When the sun meets the sea in Cox’s Bazaar, at the very tip of Bangladesh, it’s easy to forget that only a few kilometres beyond, in Teknaf, protests were held last week against the derogatory remarks recently made about Prophet Muhammad by two BJP politicians. When your feet sink into the softest sand on the world’s longest natural beach, it’s tempting to drown out the anti-India slogans at the Baitul Mukarram mosque in faraway Dhaka with the gentle roar of the waters of the Bay of Bengal.
India is never far away from Bangladesh, but last week it was particularly close. Two former BJP leaders were the cynosure of all eyes as the Islamic world erupted in anger against insulting comments they had made against the Prophet. As many as 20 countries and organisations have issued statements, while a few summoned the Indian ambassador for a dressing down – but Bangladesh has remained absolutely quiet.
“We are not compromising on the honour of the Prophet. We strongly condemn any insult to the Holy Prophet whenever and wherever it happens. But the government of India has taken action and we thank them for it. We congratulate them. Now the law will take its own course,” Bangladesh information minister Hasan Mahmud told a group of visiting Indian journalists, including me, over the weekend.
Mahmud’s fulsome praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is certainly unusual. For the first time since Modi came to power, the PM has been on the back foot regarding his foreign policy because of the comments about the Prophet by his own ruling party. The criticism by the Islamic world is clearly hurting.
But the PM will likely travel to the UAE by the end of June, on his return journey from the G-20 summit in Germany, when India takes over the chair, clearly to make the point that the Nupur Sharma-Naveen Jindal duo were speaking against the party line.
Why UAE? Abu Dhabi criticised the BJP politicians’ comments, but did not summon the Indian ambassador. Moreover, an important free trade agreement has been recently signed between India and the UAE. Modi’s visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi is sure to send the signal that the Prime Minister won’t allow anyone to undermine the achievements of his Gulf policy.
Forged in blood
Like the UAE, Bangladesh has clearly understood at whose door the power lies in India. The Congress’ Indira Gandhi may have helped Bangladesh win its liberation war 50 years ago, but that party today mostly manifests its angst by tweeting and fulminating on social media. Other regional parties are powerful in their own right, but the fact remains that there is no national alternative to Narendra Modi today.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, among the most politically astute leaders in the region, is keenly aware of this. China is a significant presence in Bangladesh, building bridges and roads and railway lines, but India is so omnipresent that it cannot be ignored.
At the interaction with Indian journalists in Dhaka over the weekend Mahmud and his colleagues repeated the statement that “ties between India and Bangladesh are forged in blood.” They were of course referring to the ultimate sacrifice paid by about 3,900 Indian soldiers as well as 10,000 wounded in the 1971 Bangladesh war. It is a sentiment widely heard across Bangladesh. From students to shopkeepers to politicians, the line that “India shared its home and hearth with the people who wanted to be free” resounds across the country.
That’s why the ruling Awami League’s refusal to criticise Narendra Modi and his government, on the Prophet controversy or otherwise, is embedded in the realisation that he is among the most powerful leaders in South Asia. That is why when Home Minister Amit Shah made his undiplomatic comments calling Bangladeshi infiltrators “deemak” or termites some years ago, Bangladeshis either ignored the insult or swallowed it.
Here’s another example. At the informal interaction in Dhaka over the weekend, Mahmud was asked whether the sharing of the Teesta river waters would be on the agenda when PM Hasina visits New Delhi a few months from now.
Mahmud responded with some alacrity. “On Teesta, the problem is the provincial government (West Bengal), not the Central government. So PM Hasina can visit India even if Teesta is not yet done. But we do hope that the issue will be resolved as early as possible,” he said.
Mahmud’s refusal to indict the Modi government and instead, lay the blame on West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s shoulders, on what has been an emotive issue inside Bangladesh for several years, is indicative of the mood in the Hasina establishment.
The Bangladesh model
In any case, the Bangladeshis rightly reason, the anti-India protests on the Prophet issue that took place after the Friday prayers outside several mosques across the country are sending two messages to India:
The first, “see what we are up against,” and the second, “that is why there is no option but the Awami League.”
Both messages seem to have been properly received in Delhi. Moreover, the fact that the Awami League can control the anti-India slogans in the mosques and not let them get out of hand and still come up with a congratulatory comment about India is bound to put Sheikh Hasina and Bangladesh on the frontline of Modi’s friends and partners abroad.
The opposite also holds true. While the BJP hasn’t been able to control its own foul-mouthed spokespersons who got so carried away by their anti-Islamic rhetoric that they forgot the red lines, Hasina has dealt with anti-Hindu protests with a severe hand. The damage to property at a Durga Puja pandal last year in Comilla and similar incidents elsewhere were swiftly contained on direct orders by the Bangladesh PM.
Mahmud confirmed that the victims have been well compensated for their losses, up to two or three times.
So as the sea recedes into the horizon at Cox’s Bazaar and darkness falls, one wonders if the Bangladesh model of a secular, Muslim-majority republic, born out of the womb of an Islamic nation 50 long years ago, can become a model for the rest of South Asia?
The writer was part of a group of Indian journalists who travelled to Bangladesh on a visit sponsored by its government last week. Views are personal.