The Platform

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters in Guwahati. (Talukdar David/Shutterstock)

October saw India and Bangladesh rocked by communal violence. The riots first started on October 15 in the Comilla District of Dhaka during Durga Puja celebrations (a major Hindu festival for Bengalis). Muslim mobs, outraged by a social media post allegedly showing a Quran being desecrated, targeted and vandalized Hindu households, businesses, and temples. The attacks resulted in the deaths of at least five people, damage to several neighborhoods, and left many others injured.

Soon after, this tension spread across the border to the Indian state of Tripura and fundamentalists reacted to the attack on Bangladeshi Hindus by leading a targeted attack against the minority Muslims there. On October 21, notable Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM) carried out protests in several areas in Tripura including its capital Agartala, which quickly turned violent after some of the protesters destroyed several mosques and Muslim-owned shops. These rallies continued for almost a week until a form of martial law was declared in parts of the state to restrict the movement of groups.

This recent spate of violence is significant because Tripura shares a border with Comilla and has played an important role in assisting the migration of Bangladeshis into the Indian subcontinent since post-partition. These incidents, apart from mirroring each other, also signal the changing political climate in the region and a reemergence of fault lines that have remained dormant for the last twenty years. Tripura’s proximity to Bangladesh meant that the state’s demography was constantly fluctuating because of migration and socio-political events.

The state, with one of the most significant tribal populations, has long been seen as the cultural homeland of the tribal communities. Constant influxes of refugees, however, have threatened this perception as the community saw its numbers drop from over one-third to just a little over 28 percent. This has led to deep divisions along the lines of language, land, religion, and ethnicity. This has resulted in communal violence, most notably an ethnic cleansing operation undertaken by the All Tripura Tiger Force to evict ‘Bangladeshi’ (especially Bangladeshi Hindus) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Notwithstanding this bloody past, Tripura has enjoyed considerable peace until the current wave of communalism, which shows that people are once again becoming disenfranchised with who they see as “foreigners,” particularly targeting Muslims – a result of the systemic othering of Muslims pursued by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Therefore, the ‘Bangladeshi’ and ‘Muslim’ identities have been conflated, and this will have larger, more potentially dangerous consequences for the already volatile region.

Redefining ‘Bangladeshi’ in India today

India and Bangladesh have always been inextricably linked due to their common colonial origin. In 1964, when there were mass riots in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), India opened its arms to receive the exodus of refugees and went on to play a crucial role in winning Bangladesh its freedom in 1971. Since then, Delhi and Dhaka have enjoyed close diplomatic ties despite periods of communal tensions. However, this changed significantly in 2014, after Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.

Modi, with majoritarian support, has aggressively pushed Hindutva, an extreme form of Hindu nationalism with distinct anti-Muslim undertones, as his agenda. Contextually, this is more evident with parliamentary tools such as the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), a list that separates Indian citizens from “non-Indian” citizens based on lineage. The goal for the Bharatiya Janata Party is to use this in tandem with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which only offers Indian citizenship to religious minorities (excluding Muslims) from neighbouring Muslim countries namely Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Together, these policies could potentially be wielded to strip millions of Muslims, who have been living in India for generations, of their citizenship status and render them stateless.

Top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders including Amit Shah, the home minister, who has referred to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites” on several occasions, have fueled rising anti-Muslim sentiments in India by warning of the impending threat of a refugee crisis. As a result, it has become part of the normative rhetoric to assume that a ‘Bangladeshi’ is automatically a Muslim. This identity, now political, is now part of a larger socio-political problem that will disproportionately target any Bengali-speaking Muslim, regardless of whether they are from Bangladesh, echoing how the term ‘Pakistani’ is used to taunt Muslims in India. And in states like Tripura, where earlier there was discord between those who were seen as foreigners and natives, has now taken a communal “Hindu versus Muslim” turn, streamlined to fit into the agenda of the Hindu nationalists.

Broader costs and consequences

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, conservative Islamist groups are looking at India’s abuse of Muslims to justify their mistreatment of Hindus and stir jingoistic sentiments. This is not a new phenomenon. The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition in India was immediately followed by anti-Hindu attacks in Bangladesh. However, we must keep in mind that if the CAA is implemented, Muslims in India will be forced to seek alternative refuge in Bangladesh, putting undue strain on the country.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has officially mentioned that India’s rising anti-Muslim rhetoric inadvertently affects her country. Hasina has said, “Our neighbouring country must also cooperate (in fighting communalism)…They must make sure that nothing is done there (in India) which affects our country and hurts our Hindu community.”

While diplomatic ties between Delhi and Dhaka continue to remain strong for now, the above statement reflects that the tides are shifting, and the cracks are becoming increasingly visible. It is key that India must make efforts to change the narrative against Muslims in border states like Tripura as well as throughout the country. Failure to act will potentially set a cyclical and capricious loop in motion where extremism will only grow more violent across the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Antara Chakraborthy is a senior analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Her current research interests include ethnic and diasporic studies and the impacts of multiculturalism and citizenship in India.