The domestic context in Bangladesh of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s major visit to India starting on Sunday.
Sheikh Hasina, who started her second term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh on January 6, 2009, is due to visit India from Sunday. This is her first visit to New Delhi during this term, and it is expected to be a significant one.
When Ms Hasina became Prime Minister in 1996 (she held office till 2001), her Awami League had a thin majority in Parliament, and her government had many limitations. She came to power after two decades that followed the bloody changeover of 1975. Despite those limitations, her government took some remarkable steps vis-À-vis India. Overall, it tried to reverse certain post-1975 political trends and to rejuvenate the pro-liberation spirit that was needed badly for a secular polity in a country that had seen the planned rehabilitation of the so-called 1947 spirit by a set of military and pseudo-democratic rulers.
During that tenure, the Awami League-led government signed the historic Ganga Water Treaty. It also paved the way for the return to India of thousands of Chakma refugees from Tripura with the signing of a landmark accord that ended decades of tribal insurgency in the border region. Then, it sent a firm signal to insurgents operating all across northeastern India, many of whom, as claimed by India, enjoyed sanctuary in Bangladesh. These steps were not easy to take, and indeed constituted a test of courage and conviction for the government.
This time, too, the government of the grand alliance led by the daughter of the slain founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is not without its limitations. But its leadership is now more experienced. It won a landslide in the December 2008 elections, and secured a two-thirds-plus majority in Parliament. This enabled Ms Hasina’s government to amend the Constitution and bring about certain changes that it felt were needed to initiate a new journey that Bangladesh needs to undertake in order to get back on the right track.
Having achieved independence from Pakistan in the aftermath and as a consequence of the devastating war of 1971, Bangladesh did not get adequate time to consolidate itself and put itself on a firm democratic footing. India helped the Bengali freedom fighters to a great extent, and finally formed a joint military command after Pakistan attacked its soil. But that remarkable and historic achievement failed to deliver the expected outcome fully, probably due to a certain lack of alertness, a premature sense of euphoria or a misreading of the feelings of the forces that were defeated.
At the high-level meetings between Bangladesh and India over the next few days, particularly of the heads of governments, important bilateral aspects that will have a historical resonance are bound to come up. But the domestic context of the visit is unlikely to remain unnoticed.
Bangladesh is now ruled by secular democratic forces, known as the ‘pro-liberation’ forces. But the forces which opposed independence from Pakistan and which developed a solid economic foundation and organisational base over the past few decades, have now become quite alert and aggressive. They have been quickly joined by some elements — who were direct beneficiaries of the 1975 changeover and who ruled the country for 30 out of the 39 years of its political existence — and have unleashed a propaganda war.
The fundamentalists and the local versions of the Taliban do not want Bangladesh to remain friendly with India; to them India is “the enemy state.” But why is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is but a mixture of soft Islamists, fundamentalists and former communists, singing a similar tune?
When the national media projected the Prime Minister’s visit to India optimistically — as an opportunity to begin a new era and resolve certain outstanding issues — Begum Khaleda Zia, BNP chairperson and chief of the four-party rightist alliance in which the Jamaat-e-Islami plays a pivotal role, posed an open challenge to the government. She stated publicly that should Ms. Hasina conclude an honourable deal with India, she would be welcomed with garlands on her return. If, on the other hand, she failed to protect the ‘national interest,’ her path would be strewn with thorns.
This is an open challenge posed before the one-year-old government, which has ensured that the war criminals found guilty for their role during the liberation war against Pakistan face trial. The Supreme Court recently upheld the death sentence to the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
There are several issues on the table in the context of Ms Hasina’s visit. It is all right to analyse them ahead of the summit, but it will be wrong to give the impression that any lack of progress in solving them in a single visit will constitute failure. To imply that even a meeting with the Indian leader could somehow lead to an eventual surrender of national interests is equally fallacious.
Post-1975, the definition of patriotism changed in Bangladesh. Originally, it was the Bengali freedom fighters and their local collaborators on the warfront who were called “patriots” along with the vast majority of people who helped to fight the war against the Pakistan Army. But the history of the independence struggle was re-written, rather distorted, by a set of military and pseudo-democratic rulers. Fortunately, Bangladesh now looks forward to removing the distortions as a younger generation of Bangladeshis seeks to know what really happened.
The Khaleda Zia-led combine, which will soon be under the command of her controversial son Tareq Rahman — he is now in London and faces multiple corruption charges — did not perhaps notice the changed national mood. As Ms Hasina prepared to go to New Delhi, the Leader of the Opposition chose to question the patriotism of even the people who belong to the ruling party, forgetting that patriotism is not the monopoly of any single group or party.
Whenever such a top-level meeting takes place, the mainstream media delve into history and recall India’s support to the cause of Bangladesh’s nationhood. It is yet another irritant Begum Zia and her alliance have been destined to suffer. It is a matter of history that India sheltered 100 million refugees from the former East Pakistan when the Pakistan Army began a genocidal war against unarmed civilians, and also extended significant support to Bangladesh’s war that finally culminated in the creation of a new country.
However, the historic relationship did not develop as it was meant to. Bangladesh faced its first shock in August 1975 with the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. With state power vested in the military and pseudo-democratic rulers for two decades, Bangladesh found a new ethos that practically negated the secular spirit of 1971. India, too, underwent transformation on multiple fronts. Therefore, while history provides a vital thrust, India and Bangladesh must practically resolve the issues that have confronted them, and seek to put their relations on a solid foundation.
Since India is a big neighbour, some psychological impact on both sides of the border is inevitable. When the post-1975 situation influenced a section of Bangladeshis to look back at the “spirit of 1947,” which actually ran counter to the spirit of the war of liberation, Dhaka-New Delhi relations faced many obstacles. While this was against the will of many Bangladeshis, the protagonists of the “spirit of 1947” did succeed in influencing a section that would strongly argue that the stumbling blocks were mainly India’s “intransigence, chauvinism and obduracy.”
Bangladesh covers a relatively small territory. But it has enormous potential and considerable strategic significance. Close relations with India to resolve all major irritants should be a key requirement for it to make a new beginning. Despite having been in office only for a year and despite the fact that the adversaries of the pro-liberation spirit are more powerful than ever before, the Sheikh Hasina government has shown considerable courage and conviction to free its soil from anti-India activity. Many would, therefore, hope for suitable reciprocal gestures to strengthen the polity.
An economically strong, secular and democratic Bangladesh is crucial for New Delhi and the rest of the region. A democratic and secular India, and Bangladesh, that has started its renewed march towards a stable democratic polity despite the muscle flexing by some extremists, should work together for a stable South Asia.
(The writer, who was involved in Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)