What do the Anti-Modi Protests Reveal about Bangladesh-India Relations?

On March 26th, hundreds of people gathered outside Dhaka’s main mosque, Baitul Mokarram, in protest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Bangladesh’s capital amidst celebrations of the country’s 50th anniversary since its independence. Al Jazeera reported that violence broke out after a group of protestors – aligned with the governing Awami League party – attempted to stop a separate faction from waving their shoes as a sign of disrespect to the Indian leader. Security forces had then opened fire in a bid to quell the protests, leaving five dead and at least 40 people injured, according to local reporting by Somoy TV. However, the Bangladeshi police are yet to officially confirm the death toll. 

This comes after a 2,000-person demonstration took place in Dhaka the day prior. Primarily composed of students, the protest took a violent turn as the authorities fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd, prompting the protestors to retaliate with rocks and stones. Police official Syed Nurul Islam told AFP news agency that 33 people had been arrested “for violence”, whilst dozens others were wounded. 

Of the five who had been killed during Friday’s protest, four of them were members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a “non-political” Islamist organisation critical of Modi’s increasingly Hindu-nationalist policies and acts of religious persecution. According to Al Jazeera, they slammed him for “killing Muslims in Gujarat, Kashmir, Delhi, and other parts of India”, including 1,000 people (most of whom were Muslims) who were killed in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. 

Politicians such as Bangladesh Foreign Affairs Minister Ak Abdul Momen ascribe the protests to “fundamentalists” who “are making an issue out of [Modi’s visits] without any valid reason.” Although critics of Hefazat-e-Islam claim the group is a front for the banned Islamist party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, who staunchly opposed the independence of Bangladesh – contrary to the values of the governing Awami League party – in truth, the anti-Modi sentiment has quickly grown traction throughout the country. 

On a diplomatic level, the two countries share close ties, with relations dating back to 1971 when India helped Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan after a nine-month war. As recent as last Thursday (March 25th), Prime Minister Modi tweeted of their commitment to Bangladesh: “Our partnership with Bangladesh is an important pillar of our Neighbourhood First policy, and we are committed to further deepen and diversify it.” The newly reopened Haldibari-Chilahati railway route connecting the two nations alongside India’s donation of 1.2 million COVID-19 vaccine shots to Bangladesh further exemplifies their economic and political ties to one another.

However, in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 168 million people, many stand against Modi’s Hindu-nationalist policies including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Passed in December 2019, the CAA grants Indian citizenship to minorities – namely Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, or Christians – from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, leaving 1.9 million migrants, half of whom are Muslims, to be left off the NRC. Professor of international relations at Dhaka University, Imtiaz Ahmed, explained the impact of Modi’s actions, saying “we are also celebrating the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujib who fought for a secular nation whereas Modi is inherently communal.” These sentiments were also compounded by derogatory statements made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about Bangladeshi migrants in the past. 

Ali Riaz, professor of politics and government at Illinois State University also suggested there was widespread discontent amongst Bangladeshis about the unequal relationship between Bangladesh and India. Not only has India’s Border Security Force (BSF) been accused of shooting and killing Bangladesh citizens on the Bangladesh-India border, but India has been unwilling to sign a water-sharing treaty for the Teesta river, impacting Bangladeshi rivers, ports, and the Sundarbans (a mangrove area). “India is interfering in internal affairs of Bangladesh politics,” remarked Foez Ullah, president of the Bangladesh Students’ Union, According to Al Jazeera.

Grievances against these socio-political actions have directly compounded in this week’s protests. It does not appear as though the demonstrations are slowing down, as hundreds of students from religious schools clashed with the Brahmanbaria district on Saturday. Facebook services were also reportedly unavailable in Bangladesh that same day. Post and telecommunications minister Mustafa Jabbar has dismissed responsibility over the stoppage, telling AFP, “This is not our decision.” The Bangladeshi government has similarly been silent over the protests, instead issuing a joint statement with India celebrating their cooperation and partnership.

While religious persecution, border patrol, and unequal geo-political and economic relations are issues that may take years to resolve, Bangladesh first needs to address its use of violence against peaceful protest. As Amnesty’s South Asia researcher Sultan Mohammed Zakaria notes, “The right to peaceful protest has come under concerted attack, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, culminating in this type of bloody repression.” If this is not first tackled, Bangladesh may see a growing disconnect between its politicians and civil society.