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‘The Bangladeshi Is a fervent believer in democracy’

  • Published at 04:04 pm April 11th, 2021
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Photo: SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Deb Mukharji discusses the history of India and Bangladesh relations -- and what lies ahead

India’s former High Commissioner to Bangladesh Deb Mukharji is one of India’s finest diplomats, a recognized expert on South Asia, an Indian Foreign Service officer recognized for his deep commitment to strengthening India and her relations with the world, in particular her neighbours. For Ambassador Mukharji, foreign policy does not come without compassion and sensitivity, and his immense knowledge of Bangladesh shines through his interview.

You have been High Commissioner to Bangladesh and you know the country well -- has democracy ebbed within even more than before. In short, is the Mujibur Rahman idea of Bangladesh turning sour?

Short answer is that from its days in East Pakistan till now, the Bangladeshi has been a fervent believer in democracy. It is the denial of democratic rights that led to the break-up of Pakistan. It is an article of faith with him. I would not bring Sheikh Mujib in the democracy debate. 

Unfortunately, under the compulsions of the circumstances then, he had to declare a one-party state. The issue in the past decades, and now, is not that of less democracy, as in electoral democracy. And yes, there have been restrictions curbing freedoms, but this is less than in some other countries in South Asia, including India.

The issue is not democracy, however described, but that the ethos of Bangladesh which Mujib represented and for which their freedom fighters fought and died, a liberal, inclusive Bangladesh, has been eroded by a succession of governments led by political parties coming from the womb of the cantonment which have attempted to re-Pakistanize Bangladesh. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been a successful push back both by civil society and the present government.

The recent violence in Bangladesh, in which protestors died in police firing during PM Modi’s visit, will bring the Awami League under pressure insofar as relations with India are concerned. Take away more of the bargaining chips from Sheikh Hasina as it were. Your comments please.

You are absolutely right. India has recklessly and cynically permitted its divisive internal politics to affect its relations with Bangladesh. As members of her government have said, they too have to take public opinion into account. 

I think the prime minister of Bangladesh has shown great commitment to improved relations with India, which she perceives to be in her national interest. But looking at the public reaction to Modi's visit to Bangladesh, which has included different shades of the political spectrum and not just an Islamic right wing, one must feel concerned about the future.

Has radicalization grown at a faster pace in Bangladesh over the years? If so, why?

I don't believe it has done so in a linear pattern. It would depend on state support or inaction.

Islam in Bangladesh has Sufi origins and that is reflected in its practice in the countryside. But if this is the majority persuasion, there is a hard Islam that also coexists and has been there for centuries. This included disdain for Bengali and love for Arabic which prompted a Muslim Bengali poet to write at the end of the 17th century, “he who knows not his mother tongue knows not the name of his father.”

There have been spurts of Islamic radicalization in past centuries, but as understood now is a relatively recent global phenomenon, involving economic and political causes. I think its ebb and flow depends on the degree of government support/collusion. Rabita funding, return home of mujahideen from the Afghan jihad, use of radicalized youth for political purposes are all contributory factors.

As far as Bangladesh is concerned, support of a feckless state led to eminent journalist Hiranmay Karlekar writing “Bangladesh, the Next Afghanistan?” in 2005. At the book release, I had commented that it may be too early to judge and the question mark to the title has been justified by the experience of the past 10 years where a determined government has kept such elements largely in check, the horror of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery notwithstanding. 

But there would be determined actors waiting in burrows for an opportune time. All I can say is that Islamic radicalism is not native to Bangladesh. But then, neither is Hindu fundamentalism native to India!

History may well judge India to be an additional factor in the radicalization of Bangladesh. The growth of right-wing Hindu fundamentalism in India and the attacks on minorities would be an encouragement to corresponding Muslim radicalization in Bangladesh.

Teesta waters ... the never-ending controversy. What was your advice on the same when you were the High Commissioner?

As joint secretary in MEA in the early 80s, I had been associated with the interim sharing accord (39:India, 36:Bangladesh, 25:river flow, to be determined) which came about in 1983. My initial years as HC (1995-2000) were concerned with the Farakka Agreement. I think both countries were taking a deep breath after this exercise was over. 

Meanwhile, with the completion of the barrage on Teesta on the Bangladesh side in the late 90s, some of the parameters and expectations changed. Later, upstream construction of reservoirs in Sikkim further complicated matters. 

In my view, the eventual agreement arrived at between Delhi and Dhaka, which was rejected by West Bengal in 2011, is reasonable. An upper riparian cannot claim complete security, disregarding and at the expense of apparently legitimate requirements of the lower riparian.

Would you like to comment on the controversy surrounding the CAA and the condition of minorities in Bangladesh?

At Partition, leaders on both sides had hoped that there would be no large-scale movement of populations in the East as was happening in the West. In April 1950, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan signed the Nehru-Liaquat Pact embodying these expectations. 

However, periodic communal riots on both sides of the border did lead to movement of peoples. It is believed that the Hindu refugees from East Pakistan did not receive adequate support from the government of India. The percentage of Hindus in the population of East Pakistan/Bangladesh was 27% in 1947, coming down to 13% in 1971. According to the 2011 census it was 8.5%.

There was expectation that after the independence of Bangladesh, Hindus would have greater security. This was belied after the military takeover and the rule of Ziaur Rahman after 1976, a period I happened to have observed firsthand. Around that time, the religious minorities in Bangladesh formed the Hindu-Boudha-Christian-Oikya parishad (HBCOP). This organization had probably limited success in later years in putting forward issues concerning all minorities.

At Delhi in the early 90s, I had seen a statement issued by the then emir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, late Ghulam Azam, promising Hindus all security and legal protection if they agreed to separate electorates. Removing the Hindu vote from influencing the result of elections meant either encouraging them to migrate or subjecting them to violence. 

There is graphic and documented evidence about how this was done after the 2001 elections by the BNP and the Jamaat, even though they had won the ballot. Humayun Azad's “Pak Sar Zameen Saad Bad,” a line from the Pakistan national anthem, is a horrific, even if perhaps fictitious, account of 2001.

But in terms of actual outmigration, the major factor may have been the enemy/vested property act lingering from the 1965 Indo- Pak war. This was finally struck down in 2010 and its results could be reflected in the next census. While I do not have the statistics at hand, I believe that, under the present government, minorities in Bangladesh have adequate job opportunities and physical security. Certainly, no public denigration of minorities is conceivable, as is becoming the norm in India.

As far as the CAA is concerned, you might be aware that I and many others have writs pending before the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality. I also believe that the CAA conjoined with the NRC may justifiably be construed by Muslims of India as a perpetual question mark on their nationality. 

There is at present no outmigration of Hindus from Bangladesh to justify the Act. If individual cases have to be dealt with at all, this can be done by administrative measures.

At a time when, for 10 years, the government of Bangladesh has taken demonstrable steps to provide security to the minorities, the CAA, implying their insecurity, can understandably be construed as offensive. Most importantly, by accepting Hindus in Bangladesh as an especially-favoured category for immigration, their loyalty to their motherland is being brought into question. The consequences of this do not seem to have been thought through.

CAA 2019 looks like a reflection of Israel's Law of Return, however pale, and Hindutva's bow to Judaism. The critical damage of converting jus soli to jus sanguinis had already been done by other previous governments without considering consequences.

And last, the immigration issue. Hasn’t that come in the way of bettering relations with Bangladesh in a big way? How real and serious is it?

There has been illegal migration of both Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh to India. For Muslims, the reasons have been economic and at times seasonal. For Hindus, there have been additional reasons of security.

The numbers are speculative and run into several millions. The main concern has been that Muslim immigration has caused demographic imbalances in Assam and in some areas of West Bengal. 

In the recent citizenship exercise in Assam following Supreme Court directives, the expectation was that the figures would match the hyped figures of illegal Muslim migrants. But facts proved otherwise, following which the whole exercise was scrapped.

In my experience, illegal migration from Bangladesh has been accepted, if not encouraged, for political ends by a variety of political parties in Bengal and Assam until recently. Others have encouraged migration for economic reasons. A bit like the Mexican orange pickers in the US. 

This remains a reality and many, if not most, have been provided identity documents by their hosts. To try to pick each individual illegal migrant may be a task beyond reach as the recent fiasco in Assam demonstrated. Given that Bangladesh has been now consistently outstripping India in economic performance, we may hopefully see an outward migration to redress the balance.

No, I don't think the issue as such is getting in the way of better relations. Hyping the issue for our internal political purposes and use of intemperate language, might well.

Seema Mustafa is the Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen. A version of this article previously appeared in The Citizen and has been reprinted by special arrangement. 

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