Bangla violence can spark competitive communalism in South Asia

Instead of holding up the benefits that secularism has brought for India, the gains are being frittered away by a religion-driven agenda that has the potential to turn the South Asian region into a communal cauldron

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Indian PM Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. The governments of the two countries have much at stake | PTI File Photo

The attacks on the Hindu community in India’s neighbourhood during the recent Durga Puja celebrations are the first signs that the South Asian region may be slipping into what may be termed “competitive communalism”, given the rise of religion-driven politics from Afghanistan in the west, to Bangladesh in the east.

For much of the last seven decades, India, with its enviable secular credentials despite challenges, proved to be a spoilsport for communal groups active in South Asia. Since 2014, after the coming to power of the BJP’s Narendra Modi government and the concomitant rise in Hindu nationalism, India seems to have lost its high moral ground and its position as flag-bearer of secularism in the region.

The attacks by Muslim fundamentalists on the Hindu community in Bangladesh, though seemingly unrelated, is an inversion of how the minority Muslims in India have been intimidated by the majority Hindu groups backed by the ruling Sangh Parivar.

The appeal by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, not to do anything that would acerbate the communal violence in her country, needs to be seen in this context.   While the Indian government has understandably expressed concern over the attacks on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh, the proverbial elephant in the room is the possibility of retaliation by right-wing pro-Hindutva groups within India.

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The silver lining is that diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh have rarely been better. The governments of the two countries have much at stake and therefore the chances of violence on the rebound appear minimal at the moment.

Also read: Question mark on Awami League’s secular credentials a lesson for TMC

But the portents are not promising. Within India, though secularism is still a Constitutional mandate, in reality it has been hollowed out by the central government and several BJP-led state governments that have unabashedly followed a majoritarian agenda pushing the minorities on the defensive.

The instances are many, and multiplying. For example, the lynchings of Muslims in various parts of the country by Hindu vigilante mobs, legislation attempting to punish inter-faith marriages a.k.a. “love jehad” besides Hinduisation of Islamic names of streets, towns and villages.

What makes these instances appear sinister is the barely-concealed backing of the state, with few arrests and even fewer convictions of those involved in violence against minorities.

The government’s move to exclude Muslims migrants from neighbouring countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from the ambit of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) triggered social unrest before the Covid pandemic struck in 2020. Viewed in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the intention was suspect and seen as an attempt to disenfranchise large numbers of the Muslim community in the state, and later across the country.

Also read: Behind Bangladesh Durga Puja attacks, ‘conspiracy against Hasina govt’

All these state-backed moves in New Delhi have resulted in a weakening of the secular premise etched in the Indian Constitution.  The argument by right wing pro-Hindutva groups has always been:  why India should be secular when Pakistan and Bangladesh have chosen to be Islamic republics.

The answer to this is obvious. The experience of the last seven decades since Partition and India’s Independence has shown that despite the continuing hostility between Hindus and Muslims, except for rare situations like the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, communal relations have by and large been seamless and peaceful with a track record of integration that is the envy of the entire world.

Instead of holding up the benefits that secularism has brought for India, the gains are being frittered away by a religion-driven agenda that has the potential to turn the South Asian region into a communal cauldron.

With the Islamic-inspired Taliban too returning to power in Afghanistan, the situation is rather grim. Religious extremists on all sides in the region are waiting for an opportunity to thrust their beliefs and grab power that is already hurting democracy and freedom that the subcontinent fought hard for.

In the case of Bangladesh, the Sheikh Hasina government and the ruling Awami League is fighting with its back to the wall against communal groups led by the Jamaat-e-Islami, who have shown they will not hesitate to subvert the country’s rule of law in the quest for power.

Though it is a trifle early to figure out what vested interests were behind the current round of attacks on the Hindu community in Bangladesh, preliminary reports talk of the arrest of an individual who deliberately stoked violence by falsely claiming desecration of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, at a Durga Puja pandal.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been a lost cause for any kind of secular politics particularly since the time of President Zia-ul-Haq, who in the 1980s Islamised much of the country’s legal system. The infamous blasphemy law, for instance, has been used blatantly as a tool to target innocent minorities including Christians and Hindus. Besides this, the forcible conversions of Hindu women to Islam and marrying them to Muslim grooms have also been rising in recent years.

The recent return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and the reversal of secularism there is sending tremors of fear across large sections of women, minorities and moderate Afghans who fear the worst. The country has already been renamed as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The neutralising factor in the South Asian region, for all these years, has been a secular India that by law does not allow discrimination of anyone based on their religion.

Also read: Sheikh Hasina: Gritty stateswoman who steered Bangladesh to prosperity is 75

But the rise of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh and the lurking threat of Islamic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan has the potential to intensify communal politics in India with pro-Hindutva groups attempting to compete with the worst in the neighbourhood.

The result could be a vicious cycle of inter-communal violence, with each group feeding off the other. This is bound to extract an unimaginable price, unless there is a conscious push by well-meaning sections for moderation in India, even if that is not possible elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

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