He stated in an interaction with editors that 25% of that country's population was ‘anti-Indian'

The branding of a quarter of Bangladesh's population as “anti-Indian” by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has raised diplomatic eyebrows here.

Former diplomats found it intriguing that during his interaction with editors here on Wednesday, Dr. Singh, who is usually very careful with his words, chose to conclude his generally positive remarks on Bangladesh by observing that “we must reckon that at least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islami (sic) and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times of the ISI.”

They also took umbrage at his observations that followed — “the political landscape in Bangladesh can change anytime. We do not know what these terrorist elements, which have a hold on the Jamiat-e-Islami (sic) elements in Bangladesh, can be up to.”

“I do not agree that 25 per cent population of Bangladesh supports the Jamiat-e-Islami. If you look at the votes they had polled in the last elections, it does not reflect so, although they contested elections along with the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia,” said a close observer of politics in Bangladesh.

Not proper: Veena Sikri

India's former High Commissioner in Dhaka Veena Sikri was more forthright. “I don't think it is proper to describe people of another country in this manner,” she said while contextualising the BNP's stand. “The BNP says the interests of Bangladesh are not served by India. Sheikh Hasina on the other hand seeks to promote friendship because she feels friendship with India is in Bangladesh's interest.”

On Dr. Singh's assertion that a quarter of the people of Bangladesh swore by the Jamiat, Ms. Sikri wondered where the figure had come from.

“One third of the votes go to the BNP and an equal number to the Awami League. Of the remaining 33 per cent, most of it is the floating vote that looks at issues independently. I don't think you can say that 25 per cent are anti-Indian. Does it mean most of BNP's voters feel that way? One can't categorise in this manner just as one can't do the same with the people of Pakistan. Regimes and institutions can be characterised like this, not the people.”

The influence of the ISI, which has been trying to regain its hold since the early days of an independent Bangladesh, was strong under earlier regimes. But institutions such as the Bangladesh Army or the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, unlike the Pakistani ones, are very sensitive to public opinion.

‘They want a better life’

“When during the days of the army-led Caretaker Government, they saw public opinion in favour of elections; they did a good job with them. Certainly there is a big effort by the ISI to get back their pre-partition influence. But the question is what do the people of Bangladesh want? They desire a better life and many of them see that happening by nurturing good ties with India,” said the veteran diplomat.

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