My visit to New Delhi with my family members from September 30 to October 10, 2019 for medical reasons coincided with the official visit of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina from October 03 to 06, 2019. During a dinner in Delhi Golf Club, a young journalist Ms. Sabina Indrajit asked: Uncle, what is your assessment of the outcome of Hasina's visit? My frank reply, based entirely on newspaper reporting and wide coverage by at least four English dailies, namely Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Times of India and the Millennium Post, was that it was a very successful visit.
First, that Sheikh Hasina was the Chief Guest at the India Economic Summit organised by World Economic Forum was in itself a great honour, where she expressed her priorities for economic diplomacy between the Bangladesh and India. That she meant what she said was exemplified by the fact that of the seven MoUs (memorandum of understandings) signed and three projects jointly inaugurated, five of them relate to greater economic cooperation between the two countries.
One important and strong message that Bangladesh was a secular country, where religion and religious beliefs are personal matters, was delivered loud and clear when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated, through video link, the Vivekananda Bhaban (Student Hostel) at Ramkrishna Mission, Dhaka. Another important message conveyed was that Bangladesh never forgets its friends-in-need. She called on Sonia Gandhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh and her big hug to Priyanka Gandhi was prominently displayed in some of the dailies one day after her departure to Dhaka. Hasina also invited the Congress Chief to visit Bangladesh on the occasion of 50th liberation anniversary.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Hasina, in no uncertain terms, pointed out to the Commerce Minister of India that Bangladesh did not appreciate India's move of sudden stoppage of onion export to Bangladesh without any advance notice. Bangladesh was the top importer of Indian onion, both fresh and chilled and accounted for nearly 31 per cent of India's USD 497 million worth of export.
The NRC (National Register of Citizens) issue, however, still continues to be the grey area. The realities on the ground do not fully match with the assurance extended by Prime Minister Modi that NRC was an internal matter and should not worry Bangladesh. A news items published in Hindustan Times on October 02, 2019 reported that the Director General of Police of Uttar Pradesh had issued a circular directing all the 75 District Police Chiefs to launch a comprehensive drive to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from the state, reportedly aimed at strengthening internal security. The Indian Home Minister repeatedly made it clear that all states must go through the process of compiling NRC, but assured that the refugees belonging to Hindu, Christian, Jain and Buddhist Communities should be accorded Indian nationality and that "Citizenship Amendment Bill will precede NRC; so refugees need not worry."
The multi-cultural narrative that has dominated India until is obviously under attack. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) asserts that the true colour of Indian history is saffron. Also under attack is the spirit of India, where, in Tagore's words, races and cultures as diverse as the Huns, Pathans, Dravidians, Aryans and Mughals converged and melted into one great body of humanity (Tagore's Bharat Tirtha).
Our first test of India's changing face was at the immigration counter of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, where, instead of (Otithi Deba Bhabo) welcome, we were used to, we faced a somewhat hostile immigration counter. On the other hand, home-coming welcome at the India International Centre by the security guards, receptionists, managers, porters, room service and dining room staff etc was reassuring.
Another big surprise was the unprecedented year-long celebration of Mahatma Gandhi's 150th Birth Anniversary actively participated by RSS and its political arm of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) which some columnist portrayed as an attempt to hijack the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by reshaping his values and vision of a liberal India. For some Congress insiders, RSS and BJP are leaving no stone unturned to reestablish a new face for Prime Minister Modi, who was heralded by President Trump as the "Father of India" in the Houston's jam-packed NRG Stadium, as Mahatma's ideological heritor. To make the road smooth for achieving this goal, the RSS-BJP combine needed to project itself as the true representative of Gandhiji's values.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Modi, about 49 Indian celebrities from different fields including film maker Shyam Benegal, Anurag Kashyap, singer Shubha Mudgal, actresses Konkona Sen Sharma and Aparna Sen etc stated that "lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately and that this slogan "Jai Shri Ram" has become a provocative war cry." The letter further maintained that "there is no democracy without dissent" and that people should not be branded as "Anti-Nationals or Urban Naxals" for voicing dissent.
No sooner had the letter been published than a sedition case was registered after a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Bihar passed an order on a plea by a lawyer alleging that the celebrities had tarnished the image of the country through their open letter. The sedition case raised country-wide protests that "this is tantamount to punishing all those who have a dissenting opinion on the policies of the present government. This is a complete negation of democratic rights and reflects the growing authoritarianism". The Indian Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, however, was quick to clarify that "the government did not get any case registered against the 49 celebrities for writing this letter to PM over growing incidents of mob lynching. An individual went to the court which has passed an order."
In another interesting development, 71 former top bureaucrats, protesting the government move to grant CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) prosecution sanction for four senior bureaucrats, wrote to the Prime Minister that it would only confirm the worst apprehension of the civil servants that "they will be afforded no protection for bona fide acts in the performance of their official duties". The former bureaucrats, mostly IAS (Indian Administrative Service), expressed deep concern over selective targeting of retired and serving officers apparently for gaining narrow political advantages. Reported resignation by a couple of IAS officers to register their protest against state action in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) as undemocratic, dictatorial and against constitutional norms, is also a new phenomenon hitherto foreign to the well-trained and well-disciplined civil servants, branded as the steel frame of British Raj.
India's diversity should be its source of strength and not a sankat (problem) as recently depicted by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. It is the diversity and its marshalling for the greater good of the people that earned India the reputation of a role model of a well-functioning democratic republic.
Md. Matiul Islam, the first Finance Secretary of Bangladesh, was UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) Country Director in New Delhi