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A challenge to Bangladesh’s secular polity

  • Published at 12:06 am December 11th, 2019
Assam-NRC
Photo: AFP

Why did the Indian defense minister so grossly mischaracterize Bangladesh? 

Bangladesh’s government was assured time and again that the controversial Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC), specially made for identification of illegal Muslims from Bangladesh residing in Assam state, would not jeopardize bilateral relations between the two neighbouring countries.

The race to table and pass the Non-Muslim Citizenship Bill or Citizenship Amendment Bill by the Indian parliament, allegedly to make a demographic shift, seems to migration experts to be an issue for Bangladesh to be embarrassed about.

The bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees -- Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Parsis -- from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan if they have fled their respective country due to religious persecution.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi pioneered this bill as one of its priorities upon assuming power in 2014.

In an interview broadcast on India Today TV and Aajtak TV, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh stated that the three countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) are “theocratic Islamic states” and “minorities are facing harassment.” Their “state religion is Islam.”

Rajnath Singh told Rahul Kanwal, news director, India Today and Aajtak on December 9, that the bill is for the people of Indian origin living in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where Muslims are not persecuted.

TV interviewer Rahul Kanwal argued with Rajnath Singh that the Baloch and the Ahmadiyya Muslims are also persecuted in Pakistan, why are they left out? 

He nonchalantly responded that they (Baloch and Ahmadiyya) are Muslims and India has no role to play.

The TV journalist did not hesitate to snap that the ruling party is following the footsteps of Jinnah’s infamous two-nation theory dividing united India into Hindu and Muslim states, which plunged the nation in chaos and crisis.

The influential BJP leader contradicted himself and said: “BJP respects the Indian constitution. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion.”

“There is no contradiction in this bill, India is a secular state. We are not looking at it through a religious lens.” He reiterated that the bill is for the people who are of Indian origin, living in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and are facing persecution.

The shocking remark was made in December when the nation finally established a secular, democratic, and pluralist society after the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Such an outrageous remark was unexpected from a senior leader like Rajnath Singh who had made an official visit to Bangladesh on July 14, 2018, and had an audience with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.

The top official of the Indian government must have understood that the state constitution is still secular.

Since 2009, Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League and her government strictly believes in a secular polity.

Therefore, it should have been difficult for Rajnath Singh to misread Sheikh Hasina’s government’s pluralist polity.

We are not denying that the Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Adivasis (indigenous people), and also Ahmadiyya Muslims are sporadically attacked by religious zealots, who often slam the minorities for blasphemy. 

The AL government promptly took action against the perpetrators. The law enforcement agencies, local leaders, and civil society remained vigilant against such religious bigots to resist the vandalism of religious minorities’ properties and desecration of temples.

Simultaneously interfaith, secularism, and conflict resolving dialogues are held in vulnerable regions of the country. 

Also, PM Hasina has urged the imams and religious leaders to carry the message of tolerance and peace enshrined in the religion of Islam.

Still, now there is no official reaction to the statement of India’s top official. Such a prompt reaction is not expected from the political leaders of Bangladesh, nor the authorities.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Hellman-Hammett Award.