Joseph Allchin is a journalist who has covered the greater Bay of Bengal region for The Economist and The Financial Times, among other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming book Many Rivers, One Sea: Bangladesh and the Challenge of Islamist Militancy.
Despite causing mayhem, Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to take the citizenship register process piloted in Assam nationwide—in order to rid the nation of its largely imaginary “infiltrators” before the next general election, scheduled for 2024. Thousands have already been detained in protests against the citizenship laws across the nation, with police responding on occasion with deadly force. The very act of protesting, along with certain religious identities, have seemingly become anathema to the country’s rulers in what was once the great liberal hope of South Asia.
The demonization of the Sunni Muslim Rohingya minority as “extremists” or “terrorists” has proved effective for nationalist politicians with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But this othering of the Rohingya now risks dangerous secondary effects. Chiefly, that the government’s conjuring of the specter of a jihadist insurgency may prove self-fulfilling, with an embittered, radicalized Rohingya diaspora forced over the border at bayonet point into Bangladesh, where a coterie of Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are using the Rohingya cause to whip up popular sentiment for their own political purposes.
The July 1 massacre in Bangladesh was quickly claimed by ISIS. But viewed from up close, the recent history of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh suggests that both the government and its critics may be missing the underlying story, in which both ISIS and local groups have a part. The ruling party’s clumsy and authoritarian response to recent violence and opposition protests may also be encouraging radicalization.