Once again, xenophobia got the better of reason
The quality of political discourse has been in steep decline of late in India. Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has accused the very reputed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) of waging war against India.
And that is not all. In a recent broadside against Rahul Gandhi, who described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a chowkidar who has turned into a chor -- a sentry who is now a thief -- Sitharaman let out the tweet that the entire family of the Congress president was a bunch of thieves.
“Rahul Gandhi ka khandan chor hai,” as she put it.
Gandhi’s ire at the prime minister was aroused by what has come to be known as the Rafale affair, implicating the government in a questionable purchase of 36 Rafale jets for the air force from France. The firm authorized to handle the purchase was Anil Ambani’s Reliance group. Apparently the Indian authorities attempted to depict the choice of Reliance as a French initiative.
That prompted a quick retort from Francois Hollande, who was French president in 2015 when he and Modi met in summitry, to the effect that his government had no choice over the Reliance decision. Indeed, said a statement from Hollande’s office, it was the Indians who proposed the name.
Sitharaman apart, prominent political figures in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been causing tremors in the South Asian region. Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, has been speaking of his worries over “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. In his reflections on the subject, he focuses on the tens of thousands of Bengalis from Bangladesh, in his view, who have infiltrated India and taken up jobs which could well have gone to Indians.
In an age of increasing xenophobia, all the way from Donald Trump’s America to increasingly right-wing-dominated Europe to Hindutva India, such outlandish nationalism is only to be expected. But what did shock people in India and Bangladesh was the facile manner in which Amit Shah referred to “illegal” Bangladeshis as termites who needed to be picked one by one and flung out of India.
His tone was one of fury, an attitude which Indian politicians usually reserve for Pakistanis. But describing Bangladeshis as having entered India in unauthorized manner and insulting them as termites hits a new low even for the BJP.
Our sense of history reminds us, in light of Amit Shah’s termite-related politics, of the evil which Rwanda’s Hutus perpetrated against its Tutsis in 1994. The Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches which needed to be crushed if Rwanda was to be a pure country for its majority Hutus.
What followed was predictable: Within a matter of days, as many as 800,000 Tutsis were done to death through a cheerful wielding of knives and machetes. The pogrom would not have stopped had Paul Kagame, himself a Tutsi, not entered Kigali forcefully in triumph and steered the country back to a semblance of civilized order.
In Rwanda today, no one can speak of those dark times without feeling deep pain over the cockroach approach to murder. And now, we have men like Amit Shah spot in their advocacy of a nationalism that has been a subtle but absolute rejection of the political liberalism which underscored India till the advent of the BJP administration in Delhi.
For Bangladesh, the truth today centres around factors which call for vigorous diplomacy on its part to be handled. The BJP government in Assam has already muddied the waters through coming forth with the ill-advised National Register of Citizens, a weapon which, once it has identified real Indian citizens in the state, will go after those whose names did not make it to the NRC.
Once again, xenophobia got the better of reason when the Assam authorities coolly informed the world that as many as 4,000,000 illegal migrants from Bangladesh had been identified. The implication was not hard to miss: These 4,000,000 people are now aliens, foreigners, or interlopers who cannot stay in India but will have to leave it.
And go where? Silly question, that. There is Bangladesh, which is their home, say these purveyors of the new politics playing out in India. And what if Bangladesh refuses to accept them as its own, indeed, seals its borders with Assam?
That last question has not had a response, save for some right-wing Indian politicians to suggest that they will try to convince Bangladesh into accepting these 4,000,000 people whose names are missing on the NRC. It really does not matter for the Assam authorities that among the individuals whose names have not figured on the NRC and who now face the prospect of becoming stateless are a former chief minister of the state, and a Muslim at that, and a former judge of the High Court.
Topping it all are the innumerable cases of Indians whose ancestors have lived, worked, and died in Assam for generations, and who have the documents to prove that they are not Bengalis.
Their stories have not been taken into consideration. For the BJP-wallahs in Assam, they are Bengalis from Bangladesh who have lived, married, and worked in the state in illegal manner and must now have their comeuppance.
Amit Shah’s termite politics has taken a big page out of Assam’s NRC textbook. One cannot be quite sure others in India will not follow in his footsteps.
For Bangladesh, already burdened with the weight of over a million Rohingya on its frail shoulders, the imperative today is for an initiation and practice of smart diplomacy.
With Aung San Suu Kyi and her generals cheerfully putting the finishing touches to the genocide against the Rohingyas; with Assam’s NRC stealthily working away to deport 4,000,000 of its people on flimsy grounds; and now with a leading politician of the ruling BJP coming down hard on the illegal migrants issue, policy-makers in Bangladesh have a tough job on their hands.
They need all the ingenuity and all the diplomatic skills they can muster in reassuring their people that matters will not go out of hand.
Will they do that? Can they do that?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.