This month, Bangladesh saw the sudden eruption of communal violence triggered by the alleged desecration of Muslims’ holy Quran in a Hindu worship structure. The incident was followed by vandalism and arson attacks targeting the religious minority in some areas of Bangladesh.
Many discussions of the communal violence – the worst episode Bangladesh has seen in decades – seemed to assume that communal vengeance is organically embedded in Bangladesh’s societal fabric. But viewing the tragedy through a wider lens, with a focus on the connected destiny of South Asia, rebuts this conventional assumption to a great extent.
A shared history – consumed with the colonial legacy and conceived out of religious division – still haunts South Asia. Given these deep-seated sensitivities, any awful episode that unfolds in one part of the region will echo across borders, and in the long run leads to fatal repercussions. What happened in Bangladesh is thus inextricably linked to regional trends. Most notably, the renewed resurgence of Hinduism in the political domain of neighboring India has been reshaping public narratives and feeding fundamentalist fringes across the South Asian region. Whether in India, Bangladesh, or elsewhere, radical forces bank on regional commonality and “spill-over sensitivity” to foment violence for their own ends.
A Haunted History
“Divide and rule” – the underlying schismatic principle of British colonial rule in the subcontinent – underpins the skepticism and even antagonism among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It would be wrong to assume that pre-colonial societies in the Indian subcontinent were monolithic in nature; rather as historical evidence shows, the dividing lines among different religions were somewhat obscure. But the client-patron policy played out over religious identity by colonial masters, especially in their sunset decades, had brought those lines to the surface. It ultimately led to the partition of the subcontinent on religious lines in 1947. That festering scar caused by colonial schism is still taking a toll on the nations created out of the partition.
South Asia, as it stands today, it a bit of a puzzle in modern international relations. With its countries sharing a high degree of commonality regarding history, geographical proximity, and cultural affinity, this geographical entity could have been more coherent and collective, with a shared destiny. History, however, took a different path, and the Partition resulted in a wellspring of enmity, based on religious lines, that has yes to run dry. Ironically, however, the proximity and porousness among the South Asian nations keeps them connected in a more twisted way. The communal tensions or violent incidents in any other state are very likely to spill over to the others.
To delve deep into what has happened in Bangladesh, one needs to take this “spill-over tendency” into account.
The Unintended Consequences of Hindutva
As the biggest country in South Asia, what happens in India causes a paramount ripple effect across the region, for better or for worse. This is especially true for Bangladesh, given the number of historical and cultural links, as well as the strong bilateral relationship built over the 50 years since Bangladesh’s independence.
India contributed much to the independence struggle of Bangladesh against Pakistan in 1971. This shared history and the common historical bitterness toward Pakistan brought both countries closer and contributed to the consolidation of their bilateral relationship over the decades on every dynamic. The mutual agreement in 2015 over the resolution of 70-year-long border dispute further invigorated the relationship between two nations and set the motion toward more future advancement.
But there is a dark side as well. India in recent time has started to backslide into a blistering path of nationalism fraught with ultra-Hinduism. This has had an undeniable impact on India’s diplomacy by eroding people-to-people trust and sense of togetherness with its Muslim-majority neighbors. The gradual devolution on the part of India into a nationalistic path inflamed by “Hindutva” or “Hindu First” ideology is a clear threat to bilateral relations built on both strong leader ties and people-to-people connections.
For example, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, a controversial anti-Muslim law drafted by the current BJP-led government and passed in the Indian Parliament, is a clear demonstration of India’s gradual democratic backsliding and fateful deviation from its long-held secular stance. The act, which offered citizenship to religious minorities fleeing Muslim-majority neighbors, was widely seen as part of a broader BJP agenda to marginalize Muslim minorities living in India. What’s more, the act showed a stunning lack of discernment on India’s part, as New Delhi apparently did not foresee the reactionary developments in the public discourses of its Muslim majority neighbors.
To add more, the National Register of Citizens for Assam, another discriminatory BJP-led initiative targeting Bengali-speaking Muslim living in Assam has caused huge shock-wave across the neighboring states of India, especially in Bangladesh, which borders Assam. The NRC is feeding the both nationalist and fundamentalist fringes in India as well as Bangladesh. Inflaming the old Assamese nationalism blended with newly injected Hinduism, the BJP leadership has continuously threatening to push Bengali-speaking Muslim people toward Bangladesh, terming them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Even the recently held provincial election in West Bengal has substantially alienated the public sphere in Bangladesh. The vitriolic electioneering language voiced by the BJP leadership against Muslims and Bangladesh indirectly fed the fundamentalist narrative in Bangladesh. That, in turn, soured the public temperament against the Hindu minority living in Bangladesh.
Reframing Communal Violence as a Regional Problem
Bangladesh-India relations are deeply significant thanks to their inherent affinities in terms of history, culture, and geographical proximity. Given the great degree of commonality and connected destiny between the two countries, it ought to be remembered that a flame being ignited in one state causes warmth to be felt in others.
What has happened in Bangladesh – violent attacks against Bangladesh’s own people – was gruesome by any measure, and the people along with the government cannot evade accountability.
But treating the communal violence in Bangladesh as an isolated incident, one exclusively confined within its geography, will lead to an overly parochial discernment. We must not obscure the long-standing reality that communal tensions in one country inevitable spill over into the others. When South Asian politicians scratch the old historical scar, it strengthens the logic of Partition and reinforces that historical tragedy. This is the path, ultimately, to collective doom.
South Asia should more strongly hold onto the axiom articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”