As Bangladesh boils, a challenge for India

What India can do as the political situation worsens in Bangladesh

Political ferment is par for the course in Bangladesh. But even by its own standards, the last three months have been unusual. Unremitting protests and counter-protests have accompanied shut-downs and violence has left over a hundred dead and thousands injured. There is something in the manner in which the events have unfolded that seem to indicate that the worst is yet to be. Supporters of conflicting ideologies have shed their reticence and have come out for a decisive contest, if not a fight to finish.


This round of political jousting began in early February when thousands of educated young men and women belonging to the middle class gathered in Shahbagh Square in Dhaka demanding death for those found guilty in the International Crimes Tribunals set up by the Sheikh Hasina Government. Those accused of committing crimes against humanity during the 1971 liberation struggle have been put to trial in these special courts. The on-ground protests were accompanied by a massive, and in many ways globally unprecedented, online campaign. The Shahbagh movement spoke out loudly and clearly in favour of a secular and liberal Bangladesh and urged the Government to come down heavily on the country’s Islamist organisations.

The Islamists struck back with a strength and ferocity that surprised Bangladesh watchers. Drawing support from the rural poor, the fundamentalists mounted a massive march from Chittagong to Dhaka, culminating in a rally in the capital; unleashed savage violence, torching minority Hindu homes and temples; and have threatened to lay siege on Dhaka from May 5 unless their 13-point charter of demands is accepted. Critics say acceptance of these demands would be tantamount to the Talibanisation of Bangladesh – the very antithesis of what the Shahbagh activists stand for.

Not surprisingly, some observers feel the country is on the brink of a civil war. The coming days will be decisive and will have a long-term effect on its polity. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina has spoken out in favour of the Shahbagh movement and rejected the fundamentalist demand for an anti-blasphemy law, even though she arrested four young bloggers and declared that the country would be run in accordance with the Medina Charter.

Tough as the situation is for the Government in Dhaka, it is no less challenging for India as it strives to protect its interests in the unfolding scenario. There is no gainsaying that a strong, stable and friendly Bangladesh is in India’s best interests. It is equally important for Delhi that the forces of moderation have the upper hand in Dhaka, even if secular and liberal values are challenged.

At the same time, India must strive to ensure that it is not seen in Bangladesh as interfering or ill-disposed. Unfortunately, this not always the case and certainly not in all quarters. The Shahbagh upsurge itself is perceived by some sections as India-inspired, the same they say as the popular uprisings in Kansat and Shonir Akhra during the Khaleda Zia regime. The Bangladesh Left, they allege, is a tool in the hands of India and the ruling Awami League is also more than happy to do Delhi’s bidding. In this context, it is only good that India’s response to Shahbagh, both of the Government as well as the media and civil society, was seen by many of its proponents as disappointing. A more enthusiastic backing may have proved counter-productive for the secular and liberal forces.

The perception that India is inclined to place all its eggs in the Awami League basket needs to be vigorously countered. It is not enough to host visits by Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP (the principal opposition party) and General Ershad, leader of the Jatiyo Party (the third-largest in the country) as India did last year. It would help to extend invitations to other key leaders, from the same parties, as well as to other policy influencers. Bridges have to be built or strengthened with all shades of democratic opinion. After all, the anti-Awami League, right wing forces command the allegiance of about 40 percent of the electorate (as much perhaps as the League itself). Staving off the hostility of these sections, if not earning their goodwill, is critical for the success of Delhi’s Dhaka policy.

But true success will come only if Delhi is able to go beyond these political intermediaries and directly address the concerns of the common people. Here what hurts India’s cause the most is the feeling that Delhi is not serious about delivering on its commitments. It would help India immensely if it is able to drive home, in popular perception, the realisation that decision-making in foreign policy is not any more the exclusive preserve of the Centre or the ruling dispensation in Delhi. The Centre is no longer as strong as it used to be in, say, Indira Gandhi’s time. A fallout of a weak Centre has been that state governments are seeking to have a say in decision-making in even areas like foreign relations.

For the same reason, the Opposition is finding it expedient to play games and frustrate the Centre’s efforts at building a consensus on foreign policy. Thus a Mamata Banerjee can torpedo the Teesta Accord, as she did last year, or a BJP can drag its feet on backing the Government on implementing the bilateral agreement with Bangladesh on border enclaves. There is nothing much that the Centre can do until there is a change of heart on the part of the TMC or the BJP, but its loss of face in Dhaka can be mitigated if it is recognised more widely there that, as with much else in India, foreign policy is a victim of party politics.

Meanwhile, India must focus attention on increasing people to people contact and deepening economic ties between the two countries. The first will come from giving a fillip to bilateral travel and tourism. The liberalised visa regime introduced recently, is a significant step in the right direction. But Bangladeshis still feel that operationally India can do a lot more to make it easier for them to visit India. Since Bangladeshis visiting India with valid visas can only be beneficial for our economy, there is no reason, other than bureaucratic cussedness, for not being more generous in issuing visas.

Bangladeshis continue to feel strongly about what many believe are mindless shootings by Indian border guards. Indian officials say BSF jawans shoot only when illegals and smugglers attack them or try to cut through the border fence, which, in any case, is 150 yards within Indian territory (built inland at Bangladeshi insistence). But the upshot in numerous cases has been deaths, leading to protests from Dhaka. Many promises have been made by Indian officials and political leaders about zero tolerance towards such killings and there has been a significant improvement on the ground. But the perception persists that India lets its troopers be trigger-happy. This needs to change.

Finally, there is no substitute for increased economic integration and better business ties for breaking barriers between nations. India needs to both invest more in and import more from Bangladesh. It should also create conditions that make it possible for Dhaka to allow transit through Bangladesh for supplies to the Northeast. In practical terms, this means India must be more generous on water related issues, like the Teesta Accord. Transit through Bangladesh will have a transformational impact on the economies of both the Northeast and Bangladesh itself (because it will earn revenues from transit-related duties, there will wholesale upgradation of infrastructure and service industries will boom). It is a win-win solution that can only bring benefits to both sides.

Photo: Rajiv Ashrafi