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

India’s headlong rush to become a Hindu majoritarian state threatens to destabilize South Asia.

Under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power since 2014, the Indian government has pursued a series of divisive Hindu-nationalist domestic policies. Not only are these at odds with India’s secular constitution, but they increasingly rub up against the country’s long-standing foreign-policy posture.

This is creating tensions with neighbors. Worse, as the paramount power in South Asia, India has an outsized influence in the politics of its neighbors. Majoritarianism in India is creating political problems even for those governments on friendly terms with New Delhi.

In 2019, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fresh from a second thumping victory in that year’s general election, announced plans to extend nationally a count of citizens that initially took place in the state of Assam. This exercise set the bar to prove one’s citizenship so high that the poor (of whom Indian Muslims are a considerable number) would disproportionately fail to register themselves as citizens.

The government then introduced another law to guarantee fast-track citizenship to refugees from India’s neighbors, except if they were Muslims.

These two laws, which the home minister described as chronologically linked to each other, threatened to disfranchise Muslims. “Bangladeshis” became a catch-all term to refer to all the “illegal” immigrants the two laws were meant to ensnare.

Senior cabinet ministers engaged in rhetoric reminiscent of genocidal hate speech, referring to illegal immigrants as “termites.”

These laws led to protests across India, as they threatened to alter the very definition of citizenship. However, they also caused problems for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

The hatred directed at “Bangladeshis” across the border complicated her standing as India’s friend in Dhaka. Senior members of her cabinet canceled scheduled visits to India. Bangladesh was rocked by violence, one instance of which was directed at a Hindu temple, when Modi came calling in March this year.

The latest violence in Bangladesh directed at the country’s Hindu minority was prompted by rumors that a Hindu temple had blasphemed against Islam during a religious festival. This set off days of anti-Hindu violence across Bangladesh’s cities.

Unlike her Indian counterpart, Hasina publicly condemned the violence and directed the police to arrest the perpetrators. Her political party, the Awami League, even held a peace rally in the capital Dhaka (it is another matter that members of the party’s student wing are reported to have participated in some of the violence).

Yet Hasina was quick to point the finger across the border, saying that anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in India were causing anti-Hindu violence in her country.

This is not just a case of tit-for-tat violence across the region’s arbitrarily drawn borders. The Modi government’s rush to make India a Hindu majoritarian state could destabilize Bangladesh, a country of 165 million.

Hasina has done herself no favors either. Despite her recent pronouncements, she has very publicly positioned herself as India’s ally. The Awami League casts itself as the defender of secularism in Bangladesh, and the ultimate guarantor of safety for the country’s Hindus.

Just as this has happened, Hasina has, in effect, turned Bangladesh into a one-party state, removing constitutional safeguards that foster its democracy, imprisoning leaders of opposition parties and criminalizing various forms of dissent. 

This has pushed political opposition to her regime to the Islamist sphere – which Hasina has at times attempted to crush but has also courted to win over Islamist voters.

All these factors have increased the vulnerability of Bangladesh’s beleaguered Hindu minority. An attack on it, which is always politically motivated even at the worst of times, is an attack on Hasina’s government and her party.

As commendable as it is, Hasina’s public condemnation of the anti-Hindu violence was motivated mainly because, like any astute politician, she saw it for what it was – a political attack on her. Yet coded in her blaming of India was also a warning.

Should India continue further down its path of majoritarianism, where the public sphere becomes full of toxic state-enabled anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric, this would provide the pretext for Hasina’s opponents to weaken her government via attacks on Bangladesh’s Hindu minority.

A destabilized Bangladesh would have ripple effects across the region. Shortly after the Bangladesh violence, the neighboring Indian BJP-governed state of Tripura witnessed anti-Muslim violence by hardline Hindu groups.

This cycle of violence and counter-violence across the region will destabilize the entire subcontinent. South Asia’s arbitrarily etched borders, drawn by the region’s departing colonial rulers amid an orgy of entirely avoidable bloodshed, are not capable of arresting the spread of ethnic and religious violence from one country to another.

India’s traditional foreign-policy posture in South Asia was always based on the notion that the continent-sized country is the center of gravity for the region. Yet New Delhi’s domestic political compulsions are working at cross-purposes with its foreign-policy interests.

The government in New Delhi seems to think it can pursue its majoritarian domestic policies without having to worry about their international fallout. Yet as Hasina’s recent finger-pointing at New Delhi shows, the region – home to about a quarter of humanity – is getting increasingly exasperated. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.