Dear Narendra Babu,
I do not know if you were able to read the newspapers today. In Bangladesh, the country’s Supreme Court has ordered a Jamaat-e-Islami affiliate to vacate the house of legendary Bengali actress Suchitra Sen. The Sheikh Hasina government wants to convert the ancestral home of Sen in Pabna into a museum. However, the Jamaat affiliate has a problem with the whole idea. Of course a memorial dedicated to film stars would be considered blasphemy by puritanical Muslims. But the bigger issue seems to be Sen’s religion and nationality. Jamaat believes Sen doesn’t deserve an inch of land in Bangladesh in spite of being born in what is now Bangladesh and in spite of being a Bengali speaker.
As I read this piece of news, I was reminded of your election speech yesterday at Asonsol, not very far from my hometown, Dhanbad. You created a new definition for us – Bengali-speaking Indians. “Those who observe Durgashtami and speak Bengali, they are all our Mother India’s children. They will get the same respect just as any Indian,” you said.
Of course you will accuse me of being a ‘news trader’ if I do not read your statement in entire context. You were speaking about the Hindus who are facing prosecution in Bangladesh, mostly by Jamaat-i-Islami and its affiliates. I completely agree with you that they should be allowed to come over to India. Historically, India has given refuge to many who have been subjected to religious prosecution including Parsis from Iran, Tibetans and lately Rohingiyas Muslims from Myanmar.
But sir, I find your open invite a bit problematic. I think you have not travelled to Bangladesh or studied the country, or for that matter, the region, enough. Unlike your home state of Gujarat or the 6 crore (60 million) Gujaratis, Bengal or Bengalis (more than 250 million in Bangladesh and West Bengal, not counting Assam, Tripura and hundreds in other parts of the country and the world) have a very complicated history and perhaps an even more complicated identity politics. Language and culture plays a huge role in our identity. Religion, of course, like any other issue, matters too.
You are named after one of the greatest Bengalis of all time – Swami Vivekananda. As a child I grew up in household that strongly believed in the Goddess Kali. My grandmother was a member of the Ramakrishna Mission. Both my brother and I grew up with the ideology of “joto mot toto poth” (“there are as many paths as there are opinions”), perhaps the reason I had a smooth sailing through a Catholic School and a Muslim university (a few years ago you called my university – Jamia Millia Islamia – a breeding ground for terrorists).
Many Bengali leaders including Subhas Chandra Bose and your own party founder Shyama Prasad Mookherjee have been giants of the freedom struggle. In 1947, when the country was being divided on religious grounds, there was one section in Bengal which wanted a united country separately for Bengalis. When lines were finally drawn, there was again a section that wanted parts of today’s Assam to be included in the then East Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi intervened to stop such a move.
In 1971, we again saw an uprising in the region. Bengalis from Pakistan stood up against Urdu and Punjabi speaking Pakistanis. The language identity was so strong, an entire nation was created. Today, we call it Bangladesh. Hindu Bengalis were very much part of the Bangladeshi identity. But then, we saw a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. The secular constitution of the country was altered to include religion.
Since then we have seen a constant fight between the two sections of Bangladeshis (they do not prefer the term ‘Bengalis’). One section wants to convert the country into a Bengali version of Pakistan, the other wants to move towards an Indian model. The latter, led by Sheikh Hasina, is currently in power. I was there on the streets of Dhaka in February 2013, when young Bangladeshis gathered in millions, demanding the execution of the perpetrators of inhumane crimes of the Independence war of 1971 (supported by India). The strong undercurrent was for separation of religion from politics. Hasina has been cracking down on Islamists in Bangladesh and has even reinstated the original constitution.
Sir, I do not write this letter to preach to you about Bangladesh or Bengali history, but to look at the nuances of the situation in the region. I have reported from Assam as well, and travelled to the border areas between Bangladesh and Assam. Coming from a humble background, you will understand what poverty does to a man better than any Gandhi scion.
If you have the time, I would request you to visit the chars or river islands on the Brahmaputra River in Assam’s Dhubri district. It is full of poor Bengali Muslims. Most of them are tagged as Bangladeshis when they have been on the river for generations. No one asked them before dividing the land.
When you announce in your rallies that the Hindus in Bangladesh are suffering religious prosecution, I understand and even support your views. Incidents of Islamists vandalising Hindu temples and idols are common, unlike India, where there are sporadic instances where Hindu fringe elements vandalise churches.
Sir, in one of your interviews, speaking on foreign policy, you insisted on depending on professionals rather than ideology to frame a pragmatic policy. I would request you to take a similar approach on the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants and the country as such. Unlike our own country, where the religious right – Hindu and Muslim – including your own party have accepted the secular constitution, same is not the case in Bangladesh. When you make statements like “inviting Hindus to India” and “throwing out non-Hindu infiltrators”, you simply play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. You might just be making election rhetoric, but the fact is, for the average Hindu living in Bangladesh, this comes as a death knell.
Yes, Assam has suffered due to excessive migration from across the Brahmaputra, but the fact also remains that migration didn’t begin after 1971. The lines created to divide the subcontinent, especially in the east, were so superficial that they landed up literally dividing houses and families. Unlike Gujarat, there is no Rann of Kutch dividing the two Bengals or Assam from Bangladesh. There is a huge river between Bangladesh and Assam, which has for years been the lifeline and a source of livelihood for people living in these areas.
Continuing with the theme of pragmatism, I concede to you and many Hindu right wingers that there is a design of a larger Bangladesh, very much similar to the Hindu right wing’s idea of “Akhand Bharat”. Your own party’s Punjab website was recently hacked by some Bangladeshi Islamists, who put up an image of a larger Bangladesh which includes the entire Indian Northeast. I have even met your party’s previous northeast in charge in Guwahati, a wonderful Telugu gentleman. After listening to him and looking at the changing demography in Assam and other parts of the Northeast, I can understand the concern. But when I look at the BJP’s approach, I only see growing polarisation within the existing Indian population. The general tendency to tag any Bengali speaking Muslim as Bangladeshi is dangerous. Unlike in Assam, West Bengal has always had a substantial number of Muslims. Just like illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, they too go to cities like Delhi and Mumbai to do menial jobs to support their families back home. I do not want to go on further listing the drawbacks of your approach.
As possibly the next prime minister of the largest democracy in the world, I request you to take a pragmatic look at one of the most densely populated nations on earth. In the years to come, Bangladesh will be India’s biggest foreign affair problem. We have a Muslim country, surrounded on three sides by India and on one side by the Bay of Bengal. A young, unemployed population, a largely uneducated one. A strong, fanatical religious force which has presence both in politics and business. And one facing the very real and imminent threat of decreasing land space with rising sea levels, thanks to global warming.
The Manmohan Singh government has very smartly tried to concentrate on economic prosperity of the country. From where I look, there are two big challenges for any Indian government on the Bangladesh front: 1.) to contain illegal immigration, and 2.) to contain and then eliminate Islamic fundamentalism. The answer to both lies in strengthening economic ties with our eastern neighbour. We already have a friendly government in place. Instead of making provocative statements that will weaken the Sheikh Hasina government domestically, the future prime minister of India has to ensure the Islamists in that country do not get any stronger.
There is no doubt that the Shahbag movement in 2013 damaged organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami to an extent. But it is just a small dent. The reach of Islamic parties and organisations in Bangladesh is deep rooted.
But sir, if you visit Dhaka, you will feel the vibrancy in the air. It is a young country, just like ours. Young men and women are returning home to build a new Bangladesh. During my week-long visit to Dhaka, I was amazed to see the entrepreneurial quality of the average Bangladeshi youngster. They are proud of their identity. They do not want to sneak through the borders to come to India to earn money. They want to create their own businesses and employee their own people.
As the Big Brother in the region, it is India’s job to assist Bangladesh to make it stand up on its feet economically. There are already many Indian companies doing successful business in that country. We just need to expand and look at Bangladesh beyond seeing it as a mere market or a source of illegal, cheap labour. We do not want to become another China for them. Unlike the Chinese, we have close cultural linkage and a larger stake beyond economy.
The solution to India’s Bangladesh problem is not election rhetoric but a little bit of your Moditva magic. I mean the economic one of course.
Kunal Majumder is Associate Editor (Digital) at Zee Media Corporation. He tweets @kunalmajumder.