On April 13, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that Bangladeshis “infiltrate” into India because they don’t get food back home. Shah’s comments were part of an Anandabazaar Patrika interview, given on the campaign trail in West Bengal, where both the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) are currently running neck-to-neck in state elections, poised for a seemingly dramatic finish on May 2.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, on April 14, responded by saying the comment was “sad, unacceptable” behavior on Shah’s part. “There are many wise people in the world who do not see even after looking, and do not understand, even after knowing,” Momen told Prothom Alo. “But if he (Shah) has said something like that, I would say his knowledge about Bangladesh is very limited,” the foreign minister added.
Shah’s April 13 comments only added to a backdrop of threats and abuses hurled at Bangladesh by BJP politicians in the past few years. At a public rally in February at Bongaon, the Indian home minister asserted that even a bird wouldn’t be able to enter India from Bangladesh if the BJP is voted into power in West Bengal. Further back in February last year, Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy claimed that Bangladesh would be half empty if India allowed everyone who entered the country illegally to claim citizenship; his ministry has, however, claimed that illegal trespassing dropped by half to 955 between 2016 and 2019. The current government in India has also conceded they do not have accurate data regarding illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Even further back on April 11, 2019, referring to illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites,” Shah said the BJP would throw them out after coming to power in nationwide elections that year.
Bengali Regionalism Meets Hindu Nationalism
Bangladesh has always been an important discussion point in the West Bengal elections since Mamata Banerjee-led TMC took power in 2011. West Bengal cover around 2,216 kilometers of border between the two countries. Bangladesh and West Bengal share a vibrant culture, climate, and language.
However, this time around, the BJP has largely focused on painting Bangladesh as negatively as possible to woo Hindu voters in the state. For instance, the recently released BJP election campaign video titled “Didi you do not love us” was dominated by paper cuttings, photographs, and news clips showing reports on minority repression in Bangladesh, police action against Islamic outfits in the country, footage of guerrilla fighters from the Middle East fighting under the banner of the Islamic State, and images of cattle smuggling. In a January 23 program marking the 124th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – attended by both Banerjee and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the incumbent West Bengal chief minister left the stage chanting “Joy Bangla, Jai Hind” in protest, as a response to BJP men shouting “Jai Shri Ram” slogans from the audience. BJP’s West Bengal chapter President Dilip Ghosh immediately wrote on his Facebook page, “Honourable (Mamata) is fighting for greater Bangladesh,” with multiple BJP wings referring to “Joy Bangla” as a “Muslim Bengal” slogan.
On the other hand, however, Modi’s recent visit to Dhaka to celebrate Bangladesh’s 50 years of independence couldn’t be more politically poignant and symbolically charged. On the second day of the visit, Modi traveled to the birthplace shrine of Harichand Thakur – the founder of the Matua sect – in Orakandi, Gopalganj, making him the first Indian prime minister to ever do so. The highly political move sought to paint the BJP in a favorable light for the 15 million voters of the politically active Matua community in West Bengal, according to Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in India.
Reportedly, the Matua community has a decisive hold on 30 out of the 294 assembly constituencies, with an indirect influence in around 63 more seats all over West Bengal. In the past three years, votes in TMC-dominated West Bengal have changed drastically. In comparison to the 10 percent of the vote it won in the last West Bengal state elections, the BJP secured 40.3 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Instrumental in this change is the Matua sect – who once helped Mamata Banerjee to power in 2011 – already swayed by Modi’s Lok Sabha election promise to grant members of the community citizenship through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
From Bangladesh’s perspective, a BJP win means New Delhi cannot shift blame onto Banerjee for stalling the Teesta water-sharing treaty negotiations. However, Banerjee, recently in a March 7 Siliguri election rally, responded that the central government never engaged the West Bengal administration to renew talks regarding the water-sharing treaty, further highlighting uncertainty over the most enduring discussion point in Bangladesh-India relations.
The costs associated with a BJP win, however, are seemingly massive. M. Humayun Kabir, a career diplomat who served as deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh in Kolkata between 1999 and 2001, believes a BJP-run West Bengal will bring overwhelming problems for Bangladesh. The country is already surrounded by BJP governments in Tripura and Assam. The addition of West Bengal risks the rise of Hindu nationalism around the borders, which can likely snowball into communal violence in the Bangladeshi areas near the borders.
Kabir also believes a BJP government will likely implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC), de-registering a large population in West Bengal who migrated from Bangladesh after 1947 and leaving them with no choice but to flee West Bengal as refugees. To make matters worse, the BJP’s West Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh, at a rally in the state’s North 24 Parganas in 2020, threatened to expel 5 million Muslim “infiltrators,” who are likely to vote for Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), further splitting Trinamool’s vote bank.
The BJP’s identity-based political tactics are not new, but the frequency of jabs directed at Banerjee and the TMC – on account of her alleged soft spot for Bangladesh – is likely to cause a moderate strain in the relations between the two countries, especially if the BJP is brought into power in West Bengal. While the opinion polls predict a Trinamool Congress win, Banerjee and her party find themselves facing up to the results day with unease, amid unprecedented unpredictability.