Why Dhaka-Guwahati bus service could spell disaster for India
Where is the guarantee that when tempers run high, either in Assam or Meghalaya, the bus won’t be stopped by local mobs and passengers attacked?
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee flagged off the Dhaka-Kolkata-Agartala bus service on Saturday. The service will be appreciated by Bengalis on both sides of the border. There is much that people in the three Bengali-speaking capitals share. Whether it is the love of fish, particularly Hilsa, films, books or Rabinda Sangeet - these are bonds which bind the people of this region.
Simultaneously, there was an announcement for a bus service between Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati. Who will use this? Bangladeshis are hated in both Meghalaya and Assam, and other northeastern states. So much so that a massive anti-foreigner agitation was spearheaded by students in Assam in the early 1980s. The movement begun by students got mass support from people. Assam was in turbulence till the 1985 accord between Rajiv Gandhi’s government and the student leaders was signed. The movement was built on mass non-violent protests by ordinary Assamese, men and especially women, who felt it their duty to go out and joint the street protests for the sake of future generations. People believed that the state’s demographic pattern was changing with the unchecked migration of immigrants from Bangladesh. This cry of being inundated by illegal migrants quickly spread to other northeastern states, with student unions raising the red flag.
Even today, student forums and regional parties raise the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. In the Northeast, any Bengali Muslim is a suspect. Never mind that often the person concerned may have lived in the region for generations. Who will use this service? Where is the guarantee that when tempers run high, either in Assam or Meghalaya, the bus won’t be stopped by angry local mobs and the passengers attacked? That could lead to a diplomatic incident between India and Bangladesh.
Remember just recently in March a mob invaded a police station in Dimapur, broke open a prisoner’s cell and stoned to death a hapless accused on charges that he had raped a college girl. All this was later found to be untrue. He was dragged out, paraded naked and beaten and stoned to death by a mob. One reason for the extreme step was that Syed Sharif Khan was believed to a Bangladeshi immigrant by the mob. The poor man actually came from a family of army personnel. He had moved to Nagaland from Assam after marrying a Naga girl. It is believed that it was consensual sex and the two fell out when the girl demanded more money. This is the public mood in the Northeast, so while a bus connecting Agartala and Dhaka is fine, Shillong and Guwahati may not work because of the rampant anti-Bangladeshi views of the people. But if the bus were to connect Dhaka and Silchar in the Bengali speaking district of Cachar in Assam, it would certainly benefit the people of the Barak valley.
Ironically, from the very beginning, the BJP supported the student movement against illegal influx. During his election campaign in 2014, Narendra Modi himself talked tough on immigration from Bangladesh, winning him support in Assam and other states in the Northeast. During Modi’s very successful visit to Bangladesh, there is no indication that the issue was raised at all. At least, publicly, no mention was made of this. The BJP had echoed the accusation made by people of the Northeast that the immigrants were encouraged to come in by successive Congress governments because they were an easy vote bank.
This is not to belittle the overtures prime minister Modi has made to Bangladesh. It has set the tone and tenor for future relations in the neighbourhood. Connectivity was an important theme and for New Delhi transit through Bangladesh for its remote northeastern region had been something successive Indian governments had tried for and not succeeded. Much of it was because of India’s mean spirited negotiations, when dealing with smaller neighbours. Most Indian officials, in the past, believed that all concessions had to be made by the other side! That attitude made India the big bully of the neighbourhood.
The change in Indian attitude came with the arrival of the Chinese with money to throw around. China is all over the neighbourhood, indeed as it is all over Africa, Latin America, Europe and even America! India is now learning to be less arrogant with its smaller neighbours, but one wonders if New Delhi can compete with Beijing, which has big bucks to spend.