Conflict Alerts # 43, 11 March 2020
In the news
In the wake of the proposed visit by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to join the celebrations marking Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's birth centenary in Bangladesh, thousands gathered in protests on the streets of Dhaka on 6 March. The protests in Dhaka had broken out criticizing India's Prime Minister's nonchalant handling of the Delhi riots. One of the protesting outfits gave a call to form a nationwide human chain on 12 March and urged protesters to take to the streets carrying black flags, shoes, brooms and wearing shrouds. As per the New Age Bangladesh (reported in the Indian Express), the protests were organized by Samamana Islami Dalgulo and Islami Andolan Bangladesh at the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque premises.
Modi's Dhaka visit on 17 March has presently been deferred as announced by the Indian External Affairs Ministry on 9 March. Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson for the ministry, has said that a formal notification from the Government of Bangladesh noted that public events have been deferred on account of the detection of cases of coronavirus in Bangladesh.
Issues at large
Although the Hasina government has called these protests as stray protests and chose to be silent on the thousands who marched in Dhaka demanding the cancellation of Modi's visit, the decision to defer the visit due to coronavirus outbreak seems like an attempt to scale down the anti-CAA rhetoric in Bangladesh. The opposition leader Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir, who is also the secretary-general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had questioned the timing of Modi's planned visit. Although BNP has time and again sought to flare anti-India sentiment, this is not in isolation. In December, Bangladesh had cancelled scheduled visits to India by Momen and home minister Asaduzzaman Khan amid speculations that the ruling party Awami League was unhappy at the Indian leadership's repeated references to the Bangladeshi migrant/infiltrators in Parliament debates on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The decision to defer the visit of the Indian PM came after Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka in the midst of the protests in all likelihood to take stock of the situation and also prepare the groundwork of possible treaty signing between the two countries that had been pending since the last visit of Hasina to New Delhi in 2019. Unequivocally, Momen said the Bangladesh government had been looking forward to Modi's visit eagerly as several key treaties on sharing the waters of six rivers, excluding the Teesta, which remains a thorn in bilateral relations were likely to be signed.
The proposed visit of Modi and the following protests in Dhaka comes at another crucial juncture in the neighbourhood- the domestic state elections in West Bengal. The issue of CAA and the influx of Bangladeshis has built the election rhetoric to the extent that the state now stands polarised between the ruling Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee and the BJP under the current home minister Amit Shah. The polarisation has created the ground where the current election campaigns in West Bengal have made frequent references to shared identity with Dhaka to an extent that in April 2019, two Bangladeshi actors -- Ferdous Ahmed and Ghazi Abdul Noor -- were asked to leave India for campaigning in the TMC rally violating their visa conditions. Bangladesh has called the incident "unfortunate", but also criticized India's reaction as "harsh." As the domestic issues in India impact the neighbourhood, the issues in the neighbourhood have had an equal impact within India.
First, time and again questions of illegal crossing of Bangladeshis have been used in the state elections of West Bengal to appease Hindu and Muslim vote banks for the two parties.
On 2 January, the Director-General of the Border Guards Bangladesh, Major General Shafeenul Islam, said that 445 Bangladeshis have returned from India in November and December thereby giving fuel to the BJP's narrative that the CAA is working in West Bengal. In addition, on 8 March when Amit Shah launched the party campaign in Kolkata, leading up to the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021, he harped solely on the CAA and how it would help Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. At the launch, the state BJP president gifted Shah a picture of Goddess Kali from the Ramna Kali Mandir in Dhaka, thereby sending home a strong message on how important the Bangladeshi migrant politics is for the BJP to win the election in West Bengal. The protests in Dhaka by the Islamist organization will give another fuel to drive home this note.
Second, the ruling party leader Mamata Banerjee is confused about her stance on CAA and NRC. If the NRC gave her an edge initially, now, Shah by avoiding the NRC issue has made it an overused tool. The CAA has made it difficult to prove her secular credentials to her Hindu voters since she has set a dangerous precedent of appeasing the Muslim vote bank for years. The Delhi riots and the anti-Modi rhetoric in the neighbourhood do give her a case in point. However, It remains to be seen how she moulds the election point over it.
Third, the protest in Dhaka has seen a merging of two important sentiments. While on one hand, the anti-Modi protests became a tool to express the anti-India sentiment, the anti-CAA protests also see a merging of the Bangla-Muslim identity swinging from secular to a linear and non-secular spectrum. This became clear when the resentment against India spread beyond the strong Islamist groups and organizations like the Alliance for Resistance of Terrorism and Communalism, a rights-based body that had fought against fundamentalism, joined the demonstrations in Dhaka.