Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bangladesh blunts Manmohan missile

Dhaka is angry and sad that the Indian PM said a fourth of Bangladesh sympathises with the radical Jamaat. As TOI-Crest followed up the faux pas with a cross-section of people in that country, their unanimous sentiment was: We aren't Pakistan and we try hard not to be one. HAS a habit of provoking controversies in Bangladesh - and often for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. When Sheikh Hasina's government started a massive crackdown against north-east Indian militants holed up in the country in 2009, home minister P Chidambaram alleged in public that tens of thousands of Bangladeshis were illegally infiltrating into India, many of them terrorists. The allegations, not entirely unfounded, may have stuck during the previous regime when Pakistan-backed Islamic radicals were using Bangladesh to enter India for subversive action. But Hasina's government has cracked down hard against both north-east Indian militants and Islamic radicals, so Chidambaram would have done well to hold fire. Manmohan Singh's ill-informed briefing of Indian editors about Bangladesh comes at a time when Dhaka is preparing to welcome him - and possibly Sonia Gandhi - in September. Hasina's government, in fact, intends to formally acknowledge India's role in the 1971 liberation war by naming a road in Dhaka after Indira Gandhi. Her statue will be placed in an appropriate crossing of that road. Bangladesh has also prepared a list of a few hundred Indians who will be formally honoured for their unstinted support to the cause of that country's liberation.

Moreover, many key agreements - sharing of Teesta waters, for instance, and removal of tariff barriers on Bangladesh products - are likely to be concluded during Manmohan's visit. "We look forward to this visit with great hope. This may open a new chapter in India-Bangladesh relations," Bangladesh foreign secretary Mijarul Quayes told this writer in Dhaka in late-June. The Indian prime minister's salvo, then, which encourages foes and berates friends in Dhaka, couldn't have been more mistimed. To say that 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are supporters of Islamic radical group Jamaat-e-Islami and thus pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian is factually incorrect, mildly put. In the December 2008 parliament elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami got only 2 seats out of 300. Post 9/11, too, the Jamaat managed only 17 seats in the 2001 elections - and that because it had an alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Seven years later, it was all but wiped out. Its share of popular vote has never crossed single digit.

"Islamic radicalism has no future in Bangladesh. We are moderate Muslims but we are Bengalis first, " says anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriar Kabir. Adds leading film-maker Nasiruddin Yusuf: "We are not Pakistan. We will never be. Pakistan is a failed state; it failed in 1971. But there are conspiracies to turn our beloved country into a Pakistan. If that happens, it will lead to another mukti juddho (freedom struggle)." Yusuf's Guerrilla, based on the Bangladesh war of independence, is currently running to full houses in that country. In the theatres, cutting across generations and class, people can often be seen weeping through the film, cursing Pakistanis. "India helped us win the war. Our only complaint with India is it should have intervened earlier.
That would have saved much bloodshed, " says Abdul Bari Liton, whose father fought in 1971 as a guerrilla in the Mukti Fauj.

All Bangladeshis who value their hard-fought independence hate the Jamaat because it supported Pakistan and its brutal army.

Hasina's government has already started a war crimes trial to bring the offenders of 1971 to justice and many top Jamaat leaders are in jail on non-bailable charges. Some members like Ali Ahsan Mujahid have been booked in the Dhaka grenade attack case of 2004 when 24 Awami league leaders and supporters were killed. Hasina herself had barely managed to escape the murderous assault. Other leaders have been implicated in the Chittagong arms case (of 2004 again) in which ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua is facing an arrest warrant. The Jamaat has not been able to take out a proper rally or procession in the last two years to protest against Hasina's crackdown on their leaders or against the commission of the war crimes trial. Manmohan's statement did give them cause for one, but that too was poorly attended. Even religious clerics like Maulana Zia Hassan openly support the war crimes trial and call for punishment of Jamaatis. "Islam does not permit torture and use of force against non-believers," says the Maulana, asserting that only liberal Islam can survive in Bangladesh. "We are a Bengali nation and we value our Bengali heritage.
We are a nation of believers, but we broke off from Pakistan because we were not like them. Many Indians though, especially in the far right, feel we are another Pakistan. And that is a great tragedy, " says Major (retd) Shamsul Arefin, whose magnum opus Bangladesh Elections explains why the Jamaat and other religious parties have done so poorly in Bangladesh. “They are seen as the forces of counter-revolution, as those who opposed our freedom."
"So why should a poorly-informed Indian prime minister give Jamaat credit for a popular support base that it has never enjoyed at any point, " asks writer Saleem Samad. "Why should he mislead Indian editors who are equally ill-informed about Bangladesh?" Samad fled the country during the five years of the BNP-Jamaat government after he was tortured by military intelligence agency DGFI for exposing the government fundamentalist-military nexus.
Many liberal Bangladeshis actually see their country as a future model for the Islamic world. "We want the best of (Rabindranath) Tagore and the best of the Prophet,” says history student Mustapha Mohsin Ali. "How can you deny the power of local nationalism for the sake of pan-Islamism? That does not work."
The interesting fact is that India has been a role model for Bangladesh's large secular constituency. So any awkward statement from New Delhi comes as a rap on their knuckles and as a shot in the arm of the discredited Islamic radicals. When Begum Zia took power in Dhaka in 2001, hot on the heels of anti-Hindu pogroms in the country, former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra rushed to Dhaka and became the first foreign dignitary to congratulate her. The Awami League and its secular allies haven't forgiven Mishra - and the BJP - for announcing that "India has no favourites in Dhaka.”

Chittagong broadcaster Samaresh Baidya says, "So when a Congress leader like Manmohan Singh shoots off absolute rubbish, we are hurt. It wounds our pride and it bolsters our enemies. He and his advisers have got us totally wrong. "
Manmohan Singh will be visiting Bangladesh at a time when it's not exactly smooth sailing for his counterpart Sheikh Hasina. For one, the BNP has been frequently hitting the streets to protest against Hasina's efforts to end the caretaker system during elections. Since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991, the country has reverted to a caretaker administration that stays in place three months before a national parliament election. But the caretaker increasingly came to be dominated by the army that went beyond its mandate, provoking the government to try and curb its influence. While Hasina feels polls, like in India, can be held by a ruling government with a strong election commission, the opposition alleges that it's just a ground to rig the next parliament polls.

As if that wasn't enough, Hasina's allies are pulling her up for not proceeding decisively to restore the 1972 secular constitution promulgated by her father 'Bangabandhu' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She is, of course, apprehensive about the reaction from religious bodies as it involves doing away with 'Bismillah' and replacing it with 'Sristhikorta' (creator).
Hasina's test lies in strengthening the secular fabric of her country while fighting back the activities of Islamic radicals. It's clearly a tough job and Indian leaders like Manmohan Singh would do well to understand the complexity. They have to understand the dynamics and handle relations with the eastern neighbour with greater care and empathy.

A personal gift from Delhi friendly ties will only emerge when the agreements between the two nations begin to reflect the real relations and aspirations of the people of the twocountries. Otherwise, Manmohan is coming to Dhaka in September as a bearer of one more private gift for the Awami League.(New Age)

FROM July to September of this year, for the Congress-led government sitting in Delhi, there appears to be only one overwhelming diplomatic agenda, which can best be summarised as ‘all roads lead to Dhaka’. The Indian external affairs minister, SM Krishna, has just completed a three-day visit to Dhaka, the Indian water resources minister, Salman Khurshid, is slated to arrive soon to put final touches to an agreement to share the waters of the river Teesta, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is scheduled for an informal visit, at the behest of the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, to attend a special conference on disabled and autistic children. This is all, meanwhile, groundwork for the grand finale which will take place with the arrival of the Indian premier, Manmohan Singh, sometime in September. Flattering indeed for a smaller neighbour like Bangladesh, often out of India’s diplomatic radar, who nowadays hobnob with the high and mighty at the White House and 10 Downing Street, thanks to their growing economic power, despite the persistent raucous about India-Bangladesh relations in the local arena.

Manmohan himself, meanwhile, laid the groundwork for the upcoming visits by posting on the website, apparently an ‘off-the-record’ comment, by mistake, that 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are anti-Indian and under the influence of Jamaat and ISI, and that ‘Bangladesh’s political climate may change anytime.’ Experts on both sides of the border have since been scratching their heads trying to figure out what kind of message Manmohan has been exactly trying to give.

Amidst the bombardment of information—a modern form of censorship that best serve governments in keeping the real information out of the hands of people, instead of the age-old ‘gag’ on what cannot be said and told—we gather that India is quite serious about getting transit facilities from Bangladesh so that good and vehicles can travel to its north-eastern states, while the Awami League-led Bangladesh government have already delivered on India’s other main concern—the handover of Indian political fugitives, specifically the top leadership of the United Liberation Front of Assam—under circumstances that made a mockery of Bangladesh’s sovereignty, though, the local intelligentsia were either too scared to raise a voice against it or embarrassed at their obvious presence inside the country. In return, it appears, we will get a treaty on sharing the waters of Teesta and Feni rivers for now, while we may also be served up some kind of a resolution on the 6.5-kilometre un-demarcated borders and the exchange of 200-odd enclaves on both sides, possibly in exchange of more concessions in the future. The rest we hear—on a framework of bilateral ties on a range of issues encompassing trade, connectivity, water resources management, power, land boundary demarcation, border management, security, culture, education, etc—can be best discarded as sound bites intended to confuse us. The crux of the matter lies in ‘transit’ in exchange for ‘Teesta’.

The series of visits and its timing right at the half-time point of the AL-led government’s tenure, further, contain political implications as well. The present government is visibly nervous having rubbed their former backers, the United States, the wrong way on the Dr Yunus issue, having rubbed the opposition the wrong way on the caretaker government issue, having rubbed the populace the wrong way on controlling the price of essentials and having rubbed the ‘mullahs’ the wrong way for rather unclear reasons, since both their interests appear to have formally converged with the fifteenth amendment to the constitution. The government is now banking on their only surviving well-wisher—the policymakers in the Congress-led Indian government—to lend weight to their legitimacy to survive in government, through these visits. The bond that was forged decades ago, between the Awami League and the Congress, appears to be enjoying one of its peaks in recent times, and both sides are certainly looking to make it stronger in the months to come. Whether these visits will bear any fruit for the people on both sides, and whether both the governments have any interest in that either, is a completely different matter.

Take the instance of Manmohan’s comment. The first thing noticeable is that it sounds like it came right out of an Awami League manual for political jargons—that of quantifying and qualifying all religious elements in the country under one pseudonym: Jamaat. It reflects a very poor understanding of the complexity of Islam-based politics in the country, which verges both on the extreme right and extreme left of Jamaat, as Jamaat-e-Islami is seen by many an element of religious and fundamentalist group as a betrayer of sorts, who operate under the framework of constitutional politics. Secondly, taking it in the narrow sense of political definitions, what business is it of Manmohan if 25 per cent of ordinary Bangladeshis are anti-Indian? As long as they are not anti-Bangladeshi or there are no anti-Indian elements inside India (which, judging by the number of separatist movements, it is safe to say numbers in millions) how is it any of Manmohan’s concern? Of course, the argument is that Bangladesh is a security concern for India. In which case, how do such remarks help at allaying such perceived security threats? For a head of state apparently trying to forge friendly relations with another country, antagonising and labelling at least 25 per cent of them on the eve of an important period of relations is not just politically suicidal, it smacks of ill-motive and could help flare up all the elements Manmohan seens to worry of.

With such a beginner, the ‘better than any time before’ relations, between India and Bangladesh, in reality, seem like a non-starter. It is important to remember that transit, Teesta, un-demarcated borders, enclaves are mere political and diplomatic bargaining chips, kept in hand by both governments all these years, for use in future negotiations. In reality, through these concessions, neither side stands to lose an awful lot. The real issue lies in the attitude that emerges from Manmohan’s observations, which finds concurrence in ‘25 per cent’ of India, and of course, ‘25 per cent’ of their counterparts in Bangladesh, whom Manmohan calls anti-Indian. What Manmohan’s comment truly reflects is an unwillingness to accept Bangladeshi citizen’s democratic right to choose a political entity to represent them, whatever their ideology may be. And therein lies the problem and the future of ‘friendly ties’ between the two nations. Such ‘friendly ties’ is nothing new, it existed between Bangladesh and India between 1996 to 2001 and 1972 and 1975. However, whenever there has been a change in government in Bangladesh, even if it is through democratic means such as in 1991 or 2001, the ‘friendly ties’ seems to peter away, the flow of water from the Farakka channel appear to grow thin, and Manmohan also refuses to visit Dhaka, as he apparently did in 2005—to punish the then government for pursuing anti-India politics, according to a recently leaked WikiLeaks cable. In the future, if the population of Bangladesh were to choose another political entity to govern them, through free and fair elections, expect the flow of water at Teesta and Feni to narrow down and, to be fair, expect the Bangladesh government to retaliate by harassing Indian vehicles at the border looking to pass through Bangladesh.

The Indian government, a benefactor and beneficiary of Bangladesh’s independence, has for long displayed a tendency to develop state-to-party relations, instead of state-to-state relations. Until and unless the Congress and the Awami League can bring the large section of the population of both countries on board the agreements they are ready to sign—both anti-India and anti-Bangladesh elements in their respective countries—then the agreements will be doomed as one more ‘personal gift’ in the long list of exchanges between the two political parties.

More ominously, judging by the zeal of declarations on the future of friendly relations, it seems that political entities are backing themselves to be in power for time immemorial. Such an attitude is essentially undemocratic and jeopardises the future of the agreements they are ready to sign. Moreover, while the Congress is bound by democratic principles in terms of power transitions, because of the strength of the Indian democracy, such has not always been the case for Bangladesh. One can only hope that in their love and patronisation of the present government in power, the Congress-led India will not resort to undemocratic means to extend the ‘friendly ties’ for ever.

It also important to take note of some of details on which the talks and agreements are being premised. In all seriousness, one of the major issues plaguing India-Bangladesh relations is border killings of unarmed civilians along the India-Bangladesh border by the Indian Border Security Forces. While there has been some mention of trying to control the problem, a comprehensive framework to address the problem is absent from the talks. There is a reason for that. India’s big domestic concern is the flow of illegal Bangladeshis into India who have gone there looking for work, primarily in the north-eastern states and West Bengal, while many have moved on to places such as Bihar, Orissa and as far as Delhi. During the Commonwealth Games, the Delhi and West Bengal government broke into a war of words when the central government decided to deport all the city’s beggars to their respective states and West Bengal denied entry to many on grounds that they were Bangladeshi, not Bengali. Even more ironically, much of the war that the ULFA wages through the apparent backing of Bangladeshi governments is directed towards illegal Bangladeshis who have settled in Assam. The BSF’s metal bullets, as well as the barbed wire fencing which stands as an insult to friendly relations, serve as an active deterrent in stopping Bangladeshis from crossing over. Many progressive Indian intellectuals have often argued that the India-Bangladesh relations could be modelled on the India-Nepal relations—who co-exist with open borders—but Delhi obviously could ill-afford it, owing to the strength in size of Bangladesh’s Muslim population, which could seriously imbalance India’s demographics.

A treaty on the rivers Teesta and Feni also appears ill adequate, since this is the second/third accord on water sharing that is coming to fruition, fourteen years after the Joint Rivers Commission came into being. Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers and the Indian government has stated plans to build dams to slowly redirect the water in the north of the country towards the south, to boost economic growth in that region. Instead of signing accords on individual rivers, India and Bangladesh must work out a long-term solution to include Bangladesh’s concerns in their ‘water re-direction’ plans. As it stands, Bangladeshi governments are not even aware of how many dams India has built on the upstream of the Ganges while even the AL-backed government failed to convince the Indian government to share with them the design of the much talked-about Tipaimukh Dam and has so far only received assurances that it will not affect the Bangladeshi rivers Surma and Kushiara.

It is, however, important to remember at this juncture that the rampant use of the words India and Bangladesh is meant to signify the respective governments and their failures to build ‘friendly ties’, and certainly not the people, who do not require endorsements from the respective governments to forge relations, as they have been doing so for decades. Ever since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and the subsequent birth of Bangladesh in 1971, the governments in both countries, in fact, in all three, if we include Pakistan, have pursued various antagonistic policies that flare up nationalistic sentiments and serve to justify the grasp over power of the political classes that have since inherited the nations. On certain junctures, when their interests converge, they talk of ‘friendly ties’ and when they don’t, they talk about ‘anti-India’ and ‘pro-Pakistan’ politics. The people, meanwhile, though affected by both rhetoric and policies, have continued their relations that have thousands of years of legacy, much older than the three fairly newborn nations. While politics has had a far more iron grip over India-Pakistan relations, people of India and Bangladesh have so far managed to retain their familial, cultural, economic, social and religious ties whether it be at the level of low-income ordinary people who find it hard to distinguish between the political borders of India and Bangladesh, whether it be at the level of businessmen and business enterprises, whether it be cultural activists—movie stars, musicians, dancers, whether it be the intelligentsia, whether it be criminals, political fugitives and even the religious elements, who are most often the so-called secular politicians’ whipping boys, who have many sanctuaries on either side of the border. Long-lasting friendly ties will only emerge when the agreements between the two nations begin to reflect the real relations and aspirations of the people of the two countries. Otherwise, Manmohan is coming to Dhaka in September as a bearer of one more private gift for the Awami League.