has utilized the predictable strategy of claiming that Hindus in Bangladesh are persecuted and tortured, resulting in a mass anti-Bangladesh smear campaign on social media, a tit-for-tat strategy that has rubbed Bangladesh the wrong way. It sees these accusations as baseless and unwarranted, and although the Awami League bends over backwards to cater to India’s desires, these recent exchanges and concerns based on the CAA and NRC are something that even the leadership in Bangladesh cannot digest.

India’s attempts to equate Bangladesh to fundamentally theocratic Muslim nations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan is something that is unacceptable to Bangladeshis, where religious and racial harmony have always been a priority, unlike in many neighboring countries.

This is not to say that there has never been any religious persecution in Bangladesh. However, whenever isolated incidents have occurred, the secular government has taken action promptly.

The Bangladeshi government has declared that it will allow people to enter from India only if it can be proved that they are citizens of Bangladesh. This is a nebulous condition that most people realize is futile. Many of the Muslim immigrants in India who are being told they do not qualify for citizenship there (whereas Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains do) probably do not have any documents to prove citizenship in Bangladesh either. Therefore, on what basis does Bangladesh expect India to present proof of their Bangladeshi nationality apart from religion?

This is a clear manifestation of xenophobia that under any other government in Bangladesh would perhaps not be entertained in the least, for the country cannot be used as a dumping ground for bigoted regimes such as those in Myanmar and India.

It is a pity that India’s spirit of being known as “the world’s largest democracy” has been infected by the Modi regime, giving rise to the fundamental question: What is the future of Muslims in India? Furthermore, how will the xenophobic, ant-Islamic reign of terror in India affect Bangladesh?

The answers to these questions and more have yet to unfold. However, to paraphrase the quote at the top of this article from Lord Byron, those who dare not stand up against bigotry succumb to slavery. The freedom fighters of the Bangladesh Liberation War most certainly did not fight to defend a future slavery. Or did they?

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.

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