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‘STABILITY IN INDIA IS ALSO IN THE INTEREST OF THE NEIGHBOURS, INCLUDING BANGLADESH’

The Business Standard Spoke To Former Ambassador Humayun Kabir To Better Understand The Complexities And Undertones Of India’s Latest Clashes, Its Relationship With Indian Muslims And Implications For The Region

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India's ongoing communal violence caused by a derogatory comment about Islam's Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by Nupur Sharma - now suspended BJP spokesperson - on live television, raises concern and many questions. 

Why is it that India, especially under its ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, tends to fall victim to communal violence? Additionally, Sharma's comment was met with a collective outcry from the international community, which is calling out India's government. Possibly an unprecedented reaction from the international community, especially the Islamic-world. But why now? 

For these answers, and more, The Business Standard spoke to former ambassador Humayun Kabir to better understand the complexities and undertones of India's latest clashes, its relationship with Indian Muslims and implications for the region. 

India is, again, in the midst of communal clashes and riots. What is your take on the latest spate of violence? Is this an unprecedented political situation for India? 

This is a very unfortunate situation that has now taken place as a consequence of remarks against Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). The reaction is quite widespread in India, [and] also in the Gulf region, and in other Muslim countries. The OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which has 57 member states] have made some strong comments, and this [reaction] is understandable.  

But now the question is, is this a separate or a sudden incident? In my view, the recent derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) served as a spark to ignite the accumulated frustration and grievances of the Muslim community in India against Hindutva-based politics, which has been deliberately polarising the Indian politics, society and communities over the last couple of years. 

Indeed, when the government either ignores or takes a benign kind of approach [to address communal tension), evil forces tend to take advantage of that opportunity. And, in the process, some people may get carried away, and may sometimes go overboard, as in the case of unfortunate comments by Nupur Sharma in recent weeks. 

But I think that the current issue [the series of latest events] is serious for two reasons. Number one is that India has suddenly exposed itself in a bad light externally. Even before this incident, the US Commission on Religious Freedom, in its recent report, had made some strong negative comments about religious intolerance and communal tensions in India. 

And then this issue [Nupur Sharma's comment] came up, which is now vibrating throughout the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. India's reputation as a secular and tolerant democratic entity has now received a big jolt, if I may say so. 

Indeed, strained inter-communal relationships and occasional tensions have been there for quite some time. But the international community lived with that, with the hope that [India] would address this issue within its democratic framework and process. But recent events in India, particularly since the last elections in some states, have attracted global attention and even raised concerns among many Indians. 

The deliberate marginalisation of a particular community and unleashing of hatred and violence against them is considered by many, even in India, as a recipe for divisiveness, leading to the creation of an unhealthy, toxic climate. And that is a long-term problem for India, many think. 

When majoritarianism is promoted as a political tool and pursued aggressively, it can cause a vibration [effect] even beyond the State's borders, and this is particularly disquieting in South Asia, which has a history of communal violence with devastating consequences, as had been seen in the 1930s and 1940s, that resulted in the creation of new states. Such politics, particularly in a digital era, could be devastating in terms of their impact and could easily roil the entire region.  

In recent times, we have seen this kind of development with regard to Myanmar. When religious and cultural majoritarianism was promoted aggressively in Myanmar, it caused huge suffering for the minority ethnic communities and completely alienated and marginalised the Rohingya community, subjecting them to genocide and forced eviction from their homeland in Myanmar. Unfortunately, Bangladesh had to bear the brunt of such a misdirected policy and is now bearing the load of a million Rohingya displaced population, with little hope of their early, safe and dignified return to Myanmar.     

So what we are seeing now in India is disturbing; unless the situation is dealt with firmly or managed quickly and if some serious course correction is not done, particularly in terms of restoring the inter-communal trust and relationships, then some people fear that it might spill over into other countries in the region, whether we want it or not. 

Because, you know, [religion] is an emotional issue. People can get charged emotionally very easily on this issue and motivated quarters could easily exploit and channel such an emotion into a partisan political agenda including fanning extremist outlook and agenda. We do not need to go far, there are recent examples from our neighbourhood of how such things go out of hand and also the unfortunate consequences which may flow from there.

Our problem in the region is fighting poverty. Our problem is coming out of the Covid-19 and making people safe and secure. Our challenge is how to address the unemployment of the bulging youth population, which has been accentuated during the pandemic, and we are still suffering from that effect. Our adjacent regions are connecting their economies into a larger cohesive unit, looking toward the future prospect, while we are practically isolated. We need to address this challenge to fight the common challenges together. 

During the last few weeks, the global environment has also experienced serious disruptions and a potential economic downturn seems a distinct possibility, with serious negative consequences on all the countries, including the countries in South Asia. Against such a sombre backdrop, communal hatred and conflict or any other kind of violence is the last thing that we want or need.   

India has a long history of communal riots, deaths and violence. Are the more recent riots, under BJP, different in nature?  

Yes, there have been communal problems in India before, but the government of the day tried at least to show an even handed approach in dealing with such a situation.  However, since 1992, we are seeing a creeping trend towards politicisation of religious sentiments and feelings. 

Last time when BJP came to power, I mean when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee came to power in 1999, some communal riots took place too, but the government took a governance approach to tackle them, and reportedly Vajpayee took a strong stand against the Modi government in Gujarat after the riot in 2002, and advised the latter to firmly uphold the principles of governance and address such toxic vices firmly. 

A different picture is emerging now; there are widespread reports that a section in the government, both at the centre and at the state level is acquiescing to and in some cases openly spreading hatred and advocating violence against a particular community, in this case the Muslims. Many in India consider this as a challenging period, which could unnecessarily affect the future course of India.  

There is a collective international outcry calling out India to justly address Nupur Sharma's comments. Have you seen this kind of outcry before? And why now? 

Well, I think we can be a little nuanced in this regard, and say that even when President Obama had come to India in 2015, in his last speech in Mumbai, he politely reminded his host that anything that could contribute towards communal division, polarisation and conflict would not be helpful for the country. Subsequently, many international rights groups have also raised their concern on this issue. 

But the reaction to recent incidents has been qualitatively different. The international community, which has largely remained muted, has suddenly become vocal and active. Once the growing trend of unleashing systematic marginalisation and violence against the Muslims community became apparent in India in recent years, the people seem to have come to the conclusion that perhaps time has come to call out India on this score. That's why you're seeing a coordinated call out from the international community, from the US, from the OIC, and from other Muslim States. 

And this is also affecting Indian economic interests for the first time. There are reports that some of the chain shops in the Gulf States have removed Indian products from their shelves. With almost $150 billion in bilateral trade with the region and the presence of a very huge number of expatriate Indians in those countries, India can hardly ignore such a strong reaction. 

The larger question however remains unanswered, whether the Indian government will only respond to external reaction or change their policy to address such a challenge from a domestic obligation?      

What can be done by India to resolve its raging communal conflict? And from this point onward, what can we expect to unfold next? Will there be more violence and protests? 

We hope not. Because violence leads to deaths, destruction and pain. So definitely, as a neighbour of India, as a friend of India, we do not expect this to continue. We rather hope that the government would try to talk to different communities, and address their concerns and grievances objectively and comprehensively. Is it not a time to take a lesson that divisive and polarised politics does not serve the Indian interest in the long term and could be potentially harmful and derail many policy objectives? 

People talk about the difference between politics and governance. Inciting hatred, violence and conflict could occasionally be a part of politics, unfortunately, but there is a government in India and the solemn obligation of any government for that matter is to govern all its citizens without fear or favour to any particular group or community. My earnest hope is that good sense will prevail, sooner than later. 

As a friend, I strongly believe that stability in India is also in the interest of the neighbours, including Bangladesh. Therefore, any outbreak of communal violence is a matter of concern for us. This puts us in an awkward situation as well.    

So our hope is that the Indian government will take proactive steps to bring down the temperature, engage with the aggrieved communities and address the issues - which polarise the communities - fairly and constructively.  It is difficult to predict how the Indian establishment will move forward, but whatever they do, they must do quickly. As it appears, any further slide will cost India in terms of its reputation, in terms of stability and also in terms of the economy. 

The whole of South Asia is just coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Evidence shows that it has deepened poverty and unemployment in all the countries. So these are the issues we need to address earnestly and quickly and we need to stand by each other to address these common and challenging issues. 

As a friend, as a neighbour, we hope the Indian government takes some lessons from the latest series of events and tries to manage the situation quickly, constructively and inclusively.  

What are the implications for Bangladesh? Can communal clashes in India influence similar sentiments at home?

My hope is that we should not go there. Blaming or harming other communities doesn't solve the core problems, which afflict our day to day lives. Apart from a few raucous demonstrations and protests, inter-communal harmony has so far been maintained in Bangladesh. 

We should focus on our priorities, our priority is to address poverty, preserve communal peace and harmony, intensify efforts to create employment for our younger population, and maintain our economic momentum. So, it would be prudent for Bangladesh not to be distracted by what is happening in India, although it is easier said than done. Rather we should maintain our trajectory of peaceful development and continue to promote the message of peace, progress, justice and inclusiveness.