In both Bangladesh and India, nationalism is historically rooted
Now that India’s secularism is degenerating into one of competitive Hindutva, it is being seen as the Pakistanization of Indian politics.
Even the liberal fringe of Pakistan, ever unhappy with all that has been happening in that country, looks at it that way. A video clip that went viral some time ago lamented: “Alas, you too turned out to be like us” (in Urdu: Aap bhi harmare jaise nikle).
But this comparison is only partly true. In reality, India resembles Bangladesh, with so many commonalities. Most importantly, in both the countries, nationalism is historically rooted. Besides, they are constitutionally secular, but have robust majoritarian personas, secularism, and communalism acrimoniously coexisting. There are sizable minorities in both, 15% Muslims in India while there are 9% Hindus in Bangladesh.
None of these is valid for Pakistan, and particularly, in terms of nationhood, Bangladesh has a better score. National language-wise it is a textbook case, almost all speak Bangla. Sociologist Ramakrishna Mukherjee argued that had the British rule not intervened, a Bengali nationality was almost in place by the end of the 18th century.
Their easy-going “sahajiya” religion was a blending of Islam and Hinduism. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was considered an avatar of Allah who was invoked through such epithets as prabhu, gosain, or niranjan, all Bengali words.
It was only in the aftermath of the combined Hindu-Muslim revolt of 1857 against the East India Company that such words were replaced by the Arabic ones aimed at dividing the Muslims and the Hindus.
The rest is history. Not only that the Muslim League was launched in Dhaka, East Bengal became its dominant base too. No surprise that these people would rise in revolt in 1971 against the hijacking of their politics by those sitting in West Pakistan, who had little justification to be in command.
Post-1947 India and post-1971 Bangladesh had interesting similarities. If a critical element of the Congress-led freedom struggle of India was its inter-communal partnership, it was almost the same for the Awami League’s strategy during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Just the way the British tried its best to disrupt the Hindu-Muslim unity, in the same fashion, the Yahya Khan-led Pakistani junta tried to give the impression that the Bangladesh war was the handiwork of Hindu India.
To underline the point, Bangladesh’s Hindu community was specifically targeted in the beginning, impelling them to flee to India in droves. That explains why about 90% of the refugees in the beginning were Hindu. Curiously, or, predictably, the British and Pakistani policies ended up in the respective divisions of the countries.
But because of the heritage of their liberation struggles, both India and Bangladesh opted for secularism as their state policies.
But in multi-faith Third World nations, where state formation precedes nation formation, secularism is not an easy proposition.
Notwithstanding their constitutional commitments, therefore, both India and Bangladesh succeeded only partially to adhere to the principle.
Bangladesh amended and re-amended its constitution to renege and restore its secularist position. India has not done anything like that so far, but one is not sure anymore. The way the militantly ascendant Hindutva forces are asking for a Hindu rashtra, the days of India’s secularism could be numbered.
The only saving grace for both India and Bangladesh is that because of historical reasons, both the forces of secularism and communalism think that it is politically prudent to go slow, thereby reconciling themselves to coexist however antagonistically or competitively.
The cumulative effect of these processes is that both India and Bangladesh have become semi-secular and semi-communal. This is evident in the way the secular Congress or the secular AL have conceded to communal demands of the respective majority communities.
Thus, while the memories of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are necessary for the political use of secularism for grass-root vote bank requirements, they have to be shelved also. Even Sheikh Mujib had to make compromises in respect of secularism. Nehru steadfastly stuck to his credo, but he seemed helpless when, at the grassroot, his party foot soldiers asked for votes in the name of Hinduism.
His lament in this regard is well-known. His daughter Indira Gandhi, his grandson Rajiv Gandhi, and now his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi all have underscored this reality through their electoral strategies. The same is true for Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina in the Bangladesh context, or her secular opponents.
In conclusion, let it be said that in both India and Bangladesh, it is not only politics that is being communized -- even secularism is being politicized. In response to the BJP government’s pro-Hindu move to flag off a Shri Ramayana Express meant for transporting Hindu pilgrims from Delhi to Sitamarhi, Janakpur (Nepal), Varanais, Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram (all Lord Ram-related pilgrimages), the avowedly secular Aam Admi Party (AAP) government of Delhi has responded by a secular blitzkrieg.
To placate all the religious groups, the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal has launched the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra. The offer is open to any senior citizen belonging to any religion to visit the Golden Temple, Wagah border, Anandpur Sahib, Vaishnodevi-Jammu, Mathura, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Nilkanth, Pushkar, and Ajmer, of course at subsidized cost.
Bravo India’s political ingenuity. Is Bangladesh taking notes?
Partha S Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.