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Why did Bangladesh witness anti-Modi protests?

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Bangladesh’s golden jubilee celebration plan turned sour as massive protests erupted against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arrived in Dhaka on March 26 as the chief guest. 

At least 10 people were killed and dozens injured in anti-Modi protests. The Indian prime minister was invited to mark the South Asian nation’s 50th Independence Day. 

Bangladesh's government was compelled to deploy its border security forces across the country to maintain peace and order. It also restricted access to Facebook and its messaging app to prevent easy mobilisation of protesters.

The first signs of public anger against Modi's visit to the country became visible a week earlier when conservative parties and left-leaning student unions staged multiple rallies and demonstrations in the capital city Dhaka. 

The demonstrators criticised Modi for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which at least 1000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The protesters also lashed out at the Indian prime minister for the deteriorating human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi and other parts of India. 

By March 26, the day Modi landed in Bangladesh, the protests turned violent after Friday prayers in three cities—Dhaka, Brahamanbaria, which is near the Indian border; and the coastal city of Chattogram.

The security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least 10 of them and injuring several dozen.  

Was inviting Modi a bad choice?

Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Hindu-majority India have deep-rooted ties as the latter helped Bangladesh to gain its independence from Pakistan through a nine-month-long bloody war in 1971.

The bilateral relationship between the two South Asian nations, which is often regarded as a “textbook example of neighbourly relationship” by the respective country’s political leaderships however has seen cracks after Modi's rise to power in 2014 and his widely discernible Hindu nationalist stance.

Ever since, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is having a hard time assuaging the increasing number of anti-Modi voices who pilloried the Modi government for taking several controversial actions such as the formation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), both of which are believed to be heavily discriminatory against India’s minority Muslim population.

It's the anti-incumbency factor against Sheikh Hasina coupled with BJP's dehumanising language targeting Bangladeshis, which has triggered both the left-leaning and conservative Bangladeshis against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, who teaches International Relations at Dhaka University, told TRT World that inviting Modi to the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh “was not a good choice.”

“Along with the golden jubilee, we were also celebrating the birth centenary of our founding father, Sheikh Mujib, who fought for a secular nation, whereas Modi is inherently communal. He [Modi] is criticized in his own country for his hardline Hindu nationalist stance,” said Ahmed.

“Besides,” said Ahmed, “Several unresolved issues between the two neighbouring countries including the long-disputed Teesta river water-sharing deal, and the killing of Bangladeshi civilians at the India-Bangladesh border have prompted a large number of people to possess resentment against Modi and India in general.”   

Speaking to TRT World, Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan, a popular Bangladeshi blogger on religious issues. said that both the conservative and left-leaning parties were protesting Modi's visit for starkly different reasons. 

“Modi and his party, from the days of Babri mosque's demolition, have deservedly earned the reputation of being an anti-Muslim force in Indian politics. The volume of evidence to that is so huge and obvious that it hardly requires any mentioning,” he said adding that the demonstration against Modi by Bangladesh's religious conservatives was quite expected.

The protest of the left-leaning parties was however slightly less obvious, according to Bhuiyah. 

Unlike the 'liberal West', where the definition of political right mostly consists of political conservatism and free-market liberalism, in India it is now being centred on Hindu nationalism led by the BJP, which is opposed by the Indian left.

“The Bangladeshi left is a natural ally to the Indian one and shares similar views regarding religious fanaticism and nationalism based on religious fervour which to them is an ideological card to sustain the capitalist class in the subcontinental experience,” Bhuiyah added.

The internal political factor 

Germany-based Bangladeshi political analyst Zia Hassan pointed out that Modi earlier visited Bangladesh back in 2015, but that visit did not result in such protests. “The question is: what has changed?” Hassan said.

“The prevailing public opinion is that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's deeply unpopular government has only been able to stay in power because of India's support.”

In 2014, when the national elections held under an incumbent Hasina government turned out to be little more than a farce as more than half the seats were decided without contest, India backed Hasina and vouched for the election. This ensured that Hasina was able to stay in office and murmurs from the United States and Europe about the new government’s legitimacy were shut out.

Subsequently in 2019, in another election, Hasina came into power for the fourth time with a landslide victory—bagging 288 out of 300 parliament seats. But the election was widely criticised as Hasina faced allegations of massive rigging, intimidation of the opposition party workers and widespread violence. India again backed the Hasina government and she prevailed.

“Interestingly Hasina is able to stay in power not only because of the Indian support but also because she has compellingly divided Bangladesh's resources among India, the West, and Bangladeshi elites,” Hassan told TRT World.

“But most people do not subscribe to that notion,” he said, adding that they clearly see India as responsible for the loss of their democratic rights and propping up the regime in absence of broader international legitimacy.

At the same time, the factors ranging from the issue of citizenship in India to the BJP's rhetoric against Muslims, which also dehumanizes Bangladeshis, and the continued killings at the border despite Hasina offering India all the bargaining chips without any returns, have resulted in causing anti-Modi feelings in Bangladesh, Hassan said.

“Thus, Modi's visit during the burgeoning anti-incumbency sentiment released a pressure valve that saw both leftist parties and Islamists protesting against Modi’s visit”.