Sometimes, even those who don’t forget history are condemned to repeat it. In 2012, we were mourning India’s humiliation by China in 1962. As we approach 2022, mourning has turned into celebrations tempered with realism about Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. No doubt 1971 stands out as a landmark year for a land ravaged by centuries of invasions.
Fifty years down the road, how has it all affected India? Has it helped? Has Pakistan become ‘better behaved’? Has the China-Pakistan axis become a less potent threat? Can relations with Pakistan ever improve? These, and many other questions, were asked in our C-Voter India Tracker. This survey is part of our routine India Tracker series where we conducted surveys in 11 languages on a daily basis. For this particular research we interviewed randomly selected 2,339 people across India.
The contrast of responses came out clearly when respondents cutting across age groups, caste and ethnic backgrounds answered carefully chosen questions. The results were both predictable as well as startling.
One of the questions was: Has the creation of Bangladesh helped India? Predictable, or surprisingly, opinion of ordinary Indians seems to be evenly divided on this. A shade less than 30 per cent felt the creation of Bangladesh had helped India a lot, while 26.5 per cent felt it had harmed India. Overall, a little over 50 per cent were of the opinion that the move has helped India a lot or at least a little, while close to 50 per cent felt it has either made no difference whatsoever or harmed India.
There is no doubt that the key reasons for the perception of harm have been caused by the fear of global ‘Islamist Jihad’ (though most Indians consider Bangladesh a friend on this issue) and the influx of “illegal” migrants. It has been a serious issue since the 1970s. The reasonable arguments supporting this line of thought point out that the illegal refugees not only strain the resources of a poor economy, but also depress wages in an already low-wage market. The extreme cases, of course, are convinced large “jathas” of Bengali Muslims clandestinely entering India to conduct ‘Love Jihad’ and affect demographic change so that India becomes an ‘Islamic Republic’ in the near, or distant future. How true are both in the larger historical context? Of course, to another question on the fall in Hindu’s share Bangladesh population, a majority identified Islamic extremism and persecution as the reasons. Ironically, the regular dose of cringe-worthy news on ‘the pathetic condition of minorities in Pakistan’ has further polarised perception about the situation in Bangladesh as well.
We at C-Voter decided to test the respondents with a trick question. For decades since its creation, Bangladesh has been considered an economic ‘basket case’. But unknown even to many economic analysts, the situation has changed dramatically this century, and the tables, so to say, could well have turned. As a test of deliberative polling, we informed respondents that Bangladesh will soon surpass India in the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index. We also told them that last year Bangladesh’s per capita income crossed India’s; that its ready-made garment exports were virtually double that of India and that there was a sustained boom in factory jobs there. The question was: Do you envisage a situation in the future where people from West Bengal migrate to Bangladesh for jobs?
People harbouring nationalist emotions might be pleased with the overall answers. About 37.5 per cent of the respondents felt it would never happen, while almost 20 per cent felt it might. The fact that every fifth respondent thinks Indians could possibly migrate to Bangladesh, of all places, for a job should send groups with ‘nationalist sentiments’ looking for some serious introspection. There is more bad news in store for them. Every third respondent said they don’t know or can’t say — another way of being ambivalent. There is worse news for the conservatives on this front. Exactly 40 per cent of Indians below the age of 25 said migration to Bangladesh could happen or will surely happen in the future. That dropped to 30 per cent for Indians between 26 and 35 years of age and to 15 per cent for those above 56. But the ambivalence hangs like a shadow with a large share in every category opting for ‘don’t know’ or ‘can’t say’.
While Indians may be confused about Bangladesh, they have no illusions about either Pakistan or China except the perennial optimists whose candlelit vigils at the Wagah border have been interrupted by the Covid pandemic. Most Indians consider Pakistan to be an implacably hostile nation that will probably never have friendly relations with India. Most Indians are also convinced that the China-Pakistan axis will try its best to prevent the rise of India as a global power.
When asked if Pakistan had learnt any lessons from its military defeat in 1971, more than 37 per cent of the respondents felt that India’s neighbour had learnt many or at least some lessons. In contrast, a whopping 63 per cent felt it had learnt no lesson and had become even more dangerous and vengeful. When asked if there was any chance of friendly relations between the two countries, a quarter each of the surveyed said there was no chance of better relations. Before the ‘candle vigil brigade’ starts celebrating Christmas early, here is a wake-up call. About 77 per cent were either not hopeful of better relations, or were of the opinion that there would be no change or that relations would worsen.
Respondents were equally clear-eyed and realistic when it came to the “eternal” friendship between China and Pakistan. When asked if their axis could prevent the rise of India as a global power, four out of every ten Indians felt they would fully or partially succeed while an equal number was of the opinion that they would try but fail. In answer to the same question, a significant number (every fifth Indian to be precise) felt that internal divisions within India were more dangerous.
The image of General A. A. K. Niazi of the Pakistan Army surrendering to Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian army on 16 December 1971 in Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh, is one that Indians cherish. But the golden jubilee celebrations of India’s victory over Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh are tempered with a healthy dose of realism, clearly evident in the responses to the C-Voter India Tracker. Respondents were asked to rate and rank India’s greatest achievement in the last 50 years. The choices given to them were: India’s military victory over Pakistan; India going nuclear in 1974; the economic reforms of 1991 and toilets in every house. The responses astonished us, and we are sure they will surprise you as well when we put the data in the public domain. Stay tuned.
Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder of CVoter, and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director of CVoter Foundation. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)