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OP-ED: More than the eye could see

  • Published at 11:15 pm April 5th, 2021
india prime minister modi
Prime Minister Modi with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during his visit to Bangladesh PMO

What Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh really meant

This was Narendra Modi’s second visit to Bangladesh in the last six years that he has been prime minister of India. Originally, this was planned for last year, on the day when Bangabandhu’s year-long centennial birthday celebrations began but was put off because of the Covid pandemic. 

Both countries are still going through the pandemic crisis, though large-scale vaccination is under way in both countries. But the contagion is still there, and people are still dying from it. Yet, PM Modi decided to take a foreign trip -- his first in more than 13 months. One is tempted to ask: Why this urgency? 

A special place in his heart?

Why, despite the continued surge of Covid-19, did Modi decide to visit Bangladesh? Is Bangladesh so special that he could not refuse the invitation to be chief guest at the concluding ceremony of Bangabandhu’s centennial that happened to coincide with the Independence Day of Bangladesh? Does Bangladesh have a special place in Modi’s heart -- a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim? Or were there more tactical and strategic concerns that led him to take this two-day trip? 

It is not unusual that Bangladesh should invite the head of government of a country that lent maximum help toward its liberation to its 50th anniversary celebration.  We feel honoured that Narendra Modi accepted this invitation and came despite the threat of Covid hanging over both countries. 

Modi had wowed the country with his charm and eloquent speech the first time he had come. He had tried to woo Bangladeshis with his avowal of friendship and declaration of a harmonious neighbourly relationship with the signing of numerous agreements, a significant result of which was the actual implementation of the long-delayed enclaves transfer agreement. 

But unlike the first visit, this second visit had no such political agenda, at least on the surface. On the surface was the innocuous attendance of a state ceremony honouring the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, and the centennial birth anniversary of the country’s founder -- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

Puzzling actions

They say one should not look into the mouth of a gift horse. But the question is, who was getting the gift, Bangladesh or India? Was Modi’s presence a gift to Bangladesh or did Bangladesh provide a gift to Modi by receiving him here and giving him an opportunity to court his constituents in India? 

There may be several explanations that underlie Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. But for one thing, let us acknowledge Modi’s munificence to undertake this two-day trip. Even the strongest detractor of Modi should give him credit for this. 

But what puzzled people like me was the temple-run that he did during his whirlwind visit to far flung areas of Bangladesh -- the temples few people had heard of before his visit. 

If Modi -- a devout Hindu -- had wanted to show his religiosity and devotion, he could have chosen any of the well-known temples in Dhaka. Instead, he chose two temples spread far from each other, and revered by different Hindu sects. 

The one in Orakandi believed to be built in the 13th century is worshipped by Matua -- a namasudra community, a large number of which migrated to West Bengal and live in the Nadia and 24-Pargana districts. 

The second, Jeshoreswari Kali Temple, also believed to be built in the 13th century, is in a village in Satkhira district that borders 24-Pargana district of West Bengal. This temple is worshipped by the Shakta sect of the Hindu community. 

Enough of ancient history and who built these temples or for whom these were built. Why was Narendra Modi drawn to these temples, and why during Covid times? 

It’s just politics

According to ABP, a Hindi news channel of India, Matuas, who have a significant presence in West Bengal, can impact the outcome in 32-33 state assembly seats in Nadia and 24-Pargana districts. The channel further stated that Matua support is considered a factor behind BJP’s impressive showing in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal, giving the party 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. 

Now, what about the Kali temple which is far removed from the Matua temple? This temple is one of 51 shrines spread all over India, including West Bengal, that are worshipped by the Shakta community, a large part of which migrated from East Bengal. They are part of a growing BJP voter base in West Bengal.

According to ABP, the Hindu refugees from Bangladesh have backed the BJP over the Citizenship Amendment Act which fast-tracks citizenship of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and other religions other than Muslims who have migrated to India. 

BJP expects, with the party winning in West Bengal, its hand will be strengthened to implement BJP-initiated policies and laws. So, what Modi was trying to achieve from his temple-run in Bangladesh was to win support of the migrants from Bangladesh to West Bengal who would be BJP’s vote bank.

Move away from China

But this is the tactical side of the visit. Strategically, there are more things that this visit offered to Modi. First, the visit was a follow up to the visit by the country’s foreign minister a couple of months earlier that tried to throw a spanner into the growing Chinese courtship of Bangladesh through generous offers of economic help and partnership in the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The one that was viewed by India as the most threatening was the Chinese offer to dredge and further develop the Teesta river, a subject of ongoing dispute of Bangladesh with India. 

But even without this issue Bangladesh’s hobnobbing with China, which is India’s major rival in Asia, is not something that India takes kindly to. 

Modi’s charm offensive this time around has been as much to honour Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s invitation as his firm intention to advise her to move away from China. Along with this is also a kind of personal assurance to her government that in times of distress, India will be by her side as it had been in 1971. 

The five agreements that have been officially signed this time were actually ritualistic, like icing on the cake -- the cake being the opportunity given to Modi to canvas for his party and draw away Bangladesh from Chinese overture.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, co-founder of BJP and the first BJP Prime Minister of India, had remarked in his book that you can choose friends, but not neighbours. Bangladesh and India will remain neighbours whether they like it or not for years to come. 

As neighbours, they will go through phases where their friendship and dependence on each other will be tested with changes in leadership in each country. Much of this test also depends on respect for each other, irrespective of how big or small the neighbour is. 

We cannot forget India’s help in our independence. But we also need to remind ourselves that our independence was not a consequence of a struggle of just nine months. Our struggle started two decades before that, and was a result of sacrifices of millions of Bangladeshis. 

India gave us help. It does not mean that we need to sacrifice our own future because of it. We want to remain friends with India, but as two friendly sovereign countries -- equals. 

Modi’s visit may earn a win for his party, but to win the hearts and minds of the people of the country that he visited, he needs to spend more time for all the communities in his country that can garner support for his party and himself. He did not need to come to Bangladesh for that win. That has to come from his future policies.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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