Zakir Naik and the identity hypocrisy
While powerful sections of the political class in the Indian Union and powerful mass media are trying to whip up the demand for taking stern action against Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik, the government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has gone ahead and banned Peace TV Bangla, the Bangla language channel in Zakir Naik’s Peace TV stable.
Zakir Naik came into focus in the aftermath of the Dhaka killings when it was alleged by numerous reports that some of the killers were inspired by his preaching. With Zakir Naik’s often offensive preaching and his Peace TV transmissions emerging as a one-stop explanation for Islamic radicalisation among “innocent” folks, it was rather rich to see even former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi using the opportunity to refer to other human beings as “preachers of hate and violence” at a time when more than 40 Kashmiri protesters have been gunned down by Indian armed forces in a matter of days.
While calls for the defence of freedom of expression have been curiously muted in the context of Zakir Naik and the already-banned Peace TV in the Indian Union, the ban in Bangladesh has been relatively easy in the context of the recent murderous Islamist attacks in Dhaka. Freedom of all kinds, including freedom of expression, is best curtailed in times of “emergency”. But in Dhaka, too, the nature of the significantly loud murmurs that have opposed the ban on Peace TV provide an interesting insight into the subcontinental politics of attacking supposed enemies by proxy.
This ban has led to discontent from a section of Bangladeshi society who have argued either along the lines of freedom of expression or positive warmth for the kind of religious preaching that Indian citizen Zakir Naik has been indulging in or both from large studios and venues in the Indian Union.
What is relevant to note here is that opposition to what is perceived as an invasion into “Indian culture” in the form of TV channels with content from India (largely in the form of Hindi films and Bangla serials and shows produced in West Bengal), is extremely high precisely among this very sector of society. Emmanuel Haque Khan says, “Those who used to badmouth India a couple of days ago, were ready to launch jihad on Facebook to boycott Indian products and Indian channels, I am seeing them sit angrily with red flared nostrils in support of a solid Indian product like Zakir Naik,” (quote translated from Bangla). It is relevant to mention the technical point that Peace TV is actually broadcast to the world from Dubai, though most of its video productions happen out of a rather shabby building in the Dongri area of South Mumbai.
Notwithstanding Khan’s broad generalisations, this goes to the heart of a certain tension – the question of what can be deemed “own” even if is Indian and more importantly, what is actually meant by “Indian”. When the “Indian” content boycott comes with an Islamic exception clause, that shows that it is “non-Muslim”, “Indian” content that is deemed as a threat. In the context of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, non-Muslim is largely a codeword for Hindu.
Thus, in this world-view, anything Islamic can be deemed acceptable even if it is Indian while the Indian content that needs to be boycotted is deemed essentially Hindu in character and content. This distinction between Zakir Naik and Indian also privileges Muslimness as being less “foreign” to this sector of Bangladesh. Indeed, this understanding of Bangladesh of being a Muslim land that is incidentally Bengali or South Asian forms one of the important competing narratives of what is the meaning of a sovereign Bangladesh and its raison d’être.
Such dog-whistle messaging that conflates Indian and Hindu becomes a particular predicament for those patriotic Bangladeshis whose opposition to Indian things to the extent of calls for a boycott are not predicated on religious prejudice and communalism. And there are many reasons of discontent for a Bangladeshi vis-a-vis the Indian Union, the giant neighbouring hegemonic super-state. This includes regular border killings by India’s Border Security Force, ruthless Indian corporate expansionism including those in ecologically fragile areas of Bangladesh in the face of fierce local opposition, unilateral intervention into riverine lifelines (like building the Farakka barrage), mistreatment of visa applicants, alleged shadowy intervention into People’s Republic of Bangladesh’s domestic political scene, the nasty portrayal of Bangladeshi citizens in mainstream Indian political and media narrative (with few notable exceptions) as criminal, communal, fast-breeding, illegal immigrants, etc.
The Peace TV ban episode in Dhaka is part of the vicious subcontinental political game around religion-based code words. Just like in the Indian Union, “Pakistani” is a code word – to some its means Pakistan, to some it means Muslim, to some it is a way to say Muslim without ever publicly acknowledging to have meant so. It is not accidental or without reason that then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during some of his earlier election campaigns talked repeatedly about and often even addressing directly “Pakistanis” and Mia Musharraf, in elections where not a single Pakistani citizen was eligible to vote. “Illegal Bangladeshi” or even just “Bangladeshi” is a similar term. While the biologist Theodore Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”. One might as well say, many things in South Asian economic and political life makes sense in light of the communal Partition of 1947 and its afterlife.
In the context of oppressive media-corporate hegemony and a milieu of communalism, Zee Bangla and Star Jalsha, the two West Bengal channels very popular in Bangladesh, comes in that very private mind space of a significant number of individuals, where all politics and yearnings collide, what Ashis Nandy has called in a different context, “the intimate enemy”. The hard nationalists of the Indian Union have a certain pride in their so-called soft power. This pride is unfounded since such dominance is highly unlikely to exist in the absence of a hugely asymmetric economic and political relationship. And all deep money-powered “cultural” exports are basically machines to demolish political autonomy and cultural identity.
While largely West Bengali and also some Hindustani or Bollywood-centric channels dominate a significant part of the Bangladeshi television viewership, Bangla channels from Bangladesh are not available in West Bengal, where about 40 percent of Bengalis of the world live. It is a sector that Bangladeshi channels would want to enter but due to certain rules of the Indian Union and fee structures, that has not happened. It is, in fact, West Bengal’s loss which has been deprived of the amazing talent of Mosharraf Karim, arguably the most talented Bengali television actor of the present time.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)