The mistrust of some Hindus towards Bangladesh is disturbing. If the migration issue festers, business communities on both sides will go into hibernation
For more than 100 years, the ratio of Hindu population in the Indian subcontinent has been declining. The dip, from 75.1 per cent in 1881 to 72.9 per cent in 1901, in British India created a paranoid reaction that Muslims would outnumber Hindus. This myth has been repeated after every census ever since. The share of Hindus in free India continued to drop, from 84.1 per cent in 1951 to 79.80 per cent in 2011, and the paranoia is now being used by Islamophobes to rile up Hindus for political reasons.
Of India’s 1.3 billion people, Muslims constitute only 15 per cent. Because of the staggering gap in these numbers, it is absurd to think that Indian Muslims would ever exceed Hindus. It is, however, true that India’s 200 million Muslims possess pendulum-swinging voting firepower, especially in minority-dominated areas.
Across India’s eastern borders, the Hindu growth rate paints a surprisingly different picture. Bangladesh is facing a reverse migration. Hindus have been moving back to Bangladesh from India since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recaptured power in 2009. Confirmation of this trend came from no less a person than Shahriar Kabir, a journalist and pro-India man who is widely known as an anti-Islamist activist in Bangladesh. “Over the past 10 years, 250,000 Hindus have returned to Bangladesh. There has been no new migration to India. As a result, the Hindu population has risen by 2.5 per cent.” India’s previous External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also acknowledged the trend. “About the demographic changes in Bangladesh, as per statistics of the Bangladesh Bureau [of Statistics, which compiles demographic data] in 2011, there were 8.4 per cent Hindus in the country, which has risen to 10.7 per cent in 2017,” she told India’s Parliament.
Influx raises questions: This sudden surge in the Bangladeshi Hindu population, which had been on a free fall since British India’s Partition in 1947, has fuelled wild speculation in Bangladesh: Pro-India Hasina has imported Bengali-speaking Hindus from India to fill key administrative positions in an attempt to tighten her grip on the nation. Hindus had been historically denied top government jobs since the Pakistan days because they were suspected to be sympathetic to India. But now they seem to be ubiquitous. They all too often appear on television and in newspapers as government spokesmen. This phenomenon has caught public attention.
“The calculation of the percentage here is not clear to me. How did the Hindu population growth surpass that of the Muslims in the last few years? Can we assume that a great number of Hindus migrated to Bangladesh from India over the last few years?”asked Masud Kamal, senior news editor, Banglavision, a satellite TV channel in Dhaka. The questions have merits. Research shows the trend defies logic. A study, Hindu Population Growth in Bangladesh: A Demographic Puzzle, concluded that “Hindus have lower fertility, higher mortality and higher international out-migration rates than Muslims.” Given the demographic characteristics, the natural Hindu growth rate trails that of the Muslim. Because of this anomaly, the rumour mill is in overdrive as to why the Hindu population suddenly soared in Bangladesh and how Hindus so quickly captured so many top jobs. Sceptics dismiss the influx as a hoax, arguing the Government fabricated the numbers to appease India. But they fail to explain the surge in Hindu high officials, giving credence to the Hindu import theory.
No official explanation has been offered. This silence may be too costly. In the event the hereditary frictions between the two communities again flare up, genuine Bangladeshi Hindus could be targetted by Muslim mobs on suspicion that they are “imported Hindus.” The speculation surrounding the Hindu influx reflects a deep-rooted suspicion that marks Hindu-Muslim relations, a legacy of India’s age-old caste system. Most of the Bengali Muslims descended from oppressed-and-resentful-lower-caste Hindus who converted to Islam, rebelling against their higher-caste Hindu oppressors. There is still bad blood between the upper and lower castes, or Hindus and Muslims.
India’s paranoia: The paranoia towards Bangladesh and its majority Muslim population runs high among some of the elite in India. Some Hindus, especially those in West Bengal, who share a common language and a rich culture with Bangladeshis, accuse their neighbour of tacitly harboring anti-India terrorism. They also sound a false alarm, saying illegal migration into India is changing its religious demographics.
This rant reflects the century-old fear that Muslims would somehow outnumber Hindus and re-establish the Muslim empire in India. It is this fear that drove Hindutva guru VD Savarkar to oppose a Muslim country next to Hindustan. The nationalist BJP is using this anxiety against neighbouring Bangladesh to galvanise public support.
Bangladesh, the land of 163 million Bengalis, including 12 per cent Hindus, is India’s most friendly neighbour. Still, it has concerns about several bilateral matters, including a fiercely contentious assertion by Delhi that there are 40 million Bangladeshis illegally living in India and that they must be pushed back. This issue spoiled the talks in Delhi in August between Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and his Indian counterpart Amit Shah. The matter became so acrimonious that the two sides failed to issue a customary joint communique after the talks.
Delhi is going through a citizenship verification process to detect non-citizens and has already classified nearly two million of its long-term residents as stateless. India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has assured that the citizenship verification drill is India’s internal matter; it will not affect Bangladesh. Modi has reassured his Bangladeshi counterpart Hasina twice, first at the United Nations in September and then in Delhi in October.
What’s behind migration politics? Why did Shah push Khan for a treaty to deport illegal migrants? Why did not the Hasina-Modi joint statement include the assurance? There was no mention of the migration issue at all, a lapse that raises suspicions about India’s real intentions. One possible reason could be that the BJP now understands the folly of “Operation Pushback” but still must appease its militant saffron warriors, who want a Muslim-free India. During his election campaign, Narendra Modi told the migrants in States bordering Bangladesh to keep their “bags packed,” ready to be sent home. But his administration waited until his re-election in 2019 to bring up the deportation issue with Bangladesh, the most densely populated nation on earth and less than five per cent the size of of its neighbour.
India’s anti-Bangladesh paranoia appeared so incendiary that it once caught the attention of an American diplomat. During a discussion in Kolkata with visiting US Embassy Dhaka’s political officer Denise Rollins, Dilip Mitra, additional director-general of the state police for railways, listed a lengthy litany of complaints. He was convinced India’s arch rival Pakistan had taken over Bangladesh; that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, backed by Islamic zealots, controlled Bangladesh’s army and its spy agency, all of which were working to make India “bleed from 1,000 cuts.” On top of all this, he believed, illegal immigration from Bangladesh across a porous border was sharply increasing the Muslim proportion of West Bengal’s population. He vowed to flee the State before the demographic change occurred.
Despite all the railing against Bangladesh, its people still keep close ties with West Bengal. Nahida Rahman Shumona, counsellor at the Deputy High Commission for Bangladesh in Kolkata, estimated roughly 30 per cent of Bengalis have roots in Bangladesh and wish to see their neighbour prosper. Many Bangladeshis come to Kolkata for medical care and go shopping in the city’s vibrant markets and name-brand stores.
The mistrust of some Hindus towards Bangladesh is disturbing. It can only harm the often-testy relations between the two countries. If the migration issue festers, business communities on both sides will go into hibernation. An economic nosedive will destabilise Bangladesh and India will face an influx of refugees. Keeping lines of communication open is essential to successfully managing the bilateral relationship.
( Khasru is author of Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, US, China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome. His new book, One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus an America, will be published shortly.)