From his seat in the first-class cabin, Mohander Dhali, saw the storm draw closer as the little steamer fought its way across the Rupna towards Khulna: some fifty men, “dressed in black pajama and black Punjabis with daggers in hand, waiting on the jetty to start killing the Hindus who arrived there”. Faik
mian, Dhali’s elderly neighbour in Hoogalbunia, hid him and the village doctor, Sushil Biswas, from the killers, as blood began to flow off the lower deck, washing bodies into the gentle river.
“The riot in the launch on the lower deck being somewhat calm”, Dhali would later record, “we got out and tried to go to the market”. “In the diffused light, suddenly I saw lying all around innumerable dead bodies”. As he watched, new killers arrived: “Had it not been for Faik again, who caught the dagger in motion, I would have been slain then on the spot”.
Hariprasad Bardhan eyes focussed who had less luck on the Khulna ghat that night of January, 1963. “I saw in the market the dead body of a big merchant”, Bardhan recalled. “He had been put in a gunny bag, and it appeared as if the body had been pierced through the bag”.
For three generations, savagery shaped the life of Hindus in what is now Bangladesh—driving millions across the border into West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, in turn opening up grinding conflicts with indigenous communities, and straining the resources of newly-independent India to breaking point.
In the decade she has ruled Bangladesh, though, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s government has worked to heal those wounds—and rebuild the country’s relationship with India. Bangladesh’s Hindu population has
grown significantly, upending decades of decline, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned home. Islamist forces like the Jama’at-e-Islami and the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh have been ruthlessly put down.
Last year, the Border Security Force
said that, for the first time since the 1950s, north-east based insurgent groups didn’t have a single camp operating in Bangladesh’s territory. Bangladesh’s cooperation has been critical, moreover, to India’s efforts to beat-back threats from terrorist groups.
But the toxic climate generated by India’s new citizenship-law amendments—ranging from anti-Muslim polemic by senior political leaders, and even attacks on Bangladeshi diplomats in India—is empowering Sheikh Hasina’s opponents, who argue that she has conceded too much to their unreliable, Hindu-chauvinist neighbour.
To understand the seriousness of the threat requires a grasp of the political power of communalism in Bangladesh’s history, and politics.
Hours before the slaughter on the Khulna docks began, Abdus Sabur Khan had appeared in the bazaar in Loppur, to make this promise: “he would make shoes with the Hindu skins torn from their backs”, villager Manindra Kumar Kirtania recalled. Then, Pakistan’s communications minister busied himself with his niece’s wedding, attended among others by ministers Abdul Moneim Khan, Kazi Abdul Kadar, several members of Provincial Assembly and local officials and the Khulna élite.
That night, mobs armed by Khan’s local apparatus attacked Raj Kumar Mandal’s village, setting Hindu homes on fire. “The mob was shouting with glee, and also shouting the slogan of jihad”, he was to say. “Among many, who were found dead from burns, were old people and children”.
From the outset, communal violence in East Pakistan had state sponsorship: the ethnic cleansing of the region’s Hindus offered local politicians win the support of refugees arriving from Bihar, by handing over their land. This posed intolerable strains on India, and not just because of religious solidarities: the desperately poor Muslims leaving India for East Pakistan weren’t leaving behind land and assets that could be offered to the new refugees coming into West Bengal.
In 1950, 1.5 million refugees came to India; in 1951-52, 600,000; another million from 1953 to 1956 another 1.6 million, an investigation by the Indian Commission of Jurists
documented. In 1961, India expelled Muslim economic refugees from East Pakistan back home—but that only led to reprisals against Hindus. In 1962 there were attacks on non-Muslims and their proper ties and women in Rajshahi District, leading 35,000 refugees to move to West Bengal and Assam; the 1964 violence, another 850,000.
At a Congress Working Committee meeting in 1949, Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had
stated that “unless we take concrete steps to solve the problem, India would be crushed under their weight”. He advocated seizing territory; Khulna and Jessore were possible targets, the scholar Pallavi Raghavan has noted. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also considered the idea of war.
To both, though, it was clear this idea was unworkable: on top of the crippling costs of the use of military force, a conflict would generate even larger numbers of refugees.
Inside Bangladesh, the killing machine became increasingly institutionalised. Leading up to Bangladesh’s war of independence, the Jama’at-e-Islami set up up a death-squad which killed tens of thousands. In a judgment sentencing a Jama’at leader to 90 years in prison, Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal said the Jama’at “intentionally functioned as a criminal organisation”.
Bangladesh’s liberation ought to have marked a turning point: The Jama’at-e-Islami, was annihilated in the war, along with its patrons, Pakistan’s army. But the wheels of history soon spun in its favour. Major-General Ziaur Rahman, who emerged as Bangladesh’s ruler after the 1975 coup, allowed the Jama’at-e-Islami to re-enter civic life. His successor, General HM Ershad, even appointed two 1971 war criminals, Abdul Mannan and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, to cabinet positions.
Formally founded at Dhaka’s Eden Hotel in May, 1979, the Bangladesh Jama’at-e-Islami was soon back at the core of political life. From 2001-2006, it used its alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to take control of the social welfare ministry, dominating Bangladesh’s well-funded NGO sector. It also controlled the Islami Bank, Bangladesh’s third-largest.
Even at its peak in 1991, the scholar Jyoti Rahman has pointed out in a thoughtful
analysis, the Jama’at never enjoyed a mass constituency. At its peak, in 1991, it won 12 per cent of the popular vote and 18 of 300 seats in parliament, falling in 2008 to 4 per cent of the vote and just eight seats. However, the system of communal ideas it represented gave it legitimacy and social heft.
Following the killings at Khulna, witnesses said, minister Abdus Sabur Khan vowed “even the leaves would have Allah written on them”. Amnestied in 1973, Khan landed on his feet, allying with General Ziaur Rahman.
That ugly history has been defeated by Prime Minister Wazed—and it’s her victory India’s actions are now imperilling.
In Bangladesh’s eyes, India’s arguments for the citizenship amendment just don’t wash. The decision to explicitly prevent Muslims from making citizenship claims based on religious persecution—clearly designed to exclude Rohingya refugee claims—is a key case. Bangladesh, housing 1.1 million Rohingya, fears their long-term presence could empower Islamists, and threaten communal peace in the Chittagong hills. But India, which needs Myanmar’s help to contain its own Naga insurgents, has been loath either to share the refugee burden—or pressure Naypyidaw to take them back.
“The thing is this”, one senior Bangladeshi diplomat says, “you can’t say you are a regional power, a friend of Bangladesh, but refuse to share the costs and problems of our collective security because of your internal communal politics”.
Even though India claims the Rohingya are a security threat, moreover, Bangladesh points out the country hasn’t had a single terrorism case involving the refugees—just
one of a British national, Samiun Rahman, recruiting among them to fight in their homeland.
Prime Minister Wazed’s government, moreover, is sensitive to the political costs it’s had to incur because of Indian politicians threatening to evict alleged Bangladeshi migrants from the country—migrants Dhaka denies are its citizens—even as New Delhi has held out
official diplomatic assurances it plans to do no such thing.
Hindu anger against the treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh or Pakistan isn’t ill-founded. Emotion, however, isn’t a sound basis for action. Few Hindu migrants from Bangladesh,
official data shows, are likely to apply for Indian citizenship; most have, through whatever means, already integrated themselves into a de-facto legal status they are unlikely to risk. The sheer numbers of economic migrants from Bangladesh—the vast bulk of whom arrived long before the country existed—are, similarly, profoundly unlikely to ever be deported.
BR Ambedkar once warned that Indians needed to choose between building functional countries, and the nihilism of the bayonet: “if swaraj is to usher in an era in which the Hindus and the Muslims will be engaged in scheming against each other, the one planning to conquer its rival”, he warned, it “will be a snare, a delusion and a perversion”.
Indians wondering what their future should look like just need to look left, then right. There’s Pakistan, where leaders dragged God out on to the streets—with catastrophic consequences. Then, there’s Bangladesh, which showed that it’s possible to step away from the abyss.The bottom line is this: India is weakening a key ally for at-best-tenuous gains. And as Team India works overtime to bowl itself out in Dhaka, Beijing is watching from the stands, quietly smiling.