Working with students from India for a research project, I realised how ostensibly similar we were as people; whether it be culture, food, the family drama, the folklores or the history - we shared everything.
As they say in movies, "The resemblance was uncanny." Yet, as I smiled and laughed with my Indian friends over a joke Varun Grover made about Amit Shah being the first lady of India, I wondered, where did it all go wrong for us?
Why does Amit Shah keep comparing Bangladeshi immigrants to termites? Why do innocent Madrasah kids lay down their lives on the streets protesting Modi's visit to Bangladesh? Who's pulling the strings and why?
Apparently, the answer lies behind the curtains. Let's lift them today.
Just a few days ago, Indian's Union Home Minister Amit Shah, on the campaign trail in West Bengal claimed that Bangladeshi immigrants were migrating to India because they did not "get enough to eat in their own country."
Long before that, he also claimed that Bangladeshi immigrants were snatching jobs away from the Indian poor as well as taking food away from their plates.
Most recently, Babul Supriyo, a state minister in Modi's cabinet, and his BJP mates in Bengal released a political anthem that constantly alludes to the gang-rape case of one Purnima Shil in 2001 by BNP-Jamaat cadres and uses her photographs without taking her consent, to stir up a communal angle. Weirdly, the song portrays her as a Dalit, which she is not.
On the flip side of the coin, there is a widely held belief that often plays out in the Bangladeshi ethnopolitical landscape. Apparently, India has conspired to launch a secret mission (!) to destroy the good name of Muslims and Bangladeshi Muslims must stand together and put an end to this menace, by hook or by crook, even if it means laying down their lives.
Such beliefs, on both sides of the borders, are often consolidated by spreading misinformation and propaganda on social media. The increasingly regular and alarming number of cases of minority aggression also adds salt to the wound.
For example, a video of two Bangladeshi men beating up another person went viral in 2019 in India. The video was portrayed as an instance of communal violence, when it was actually the result of internal political violence and had no connection to religion whatsoever.
At the same time, another old video from 2015 of two Bangladeshi men attempting to use Indian passports to get into Saudi Arabia was widely circulated as well.
The interesting thing? Both videos went viral during the CAA protests in India. Why? So that public opinion would shift in favour of the controversial legislation proposed by the BJP government.
All of these seems eerily similar to something we all read in the history books: the cautionary tale of marauding invaders coming to your lands to take away your golds and harass your women; the call for the hero to rise only who can protect the weak and the old from the dark hands of destiny. Sounds like a page taken from the Authoritarian playbook.
The authoritarian often rises from the ashes of the economy. He portrays himself as the saviour of the people. Then he always blames the suffering of the people on some persecuted, misrepresented minority with a history of systemic disenfranchisement. Why? Because they're easy targets and more importantly, it diverts attention from the debilitating economic crisis.
We have seen this time and time again. Hitler did it with the Jews; Putin did it with the LGBTQ community; Trump did it with the Muslims and the Mexicans; Rodrigo Duterte did it with non-violent drug offenders.
So, who's pulling the strings in the subcontinent and what do they want to achieve?
Apparently, there's an election going on right now in West Bengal and the BJP wants to pounce on it. A deal has been made with Kejriwal; CAA protesters have been put behind bars. So, West Bengal truly is the last breath of fresh air not tainted by 'gerua'.
In fulfilling Narendra Modi's dream of an undivided Hindustan, West Bengal was probably the last frontier. And Amit Shah wants to change that. But how?
Now the Indian subcontinent does not reek of economic opportunities, to say the least. Decades of corruption, inefficiency in the public sector and colossal mismanagement have kept the poor from reaching their true potential, as Amartya Sen would say.
But that's not something Amit Shah could or would like to take care of. So, what can he do?
Well, in a continent devoid of economic freedom and opportunities for upward mobility, the average layman often grabs on to their identity, i.e., religion, ethnicity or nationality, as the last resort, to find some solace or purpose in life.
And that vulnerability is something both Amit Shah and the likes of Hefazot-e-Islam could easily exploit. Whether it is the vulnerable poor Indians or the orphaned madrasah students of Bangladesh, it's easy to manipulate them into committing heinous crimes; something they otherwise would not descend into.
Why? So that people would vote for them or for achieving their nefarious objectives.
All of these seems eerily similar to something we all read in the history books: the cautionary tale of marauding invaders coming to your lands to take away your golds and harass your women; the call for the hero to rise only who can protect the weak and the old from the dark hands of destiny.
That's how Hefazot-e-Islam indoctrinates innocent Madrasah going kids into engaging in clashes with the police on the street while their leaders watch from a safe distance hoping to garner some influence over the government.
That's why Amit Shah could conveniently fearmonger about the hungry swarm of incoming Bangladeshi immigrants to a state that shares a border with Bangladesh. It doesn't matter whether it's Assam or West Bengal.
This is also why Babul Supriyo sings about Mamata Banerjee in a way that portrays her as a Bangladeshi lover while videos of the Bangladesh police engaging in clashes with protesters plays in the backdrop. His distasteful song portrays Mamata as someone who does not stand for Hindus but is extremely lenient towards Muslims.
This is a battle for the soul of the subcontinent; the soul that constitutes an organic love for spicy food; spontaneous laughter at the local tea stall and a simultaneous celebration of every religious festivity. Once this battle is over, either we will emerge victorious as a continent that immerses in soulful harmony or be left out in the shadows of our blissful past looking into a much darker, divided future.