India is witnessing the chaotic process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) unfold in Assam. The exercise, directed and sponsored by vested political quarters, is designed to deny benefits of citizenship to those who do not possess compelling documentation to claim Indian citizenship, even if they have lived in Assam for decades. This has rendered four million Bengali-speaking Assamese stateless and widened ethnic religious and communal fault lines which have geopolitical implications for the region.
Many consider Assam to be a tinderbox where a gruesome Rohingya-styled ethnic cleansing can be replayed. The history of resettlement of a sizeable Bengali-speaking population in northeast India, including Assam and Tripura, is fraught with contradictory narratives and ethnic and religious overtones that can be viewed through refracting prisms in different political quarters. In an orgy of rage and communal carnage, nearly 4,000 Bengalis were massacred in Assam in 1983 by the local Assamese, and the trauma continues to haunt Bengalis on both sides of the India-Bangladesh divide. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its right-wing Hindutva ideology having spread all over India, may have made tactical inroads into Assam politics through politicising the “Bengali settler” issue as its dominant sloganeering platform; but this is not without long-term strategic costs for India.
Some questions remain on the NRC, notably its role in disrupting age-old societal bonds among Assamese communities. The NRC engenders communal hatred, foments violence and triggers a process of real or perceived disenfranchising of a sizeable section of Assamese society. Interestingly, this could also spur and stimulate Bengali nationalism as it faces opposition from cohabiting ethnic communities. The fallout from the NRC could snowball into unprecedented developments.
The socio-political spectrum on both sides of the Bengal divide is, however, changing. There appears to be more tolerance of Bengali Muslims in West Bengal and the progressive leader, Mamata Banerjee, has voiced opposition to BJP's contentious sectarian policies, including the banning of cow slaughter and Bengali disenfranchisement through the NRC.
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina has gone out of her way to ameliorate the concerns of Hindu minorities in her country. As much as it is for social justice, it is also designed to foster goodwill towards Bangladesh's powerful neighbour. Her government hopes that this would send a favourable message to India about Bangladesh's disposition towards its neighbour, which has repeatedly voiced concerns about the treatment of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh. India appears singularly important in Bangladesh's strategic calculus. Bangladesh has opened its sea ports for transit of Indian goods, and several land routes have been opened for India's transit to the north-eastern states. Border haats have been opened for easy movement of some goods between the two countries. Nearly half a million Bangladeshis visit India annually for tourism, medical treatment, and shopping purposes. While both countries have adopted stringent bilateral tariffs, informal trade between the two countries through known as well as obscure routes of border transit amounts to billions of dollars. During Eid festivities, markets in Bangladesh are flooded with colourful Indian saris and other costly apparels, which find their way into Bangladesh through the informal border trade. At the official level, the two countries are, however, far from entering an effective bilateral trading regime. Assam has the exportable parboiled rice, but Bangladesh finds it more profitable to import rice from Thailand, located thousands of kilometres away. While Indian entrepreneurs shy away from investing in Bangladesh, China has filled in the vacuum by becoming a major player in Bangladesh's infrastructure and defence sectors.
BJP President Amit Shah has, in an unabashed, derogatory manner, called the alleged Bengali migrants to India “termites”. This has not gone unnoticed by conscious Bengalis on both sides of the border. Migration into and within India is not a recent phenomenon. Historically, segments of population had moved around in droves, from one part of India to another due to natural disasters and compelling political economic reasons. By politicising migration, BJP may be playing a dangerous game. India shares one of the largest borders with Bangladesh, which has a length of 4,096km running along West Bengal and several other states in the northeast. Divisive regional geopolitics, involving evocation of communalism, can have a profoundly debilitating impact on the region. The people of north-eastern India continue to suffer isolation, as they are physically (and even psychologically) removed from “mainland” India. Opening routes through Bangladesh has stimulated bilateral Indo-Bangladesh trade and commerce, but importantly, it has opened up fresh lifelines for the people in northeast India. The bonhomie between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments is likely to face hurdles in the face of vituperative rhetoric of BJP stalwarts. An attempt to push Bengalis into Bangladesh or West Bengal may bolster greater Bengali nationalism in the subcontinent and among the more conscious Bengali diaspora settled aboard. A disenfranchised Bengali population could, nevertheless, trigger adverse reaction in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Tripura. Bigotry and irresponsible steps have definite reverberations for regional geopolitics.
This subcontinent, post-independence, has remained conflict-ridden on several fronts, and its people do not need more issues to tear away at the historically woven communal thread. India and Bangladesh share a common history and geopolitical future. Yet, Bangladesh continues to be the object of negative sloganeering in many political quarters in India. Bengalis from both the east and west are also the object of ridicule among some Indian circles.
Can Bengalis come together and reach a new level of ethnic and national consciousness, promote Bengali language and culture regionally, and collective interests worldwide? We see hopeful signs of social engagement among the Bengali youth connected through the social media. The two Bengals are beginning to collaborate closely in the film and music industry, and other cultural domains.
Hopefully, the two Bengals and, possibly, Tripura and Assam will eventually create a soft border, allowing for greater economic and cultural overlap. Neither Bangladesh nor India should nourish concerns about national sovereignty as the two Bengals drift closer along ethnic and cultural trajectories. The Bengals provide a lifeline to the northeast and working collaboratively, the Bengals could offer a common platform to placate communal bigotry and religious fundamentalism in India as well as in the regional countries. The entire region, particularly India's northeast, would benefit from greater access and free movement of people. It is time to downplay the “we versus them” communal narratives, and work constructively towards uplifting the region socially, economically and politically.
Dr Kalam Shahed is an independent researcher based in Ottawa, Canada. He used to teach at Queen's University and Carleton University in Canada.