Friday, August 26, 2011

BANGLADESH: Not Yet A Country

At 5:30 a.m. last Sunday, the city of Dacca resounded with the thunder of a 31-gun salute that marked the beginning of Bangladesh's first independence day. A year and a day earlier, on March 25, 1971, Pakistan had launched its military crackdown against rebellious East Bengal, which led to the brief, bloody war between India and Pakistan, the death of as many as 3,000,000 Bengalis—and the birth of a new nation.

Today, as TIME Correspondent William Stewart reported last week from Dacca, the Bengalis have a homeland, but they do not yet have a united country. "The present government, fearful of opposition, devotes itself to patronage rather than crisis; the government of reconstruction and reconciliation has yet to appear. If it does not, then the high Administration aide in Washington who referred to Bangladesh as 'an international basket case may yet be proved right." 

Across the vast, hot stretches of flat, brown delta, which awaits the life-giving monsoons in late May, there is a state of unease. Mutual distrust is pervasive. It is no longer sufficient to be 

Bengali; one must be a Bengali with the right inflection in his voice. "Collaborator" is an easy word to use, and the effects can be devastating. In Dhanmandi, Dacca's most fashionable quarter, residents are now accustomed to having groups of armed youths enter their houses in quest of money and goods. Acts of revenge against the non-Bengali minority of Biharis have subsided in the capital but have continued 

sporadically elsewhere; at the city of Khulna two weeks ago, a Bengali attack on the Bihari community reportedly left some 2,000 dead. Bitterness against the Biharis is widespread. "Those bastards," says Altafur Rahman, a Dacca law student. "Let them go to Pakistan." 

During the nine months of struggle in Bangladesh, the real freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini, battled as best they could with little outside aid. The Mukti resent the fact that the government has given them few jobs and little patronage, and they have retained most of their firearms. Ranging from ardent patriots to outright thugs, the Mukti are among the most resentful critics of the ineffectual Dacca government, which has been accused of consolidating the position of Sheik Mujibur Rahman's Awami League instead of concentrating on reconstruction. 

Moscow Links. Only Mujib himself, the country's Prime Minister, escapes such criticism. Despite his undiminished popularity, Mujib has yet to provide the kind of leadership that Bangladesh needs. Since his triumphant return to Dacca last January, after spending nine months in prison in Pakistan, he has visited Calcutta and even Moscow, but has scarcely ventured out into his own country at all. 

Two weeks ago, Mujib welcomed India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Dacca—where she was greeted at the airport by a pipe band skirling Skye Boat Song—and signed with her a treaty of peace and friendship. Mrs. Gandhi promised that India would hand over to Bangladesh all Pakistani military prisoners who have been accused of committing war crimes against Bengalis during the fighting (the list of suspects is said to total 1,500). The most important effect of the treaty is to link Dacca closely to India in matters of foreign affairs, and thus make Bangladesh in effect a member of the Delhi-Moscow entente. 

Drop of III Will. While the U.S. has paid a heavy price in South Asia for backing the loser of the India-Pakistan war, the Soviet Union has strengthened its position on the subcontinent. The Soviet mission in Dacca already has a staff of 90, with more to come, and the Russians have undertaken salvage operations at the ports of Chittagong and Chalna. By contrast, the U.S. appears to have extracted the last possible drop of ill will out of Bangladesh. The handful of American officials in Dacca, however, make no secret that they would like to see U.S. diplomatic recognition at long last, as well as a small but hardhitting aid program. 

Such assistance is urgently needed at the present time, for Bangladesh's most pressing problem is the threat of hunger. The population of the capital has been swollen by thousands of famished, unemployed refugees from rural areas. As Toni Hagen, director of the U.N. relief operation in Dacca, puts it, the situation is "desperate." "Blankets won't do, baby food won't do, midwifery kits won't do," says Hagen. "Cash is required for 

employment and reconstruction—plain cash." Food is urgently needed, of course, especially in the next two months, before the arrival of 700,-000 tons of wheat pledged by India. But vital repairs of roads and bridges must be made in order for such supplies to be distributed. Factories, too, lie stagnant for lack of operating capital—a reminder that their former owners, the majority of whom were Pakistanis, repatriated almost all the money in the country to West Pakistan.