We, a group of Bangladeshi writers, artists, and academics collectively take the name Katatare Prajapati Collective – meaning “butterfly on barbed wire” – after the Selina Hossain novel of the same name. In our recent work around safeguarding human rights in Bangladesh, we authored articles analysing Bangladesh’s draconian section 57 of Information Communication Technology Act 2006/2013, it’s use to create a “Digital Jail”, the Digital Security Act 2018, and the arrest of cultural workers for expressing free speech. We write in support of the on-the-ground work being done by Bangladeshi human rights organisations such as Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, Ain o Salish Kendra, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Odhikar and many others.
We write to condemn discriminatory measures in India’s National Register of Citizens, Citizenship Amendment Act, and National Population Register. As Bangladeshis, and as South Asians, we stand against the demonisation of peoples of neighboring countries for electoral politics. We express our solidarity with the conscious and concerned people of India, first and foremost the brave students. Those who have protested in India against NRC-CAA-NPR have a full understanding of the original promise of the Indian Constitution, and are willing to put their lives on the line for the reaffirmation of that secular vision, as an example to all nations.
India, with the third largest Muslim population in the world, was committed to the secular ideal of equal rights to all citizens at its birth. The students of India – starting with Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University, but now radiating outward across more than 60 universities across India – have shown us the way. Their protests have been joined in solidarity by activists in Bangladesh, including Dhaka University Central Students’ Union vice president Nurul Haque Nur, Gana Samhati Andolan leader Zonayed Saki, Left Alliance Bam Jote, Revolutionary Workers Party leader Saiful Haque, and many others. These Bangladeshi activists have faced brutal police action in Bangladesh, identical to that being practiced by the police in India, reflecting the colonial legacy of both nations.
In a multi-pronged set of divisive moves, the BJP and RSS have tried to demolish the post-1947 secular ideals defended by India’s founding leaders, including BR Ambedkar, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others. In addition to the active abetting of acts of communal violence over the last five years, including lynching of Muslims in public spaces, the BJP has enacted policies that set Indian citizen against citizen, community against community. These moves include the age-old scare tactics of presenting Pakistan and Bangladesh as landmasses seething with people who are waiting to enter India and “take away jobs”, or carry out “terrorist attacks.” The NRC has thrown citizens off the voter rolls, claiming they cannot “prove” their Indian origins. This exploits the language of painting residents of Bangladesh-bordering states as “Bangladeshi illegal immigrants”, a tactic that has yielded fear-based voting blocs at elections. CAA has taken this further, insisting that refugees from surrounding countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – can only be accepted if they are non-Muslim.
Meanwhile, the current CAA excludes many persecuted groups, such as the Ahmadiyas and Shias from Pakistan, Hazaras from Afghanistan, Rohingya from Myanmar, and Tamils from Sri Lanka. This has sealed people into their religious “origins” regardless of ground realities of class, economics, and employment. In a political climate of virulent nationalism and Islamophobia, rendering India’s Muslim and other minorities vulnerable to police brutality and other forms of direct and institutional violence, the 2019 CAA is a sharpened form of discrimination using neighboring countries as a political scare object. Protests against CAA and NRC are now joined by a fresh controversy over questions added to the NPR. By requiring people to prove their identity and citizenship linked to religion, the current form of CAA, NRC, and NPR is in violation of the idea of a secular India.
Since Bangladesh is repeatedly invoked in hate speech by BJP politicians and TV personalities such as Sadhguru, it is necessary to comment on India-Bangladesh relationships from our side of the border. Bangladesh was created through the brutal 1971 Liberation War – a war in which India played a vital role for the Bangladesh side by giving shelter both to Bengali refugees and the Bengali war command. Bangladesh’s 1972 constitution, in line with the Indian Constitution, was based on secular principles for a pluralistic multi-religious society. Despite that initial promise, religious, linguistic, and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh have faced oppression under all political administrations. In both the spirit and commitment made to the people who live on the land, the Government of Bangladesh must fulfill its responsibility to ensure that all Bangladeshi citizens are equal, irrespective of religion, language or ethnic background.
While the BJP government keeps presenting Bangladeshis as the source of illegal migration and job theft and Pakistanis as source of “terrorist attacks,” the flows of opportunity and migration flow just as much in the opposite direction. Contrary to the BJP-led media hysteria around Bangladeshis “taking away jobs” from Indians, India gains substantial financial benefit from its neighbor through financial exchange. According to a recent World Bank study, outward financial flows from Bangladesh is the third-largest remittance source for India, with around $3.7 billion dollars sent from Bangladesh to India in 2013. The Silicon India portal predicts that the remittance from Bangladesh to India would continue to increase in the coming years. The current politics of hate has had a negative impact on the Indian economy, specifically in West Bengal, which has for years been the economic beneficiary of robust trade, “medical tourism,” and “shopping tourism” with Bangladesh – attracting many Bangladeshis into the country for legal, short-term tourist and medical visits.
Fifty per cent of India’s 2016 medical tourism revenue came from Bangladeshis. Patients from Bangladesh and Afghanistan continue to rank high in terms of a maximum number of medical tourist arrivals in India. It is estimated that 2.21 lakh medical tourists from Bangladesh came to India in the year 2017, 2.10 lakh in 2016, and 1.20 lakh in 2015. The highest number of medical tourists from Afghanistan was in the year 2015 – 27,505. Such figures refute discourse about “unwanted migration” that focus on an image of Bangladeshis as “illegal immigrants.”
India enjoys a unique preferential and “big brother” relationship with Bangladesh. While efforts to strengthen relationships between Bangladesh and India are laudable, Bangladeshi citizens have long been concerned by the unequal relationship of exchange between the two nation-states. For instance, the undertaking of Indian projects such as the Rampal Coal Plant –adjacent to the Sunderbans, a UNESCO heritage site – and Ganges Water Sharing Treaty are projected to cause major environmental damage and economic harm to Bangladesh and its flora and fauna.
Taken together, the unequal bilateral trade and economic relationship between India and Bangladesh, as well as the invocation of “Bangladeshi illegal migration” in politics around NRC, CAA, and NRP, constitute actions by the Indian government that fosters xenophobia against all neighboring countries. Incendiary language is now an instrument of choice by even senior elected representatives of India’s government, equating Bangladeshis to “termites” and “illegal infiltrators” who need to be uprooted. History reminds us that the rhetoric of dehumanisation is the first step toward violent actions that destroy the foundations of any democracy.
Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan share an intertwined history and also multiple borders. The current turbulent political climate in the world’s largest democracy is a source of concern not just for Bangladesh, but for the entire South Asia region and beyond. The international order is witnessing a rise in anti-democratic forces capitalising on xenophobia, economic anxieties, social struggles, and environmental vulnerabilities. As Bangladeshis following the events unfolding in India, we recommit to our vision of democratic and pluralistic countries in South Asia that does not turn neighbor against neighbor, and citizen against citizen by the politics of fear and hatred. The government of Bangladesh has a critical role to play in ensuring that minorities within its borders – citizens and non-citizens alike – are reassured of the fact that the developments in India will not be mirrored in our country. We urge the government of Bangladesh to unequivocally take a firm position against CAA/NRC/NPR’s use of “Bangladeshi migrants” as an object of fear-mongering.
We urge all concerned citizens across Asia – especially India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, and Afghanistan – to come together and stand against the politics of hate, division, violence, communalism, and exclusion.
We are all, in various ways, Midnight’s Children but we do not have to keep repeating the tragedies of 1947. Another South Asia is possible.
Katatare Prajapati Collective (email@example.com) is a group of Bengali academic scholars and activists.