The BJP has been in power before, but its agenda was not as divisive as it is today
The eruption of protests across the length and breadth of India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a momentous occasion. Much of the protests have been peaceful. On Thursday, protestors in New Delhi were offering roses to police officers.
However, there have been numerous instances of police brutality. Three people were reported killed as of Thursday night, including in Lucknow and Mangalore.
The celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha was attacked in Bengaluru in violation of his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly guaranteed in the Indian constitution and under international law.
India, Bangladesh, and several countries in South Asia share similar constitutional ideals, including the principles of democracy, equality, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and other civil liberties. There is an unprecedented strain and threat on these common values.
In Bangladesh, the CAA and NRC have been a cause of alarm. The fear is that the CAA and NRC can be combined to exclude Indian ethnic and religious minorities from their right to citizenship.
Such a dangerous combination in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal may result in an influx of refugees into Bangladesh. As a nation already reeling from a refugee crisis caused by Myanmar, the prospect of further demographic pressure caused by our largest neighbour is difficult to swallow.
The Indian government has often assured the Bangladeshi government that the CAA and NRC are internal Indian affairs which would not affect the strong relationship between the two countries. Despite these assurances, the Indian home minister labelled Bangladesh as a religious persecutor during the parliamentary debate on the CAA.
His statement cast a clear doubt on the commitment of the Indian government to not let internal matters affect bilateral relations.
Understandably, the Bangladeshi government raised objections. Even the Bangladeshi opposition objected to the assertion of state-sponsored persecution under past governments.
During the CAA debate in the Indian parliament, many BJP lawmakers were mischaracterizing Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh as theocracies. Ironically, these lawmakers are part of the wider Saffron movement seeking to convert India from a secular state into a so-called Hindu state.
The truth is that Bangladesh enshrines secularism in its constitution. Freedom of religion and the equality of religious practitioners and the non-religious are guaranteed by the constitution.
There are indeed challenges to religious freedom. But the Bangladeshi republic has put a premium on religious pluralism ever since the country’s inception.
National holidays include Eid, Durga Puja, Buddha’s birthday, and Christmas. An iconic poster of the Liberation Movement in 1971 proclaimed “Bengal’s Hindu, Bengal’s Buddhist, Bengal’s Christian, Bengal’s Muslim, We Are All Bengalis.”
In the same vein today, whether we are Bangladeshi Muslims, Bangladeshi Christians, Bangladeshi Buddhists, or Bangladeshi Hindus, we are all Bangladeshis.
In the case of Pakistan, there is still space for secularism and parliamentary democracy within a dual system of theocratic and secular laws. Obviously, Pakistan should find its own path to strengthen respect for human rights and secular democracy.
The government of Afghanistan continues to be a moderate Muslim government that regards India as a strategic ally.
India played a profound role in supporting the liberation of Bangladesh. Today, our brethren in India are faced with the onslaught of a fascist agenda that seeks to undermine the inherent diversity of India. We in Bangladesh must stand in solidarity with our Indian brethren for justice and liberty.
The deficits of Indian democracy must be addressed as should deficits in all South Asian democracies. Although the rules of the CAA are yet to be implemented, the text of the legislation is “fundamentally discriminatory” according to the United Nations human rights office.
The NRC process has involved the internment of Indian citizens on flimsy grounds of alleged illegal immigration. Many of the people affected by the NRC process have been the most downtrodden people in Indian society.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir after the abolition of Article 370 of the Indian constitution has been a cause of grave concern for the international community. Political prisoners now include former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, along with leaders of civil society and ordinary Indian citizens.
After decades of neglect and draconian militarization, the pent up grievances of Northeast India were on display during protests against the citizenship amendment law.
Indian citizens are aggrieved at the intense divisive agenda pursued by Indian premier Narendra Modi. This stands in sharp contrast to previous Indian governments since independence.
It is a sharp departure from the ideals of pluralism and tolerance espoused by the first Indian premier Jawaharlal Nehru. The BJP also came to power before. But its agenda was not as divisive as it is today.
Perhaps, the leaders of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives should take it upon themselves and advise the Indian premier to not play with fire. We need to fight for common values. We cannot endanger peace and stability in South Asia.
The Modi regime and its cohorts have overplayed identity politics. The focus should be on poverty eradication, economic freedom, ease of doing business, respect for due process, universal human rights, civil liberties, infrastructure development, regional cooperation, counter-terrorism, and democratic solidarity.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.