On boycotting Indian products
Prominent Bangla blogger Himu has started a campaign to boycott Indian products on 1 March to protest BSF atrocities. I have no idea how the campaign is faring in the ‘real world’, but in my (limited) observation of the cyberspace — blogs and facebook — the idea definitely resonates with most Bangladeshis.
I personally wish the campaign success. If nothing else, it will be a worthwhile symbolic act. And symbols are important.
The thing is, I am not sure boycotting Indian products will have much more benefit beyond symbolism. In fact, if this is actually successful, the result will probably be more harm than good. That doesn’t, however, mean there is no place for civic activism. There is. And people like Himu can play a big role in leading that activism beyond symbols.
Let’s start with how the boycotting strategy is supposed to work beyond symbolism. The strategy is premised on this chain of events: we don’t buy Indian products; Indian business bottomlines are hit; businesses lobby the Indian government to discipline BSF; border is more peaceful.
Let’s parse each part of this chain.
Why do we buy Indian products? To judge from the typical discussion in blogs and facebook pages, it would seem that Bangladeshis have lost all sense of ‘national honour’, and we buy Indian products because we lack any patriotic feelings. In some accounts, it is all down to our womenfolk — mothers and sisters and bhabis, curiously not wives and girlfriends, and never women in their own right — who are to blame. If only they stopped watching Indian movies and TV, and avoided Indian sari and fashion, all would be well.
Implict in the boycotting strategy is the idea that if Bangladeshis developed a sense of nationalism and boycotted Indian products, our domestic producers would fill the gap — we would all be dhonno by buying Deshi ponno.
Nice feel good story. But likely wrong.
There may be exceptions in particular markets or products, but by and large, we buy Indian products because they are generally better-value-for-money. If Bangladeshi products were competitive, consumers would not be fooled into consistently rejecting them. And if they were competitive, one wouldn’t need nationalist rhetoric to support them.
Let’s take the boycotting idea to its logical conclusion. Suppose the idea gets huge political momentum in Bangladesh, and the government (or a future government) slaps huge tariffs and trade restrictions against Indian goods, and shuts Indian channels, and otherwise curtail economic interactions with India. What do we think will happen?
In 2010-11, India (legally) exported about $3.6 billion worth of mostly consumption items to Bangladesh. In that year, Bangladesh’s total import bill was $24 billion, $7.8 billion of which was from China.
We slap tariff on India, and do we really think it will be Bangladeshi products that will fill the gap?
Still, the Chinese army doesn’t kill 100 Bangladeshis every year.
But will we really be able to stop the consumption of Indian products? Before Saifur Rahman opened markets and Nazmul Huda opened airwaves in the early 1990s, did we not consume Indian products? Shut off legal channels, and I suspect we will still buy things that Indians make more cheaply than the Chinese (or the East Asians, or the Turks, or whoever). It’s just that they will be contrabrand smuggled products.
Just like the Indian cattles are at the moment. Hmm, it’s not hard to see how this could actually lead to more BSF killing at the border!
Okay, suppose we really got into nationalist fervour and decided to not have Indian beef. And we convinced our ‘misguided women’ to shun Indian fashion. So, no smuggling. At all.
What will that mean for the Indian business?
Look at the numbers again. Our legal exports are worth $3.6 billion. India’s total exports in 2010-11? $251 billion.
What about the illegal trade? Numbers are hard to come by, but the cattle trade is estimated to be worth $500 million. Pretty much everything else (other than drugs and guns) can be exported from India legally. I have no idea how big the drugs market in Bangladesh is. But even if it is twice as big as the cattle trade, and we get all our drugs from India, even then we are talking about around $5 billion — 2% of total Indian exports.
Do we really believe that Indian businesses will be worked up enough to lobby the Indian government to discipline BSF?
Hmm, I suppose some folks will still believe that, just as others will continue to believe that Indian foreign policy establishment is always scheming to subjugate Bangladesh. But to the more reality-based-people, I submit that boycotting Indian goods has limited effectiveness beyond symbolism.
And yet, the energy and passion behind this activism shouldn’t be underestimated. This kind of citizens’ activism — initiated by bloggers — can actually make a difference. In this case, I believe, beyond the 1 March symbolic boycott, bloggers like Himu can make a huge difference in two ways.
First, bloggers can exert direct pressure on the government. Awami League, for all its shortcomings, is a mass political party. Sheikh Hasina, for all her faults, is not deaf to sustained, unambiguous message from her party. There are two clear examples even under this government — the Arial Bil airport, and daylight savings — where she backtracked when her supporters sent a clear message.
Fast forward to the current issue. I see the call for boycott coming not just in the Jamaat-linked SonarBangladesh, but also among the so-called progressive, pro-1971 folks who are closer to AL than any other party. So one would think that the ruling party will listen to these folks.
If they spoke out that is. Evidently some people are exercised about the state of our hairstyle, but not about the fact that the ruling party’s number two leader is dismissive of something for which a major Indian newspaper thinks India should apologise unconditionally!
If there is a sustained pressure on the AL leadership from its base, it will be more vocal with India on BSF atrocities. And that will be a huge improvement on the current state of things.
But perhaps that won’t be enough. To really change BSF attitude, we need political pressure in India. And again, bloggers can take the lead. Himu is a lead moderator in a progressive Bangla blog regularly frequented by Indian Bengalis. Why not encourage them to be vocal about this issue?
Why not write about it in the Indian media? Why not work with rights activists in India?
Instead of boycotting Indian beef, why not work towards legalising the cattle trade? India sells $800 million worth of beef to Vietnam. Why not to Bangladesh? Remember, Habibur Rahman was beaten not because he smuggled cattle, but because he didn’t bribe the BSF enough. Legalise the trade and there will be less bribery, and less brutality.
Instead of railing against Indian TV in Bangladesh — which is not forced on anyone — why not work towards opening the Indian airwaves to Bangladeshi channels? Or at least improving the programmes in Bangladeshi channels (let’s face it, who wants to watch Asif Nazrul and Mohammad Arafat when you can flick the channel and get Piyanka Chopra)?
Let me end with a bit of history and culture that is common to all Bengalis.
Boycotting as a political strategy in our part of the world started a century ago, when Bengal was first partitioned. Boycotting of British products during the Swadeshi movement, however, contributed to a worsening Hindu-Muslim relationship, which eventually culminated in the border where the BSF commits its atrocities. Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the political economy of that boycott, and Satyajit Ray filmed it.
History isn’t without a sense of irony, it seems.