Looking East, seriously
Judging from the recent stormy exchange between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her predecessor Khaleda Zia there is little chance that the deep animus between the two will ever disappear. Ultimately, Khaleda Zia declined to attend the all-party meeting to discuss the arrangements for the next parliamentary elections nor agree to call off the hartal demanding a caretaker government for the elections. This hostility does not augur well for Bangladesh as it goes to polls early next year — and for India too, should Sheikh Hasina and her 14-party alliance lose. A Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) victory win would almost certainly mean a setback in India-Bangladesh relations.
The Awami League government has been far more understanding and co-operative with India’s security interests than the previous Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led right wing combine. Her government had refused to accept that there were camps of India’s North East insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom in Bangladesh. It was Sheikh Hasina in her second coming who showed courage, understood that harbouring terrorists and insurgents could hurt her own government and people, and therefore necessary for her government to put a stop to these unfriendly practices. Sheikh Hasina did not follow Khaleda Zia’s policy of trying to use India’s logistic vulnerability in the North East by trying to destabilise the region, with assistance from Pakistan.
Internally, Sheikh Hasina’s most significant achievement has been the strengthening of the judicial system in the country through the war criminal trials by collaborating with Pakistan in the Bangladesh war of independence including many Jamaat-e-Islami luminaries who had been sheltered by the BNP.
Hasina has pursued the trial of the killers of Sheikh Mujib ending in the death penalty to five conspirators. Finally, the Bangladesh courts have sentenced 152 soldiers and handed down life sentences to several others for their revolt against the BDR (since renamed Border Guard Bangladesh) in February 2009. The Jamaat-e-Islami has been declared ineligible for the next general elections by the Bangladesh Election Commission following a High Court decision that its registration was illegal.
Faced with several setbacks to its prospects and its ideology, the BNP and its allies which includes the fundamentalist conglomerate the Taliban-like Hefazat-e-Islam, have been leading a campaign of hartals in which at least 18 have died and scores injured. At the same time, despite an overwhelming majority in the last elections in 2008 the Hasina government has been subjected to allegations of incompetence and corruption. As against this, people have not forgotten the predatory corruption of the BNP regime, the anti-Hindu and Awami league campaigns of the BNP and thus fear retrogression to medieval practices should the BNP win the next elections.
Sheikh Hasina realises that pandering to the right wing and encouraging terrorism in the neighbourhood would lead to the kind of disaster that Pakistan faces today and that dealing with India would be beneficial for both countries. An effective judiciary and a disciplined uniformed force under civilian control have been her achievements. Surely, Indians would also realise that with Pakistan lurching towards instability and under increasing thrall of the fundamentalists, we cannot have another neighbour to our east with whom our land border is longer than even with China, similarly succumbing to fundamentalism and anti-India sentiments. Will we see renewed influx of refugees from the Awami League, both Hindus and Muslims, into states bordering Bangladesh? Will we see renewed attempts at fomenting insurgencies in India?
It is therefore in India’s national interest to ensure that there is a friendly stable government in Dhaka which is not swayed by fundamentalist interests. This is not to be done by engineering regime changes and clumsy internal interference. It had to be more subtle where friendship with India is seen as beneficial by the average person in Bangladesh.
Small steps like the proposal to sign the motor vehicles agreement are encouraging but bigger steps have to be taken by India. A deal on the Teesta Waters and the Land Border Agreement would have helped India Bangladesh relations but our compulsions of coalition and electoral interests of different political parties have prevented fruition of both. It may still not be too late to attempt something along these lines because a change of government in Dhaka may not be good news for New Delhi.
If we are prepared to make all sorts of concessions to Pakistan without awaiting action on terrorism, why are we hesitant to help Bangladesh? It is time our famous Look East policy looked at Bangladesh, seriously.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)