• Hindol Sengupta

The Global Impact of the Bengal Election

The election results in the eastern Indian state of Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, will have an impact on the spread of extremism, and India-Bangladesh ties.

(From left to right, Mamata Bannerjee, the chief minister of Bengal, the Prime Minister Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in happier times.)

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in March as the main guest at the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence in 1971, an Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam led protests across the country which led to police firing in which 14 Hefazat protestors were killed.

The hardline group claimed they were protesting policies of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in India which they said discriminated against Muslims. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her cabinet members took a strong stance against the Hefazat violence promising strictest action. Hasina reiterated that Bangladesh had much to thank India – from its support in winning independence from Pakistan in 1971 (in a revolution led by Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and, more recently, in the large donations of vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The incident underlined a fault line that is growing, and which has a direct impact in India’s eastern state of Bengal, which borders Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh share a 4,096-kilometre-long border, divided on the Indian side between the states of Bengal, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Tripura.

Through a 2015 agreement, India and Bangladesh settled their long-pending border disputes with an amicable transfer of land parcels. But what had regularly been controversy over mass illegal migration of Bangladesh, especially since India’s rapid economic growth since the turn of the millennium, has taken new forms of controversies in recent years.

Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League party, who has been in power since 2009, has run a campaign to prosecute collaborators and war criminals accused of siding with the Pakistani Army and committing crimes like mass rape and murder during the 1971 revolution for independence from Pakistan. Several top Islamist including of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a prominent Islamist organization which has branches in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some presence in India, were hung for their crime.

Hasina has also cracked down on terrorist organisations like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which aims to create a sharia-ruled state in Bangladesh, which is secular by its constitution. There are significant overlaps between the cadre of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, and now the Hefazat, especially in their common goal to strictly establish Islamic law as the governing principle in Bangladesh. Many factions of the JMB are avowed supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS).

In the last five years, chased out by Hasina’s security forces, and following a promise by the Bangladeshi prime minister that the territory of her country would not be used by terrorists planning to attack India, several leaders and cadres of radical Islamist organisations have crossed over to Bengal. In 2019, four prominent members of the JMB were arrested in Bengal.

Indian authorities have often pointed out that reports suggest many madrasas in Bengal are being used for radical brainwashing and terrorist activities in Bengal. In 2018, the JMB announced that it had opened a new organisation in India called Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India (JMI) aimed at establishing an Islamic state in India through jihadist conquest.

Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress, has been accused of overlooking Islamist radicalism in the state which has around 30 per cent Muslim population, by the BJP. Policies like a special state salary for imams in madrasas and, among others, a 2014 infamous incident where a mini bomb-making factory was discovered at the home of a TMC leader, have added to this accusation. In turn, the TMC accuses the BJP of using a divisive, communal rhetoric to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims and polarising the election.

India watches warily as the Islamist radicalism in Bangladesh is mirrored by the rise in Pakistan of the equally violent Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which is pushing the Pakistani state towards an even more fundamentalist version of Islam. Stuck with Islamist radicalism on two sides is causing more hardline opinions to emerge from Hindu groups in India who argue that the only way to defend India in such a climate is for the country to become more stridently Hindu. Also new Indian laws like the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) draw from the persecution Hindus continue to face in Pakistan and Bangladesh (Hefazat rioters, for instance, targeted Hindu temples in Bangladesh to protest the Modi visit).

It is important to note that as groups like TLP have gained a stronger voice in Pakistan even the smallest window of engagement with India, as seemed to have opened after conciliatory statements by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the army chief Qamar Bajwa, seems to have been sabotaged with strident opposition from within the Pakistani state, and parts of its society. The TLP is now rioting across Pakistan demanding that the government throw out the French ambassador because it vehemently objects to the French government backing the right to free speech about Prophet Muhammad.

There is a palpable sense that this could become a vicious cycle across the Indian subcontinent, a cruel reminder of the divide that broke India and created Pakistan.

All this comes at a time when there is tremendous opportunity for economic growth among these countries, especially between Bangladesh and India. Barring Covid-related difficulties, the Indian economy is transitioning to a digital-first model – even with the pandemic, Indian start-ups just made history by throwing up six unicorns (companies with a valuation of more than $1 billion) in four days. A V-shaped recovery following the pandemic is expected. Bangladesh too is moving upwards the economic value chain, with a booming economy and special focus on women employment, and the United Nations has recommended its redesignation from Least Developed Country (LDC) to a developing nation. Economic cooperation between these countries would have a domino benefit impact, including in parts of South East Asia.

While the Pakistani economy is tottering again, it has an advantage of a relatively young population, like Bangladesh and India, and deeper trade with both neighbours could only help stabilise Pakistan. It could have a positive ripple effect in Afghanistan too as the Americans leave. Instead, of course, the shadow of Chinese influence grows in Pakistan, and fears of it being turned into a vassal state, ever struggling to pay of Chinese debts, grows.

No matter who wins in Bengal, therefore, a deep reassessment of illegal immigration, Islamist radicalisation, and demographic change via surreptitious immigration would have to be addressed. Questions about the state of Bengal’s madrassas, their connections with radicalised Bangladeshi counterparts, and the spill-over impact of the radicalisation of in Bangladeshi society and politics upon Bengal is now unavoidable.

No matter who wins in Bengal, subcontinental politics is about to change.


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