As India heads towards the last phase of its month-long general elections, the results of the polls are being keenly anticipated not just by its citizens but also by many others in Southasia. Close links between the peoples – and politicians – of India and its regional neighbours means that the political landscape of the region’s largest country has considerable impact on its neighbourhood. Given worrying developments, such as the rise of majoritarian politics, not just in India but in several Southasian countries, the electoral outcome could affect the fate of their shared challenges as well.
Himal Southasian’s editor Aunohita Mojumdar spoke to celebrated photographer, journalist and activist Shahidul Alam about what the Indian elections mean to Southasia in general and Bangladesh in particular. Alam, who was incarcerated for over 100 days by the Bangladesh government under the repressive Information and Communication Technology Act, and is now out on bail, reflects on the shifting perception of India in Bangladesh, new challenges to democracies in the region, and the need for Southasian solidarity.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Aunohita Mojumdar: Hi Shahidul, thank you so much for joining us for the Himal Southasian podcast. We are trying to take a Southasian look at the ongoing Indian elections, and recently we had Pervez Hoodbhoy writing about the Indian elections from Pakistan. And we thought we could get a Bangladeshi perspective on the elections as well, because, of course, apart from the keen observations of the elections worldwide they have a special impact on Southasia. Can you tell us how the elections are being viewed by the different sections in Bangladesh today?
Shahidul Alam: Well, firstly, I need to confess I am no political analyst but yet I am a Bangladeshi so I can pitch in. It’s obviously very, very significant, because India is perceived and generally accepted as being the big brother of Bangladesh. And we do say India sneezes and we catch a cold. So, what’s happening is being assessed by pretty much everyone. One of the things we’ve joked about is whether the Modi government might have learnt a trick or two from ours but looking at how things are happening we feel that at least in relative terms the Indian democratic process is much more robust than ours is, and it would be unlikely for there to be as blatant hijacking, but the tweaking obviously does happen. But it is very interesting, and there are several parallels as well. On the one hand, it is very individual based, in the sense that it is not about the party so much it’s about Modi. It seems to be a binary choice between Modi and Rahul, which determines things happening. At our end as well, the individuals have become far more important than the party itself. But if we look at the overall shifts, some of the things we are looking at are different in the sense that security seems to be coming to the fore to a far greater extent: the Pulwama incident. On our end, while security has been such an important issue, it is much more an internal issue. And at the end on the day it didn’t matter at all, because the elections did not require the citizen.
AM: You’ve talked about a couple of significant issues about these elections right now. But to take the issue of similarities and dissimilarities between Bangladesh and India, you were saying that India is being seen as the big brother and perhaps even being seen as the country which provided leadership to the region in the early years after Independence, in terms of setting up a democratic structure, which was seen, to some extent, as being successful in terms of expanding civil rights, political rights and human rights. Do you think that this is something which Bangladeshi civil society still feels that it is looking to India for?
SA: That is very interesting perspective in the sense that obviously India’s role in 1971 is without doubt something that we all recognise and reflect upon, and are grateful for. However, one forgets that India has shifted a lot from that. Today, if there was a cricket match between Pakistan and India – and I find that a good indicator because cricket is so special to all of us – given the histories of the Subcontinent, given the role that Pakistan and India played, today in a cricket match between India and Pakistan, we will have a fairly divided crowd, which is unbelievable. And that relates to how far India has lost its goodwill. You’re absolutely right that we’ve had a lot to learn and even today I think the Indian democratic process is much more robust than ours is. You actually have an election commissioner that has some mettle. In our case, all the institutions have been completely destroyed, but that’s partly happening in India too. But, yes, I do agree that there are things we have to learn from. But by and large the big brother phenomenon is what everyone looks at and India is a bad word here.
AM: So why do you think India has become a bad word or a curse word in Bangladesh in just a couple of decades, why do you think the perception of India has changed so much?
SA: Firstly, I think it has to do with India being so insular. And that’s not just about Bangladesh. India’s relationship with all its neighbours. Pakistan, of course, is a special case, but Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh – there is resentment in all these countries for very valid reasons. The meddling that India has done in all our economies and all our democracies is despicable. But more significantly, I think India doesn’t really recognise or try to understand its neighbours. In Bangladesh’s case, we are an agrarian economy and nothing matters more to the farmer and the field than water. Yet, despite all these years, despite all the promises that were made in 1971 we’ve still not had anywhere near an equitable water sharing system. And that rankles the Bangladeshi farmer and, therefore, the Bangladesh public far more than anything else. When I talk to my Indian friends – progressive, knowledgeable friends – they seem to be unaware of this. Even journalists seem largely to be unaware. Other is a more recent phenomenon, the fact that India has actually been meddling very, very seriously in Bangladeshi politics in Bangladeshi economy. If you look at the things that have been happening, say the Rampal Power project, where India feels coal is bad for India, yet it’s happy to export it to Bangladesh. And the Indian concessions that are being made by successive Bangladeshi governments, particularly the present one is diabolical. We are selling out our land to our neighbours. If you look at general opinion in Bangladesh, India ranks very, very low.
AM: You’ve talked about India’s negative role, its meddling in politics and economy in Bangladesh. If we talk about the economy first, obviously given the trade relationship and the interdependencies, the flow of labour, the two countries have very close ties economically. And you say India is not very concerned about its neighbourhood. What do you think is the impact of these elections on Bangladesh?
SA: Well, firstly we need to separate that. We were talking about elections and that obviously links it to a particular party. But, by and large, Indian policy towards Bangladesh has been negative, regardless of which political party has been in power. So, we need to be able to disengage that. There was a time when one felt that with Modi coming in, perhaps the relationship between Bangladesh and India might shift, because earlier it was the Congress which had been very close to the ruling party here. That hasn’t happened. It has been a fairly smooth transition in that sense. Whichever government in India comes into power, the patron-client relationship between our two countries remains the same. But I started talking about say Rampal, and you look at the Sundarbans, the UNESCO heritage site, the fact that a coal power plant is being built largely by India using Indian coal and, it is felt here, largely for Indian interest. And that regardless of public opinion in Bangladesh – and there have been huge protests in Bangladesh about this – our government simply doesn’t care. That suggests that it doesn’t have the mettle to question India in anyway. I’ll give you a simple example: activists were protesting about Rampal and wanted to present a letter to the Indian High Commission. And the way they were treated by the High Commission – this is a foreign high commission in Bangladesh treating some of our finest citizens in such a cavalier manner, it’s unheard of.
AM: The government to government relationship is of course something which we as citizens can’t influence, but you’ve also pointed to something else which is disturbing: that your friends in India seem to be hardly aware about what is happening in Bangladesh. And I remember being in Dhaka in March this year when Arundhati Roy spoke at the Chobi Mela which you had organised, and somebody in the audience asked about the Indian civil society’s lack of engagement with Bangladesh.
SA: Absolutely. I think the big brotherly approach by the government circulates down to a grassroots level, and to that extent, I don’t think in civil society the neighbouring countries are taken so seriously. One of the things which you were talking about, Chobi Mela: earlier, one of the things we did at that time – that was a time when India and Pakistan were approaching war – and one of the things we did during Chobi Mela is that statement of solidarity for peace, the Southasian statement of solidarity for peace. I think this is the time when we really need to in a sense assert ourselves sufficiently. There are very fine people on both sides of the border who want to work together and can look beyond this very narrow nationalistic, jingoistic approach. But we are not the forces that are being heard, and I think it is time that we created a greater solidarity between those likeminded people so we do not allow our nations to be hijacked.
AM: To get back to the issue of the Indian elections, you made the important distinction between the approach of the Indian state towards Bangladesh and the continuity of approaches despite the change of governance. In that context do you think the outcome of the ongoing Indian elections will have an impact on Bangladesh or not really?
SA: Well, one issue which is very significant and that applies to the BJP in particular is the religion card. The fact that one of the things we’ve looked up to was that India was a secular nation. India no longer appears to behave like a secular nation. That obviously affects people at this side as well. Obviously the Babri Masjid incident provoked reactions at this end. Luckily, we’ve not had riots for a long time. But with the lynchings that are taking place in India and the hostility towards Muslims, the blatant hostility towards Muslims, there will be a reverse reaction here and it feeds the extremists at this end. It adds fuel to the vitriol that they provoke, and that is very worrying. I think at an economic level perhaps India will continue to be big brother whichever government comes into power and it will exercise control over us until we can get rid of spineless governments at our end, and I can’t see that happening very quickly. We will continue to be subservient to India. But the religion card is a very, very important one, and I think India going back to secular India is very, very important, certainly for Bangladesh and I think for the region.
AM: It’s very interesting what you are saying about the religion card because Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote about it as well in his recent article for us. And one interesting thing that he points out is though it might seem that Pakistan’s political leadership will seize on the atrocities against Muslims committed in India with the complicity of the Indian state and protest about it, strangely neither the Pakistan government nor the political leadership nor what he termed the “virulent Urdu press” were commenting on it, because perhaps there was almost a comfort level in the fact that India, too, was becoming like Pakistan in its attitudes about minorities. Have there been protests in Bangladesh about the treatment of Muslims in India, or is the political leadership in Bangladesh or its civil society saying very much about it?
SA: Protests themselves are difficult now. We are in a very repressive environment, there is a climate of fear. Just this morning I looked at a news report and a lawyer had been set upon inside jail and he died. And he had been arrested because he had made negative comments against the prime minister. This is getting to extreme levels. So while there are not as many protests… but if you look at the pulse, if you listen to the unsaid, you will recognise a huge amount of resentment about India, particularly about the situation of Muslims. But it’s very dangerous to talk against India in Bangladesh today, merely because of the power dynamics. So while that might be the opinion, that’s not something that will be vocalised.
AM: You’ve pointed to the repression in Bangladesh, and you yourself have been victim to it and stood up against it and continue to stand up against it with great courage. But why doesn’t the Bangladeshi government or the political leadership or the state take up these issues with the Indian government?
SA: Well, I’m a cynic in those terms. If you look at how one perceives interest should be, one hopes that at least within politicians it should be national interests first and personal interests last. It seems to be exactly the other way round. Personal interest seems to be the only thing that matters; national interests can go where it can. So, what you suggest would be based on moral, ethical reasons. I don’t think either of those are part of the equation. The reason the political parties cow tow to India is because they need India for their survival. And while that’s the case they would do the bidding whatever the bidding might be. So, the interest of the nation never enters the equation here. And, to that extent, I think that is what separates our political parties from the public itself. The public is completely enraged by this subservient approach, yet, a) is scared of saying anything, and b) almost accepts that that’s the way it is going to be, because India is big brother and there is no easy way in which you can change things.
AM: That’s absolutely true and I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the political leadership across most of Southasia leaves a lot to be desired. One is almost reminded of Brecht’s line about dismissing the people and electing another rather than dismissing the government. Could you comment briefly on whether you think the elections in India would have an impact on the idea of Southasia?
SA: Again, I am not an expert, but India is a big country, in many ways and it’s obviously a very important country. I think the role that India plays in Southasia is crucial for Southasia’s survival and Southasia’s progress. SAARC was never allowed to be effective because of the role that India played. One hopes that a less jingoistic Indian leadership would allow that greater solidarity to take place. One hopes that Indian leadership would have greater confidence in itself – to allow the plurality of our region to blossom. I don’t see that happening very easily, but in critical terms, perhaps Modi being replaced by a less jingoistic and less fundamentalist leader would allow a certain degree of solidarity to take place in Southasia – something that’s much needed.
AM: Well I think many of us in Southasia certainly hope for that and at least if not a change in leadership then at least having a party in power that it doesn’t have such a powerful role that it can’t be restricted, so that civil rights and political rights can find space.
SA: I do think we as citizens have a role to play. It’s not sufficient for us to stand back and be fatalistic and accept that that is the way it’s going to be. I think there are very fine people and minds across borders, and I think we need to be united we need to work together, we need to demonstrate to our governments that they cannot get away with what they are doing. And I think that Southasian citizen solidarity is something that we need to build upon, and at the end of the day, we need to question all governments from a position of strength, and it’s our solidarity that will give us strength.
AM: Absolutely and I hope we can all work towards that. Let’s conclude on that hopeful note, and thank you very much Shahidul for joining us today for the Himal podcast.
~The podcast interview was first published on 7 May 2019, and this page was updated with the unedited transcript on 23 May 2019.