Friday, January 07, 2011

Can Fossilised Ideology Derail Bangladesh’s Development?

BHASKAR ROY

ON NOVEMBER 30, the main opposition party, the BNP, enforced a country-wide strike to protest the ruling Awami League (AL) led government’s mis-governance. Its main alliance partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), joined the strike but only partially. They withdrew after a few hours. The top six leaders of the JEI are already in police custody charged with various crimes ranging from promoting terrorism to war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation from Pakistan.

Among the issues raised by the BNP was the recent eviction of its chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia from her Dhaka cantonment under directions from the highest court in the country. The other important allegation was that the AL government was indulging in anti-national activities by drawing up several economic agreements with India including allowing India transit facilities and use of Bangladesh’s sea ports.

It is interesting, however, that the next day Khaleda Zia vented her spleen in an internal meeting of the party. She chastised some senior leaders who had not taken part in the strike and weakened the protest. The question is why these senior leaders did not take part in the strike? There are signs that the party, formed in 1978 by her late husband army chief and President Ziaur Rahman cobbling together opportunists and anti-liberation forces, and rehabilitating the JEI, has begun to crack following the party’s ignominious defeat in the 2008 elections. Senior party leader Moudud Ahmed was recently expelled from the party for his more moderate and rational views. Under the advice of senior leader and adviser to Khaleda Zia, Salauddin Qader Choudhury, popularly known as SQC, Khaleda has moved to ask the party’s members of Parliament to give her their resignation letters for an en masse resignation from Parliament. SQC is also under the scanner for his role in the 1971 war crimes.

The BNP is confronted by two major challenges. The development issue is the main threat. During the 2001-2006 BNP-JEI alliance government, development was the last priority. What took the front stage was wide spread corruption, promotion of distorted Islamic terrorism, and alliance with Pakistan to destabilize India through terror. The government oversaw the establishment of Pakistan’s ISI sponsored terrorist organizations like Lasker-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) in Bangladesh to launch terrorism in India.

A major sabotage attempt against India was blown when ten truck loads of arms, ammunitions and explosives were accidentally interdicted at the Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Jetty (CUFL) on April 01, 2004 night by a police officer. The arms consignment was meant for the ULFA insurgents in Assam. Although the BNP-JEI government naturally subverted the investigations in the case, the AL government investigations have revealed startling facts. The ruling parties at the top level and intelligence agency bosses were all involved in this terrorism plan, including Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her elder son Tarique Rahman.

Minister for State for Home Affairs in the BNP-JEI government, Luftozzaman Babar, currently being interrogated in custody, confessed that the Pakistani High Commission in Bangladesh had paid Taka 450 crores to “higher ups” in the BNP-JEI government in appreciation for their cooperation in this operation!

The Bangladesh government of BNP-JEI was a fit case for being listed as sponsors of state terrorism. But the Americans had other ideas. Their priority at that time, as it is now, was being as friendly to Islamic parties.
It, however, defies all logic to understand why the BNP and JEI promoted domestic Islamic terrorism. JEI had their agenda to turn Bangladesh as a country ruled by Sharia law as per their accord with the ISI. But the BNP? The leadership from the very top are anything but religious extremists. Therefore, why did the BNP allow the domestic religious terrorists, the Jaamatul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) to stage coordinated bomb attack in 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh in August, 2005? According to reports in Bangladeshi media the JMB was to be used for the next general elections in country. A very immature policy, the women and men in the BNP who cosponsored this route did not understand that they would ultimately be subsumed by the same demonic forces they helped to create.

Unfortunately, Khaleda Zia does not appear to have learnt any lesson from the past. But some in her party may have, and hence the fissures.

The lesson is when the ruling parties spend their time and energy in such diabolical pursuits, how can they devote time to development and create employment? The upcoming youth in Bangladesh are now looking at jobs and careers, and not fossilized ideological politics. In the December, 2008 elections 45 per cent voters were the young new voters. They turned the elections. But they are also watching how the Awami League is delivering on their electoral promises.

AL President and Prime Minister, Sk. Hasina, is a new avatar. She is focused on development which will create jobs for the youth and take the country on a new plane. Goldman-Shacs has identified Bangladesh as one of the eleven emerging countries. Response to Bangladesh from countries promoting development in less developed countries has been positive.

Sk. Hasina is also acutely aware of what domestic development, issues, and unresolved but charged emotional historical burdens can stymie development. In her inaugural address as Prime Minister she made eradication of terrorism as her prime initiative. Terrorism is the most destructive element that devours a country. She appears to be working on the premise of an old Chinese saying that the situation in a country reflects the state of the nation.

The tragedy of 1971 hangs as an Albatross around the neck of Bangladesh. When the perpetrators of the tragedy live freely and rule the nationalists there can be no peace. So is the case of Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, and that of the top leaders of the AL, in 1975. These issues have kept the country divided and in a perpetual state of confrontation. Sk. Hasina has initiated steps, put an end to Bangabandhu’s (Sk. Mujib’s) assassination case, and is working on the others.

Sk. Hasina is fully cognizant of the fact that the opposition rule from 1976 to 2006 except for a short interregnum of 1996-2001, worked on creating a new generation of Bangladeshis in a “hate India” mind set. Children grew up in schools learning from distorted text books that India was the main enemy of Bangladesh. Soldiers targeted a Sikh soldier effigy in their firing practice. All ills of Bangladesh was heaped on India. This created a significant anti-India society of the young. But that started crumbling gradually even before Sk. Hasina took over the government in 2009, thanks to some pro-independence NGOs.

The maturity of Sk. Hasina’s politics and policies in external relations for development is demonstrated by her actions. She took one full year to visit India, then forayed to China, and recently made her circle of Russia and Japan. She made it clear that she was not India-centric, but India was a large fast developing neighbour with a 4000 kms common border, which could promote Bangladesh’s development including by facilitating trade and economic relations with countries like Nepal and Bhutan by allowing and facilitating transit through India.
At the same time, Sk. Hasina realizes the importance of China and other countries. Her message is quite clear. Dhaka is not interested in making alliances with one country against another. But there are priorities with some countries including India as necessity demands, but purely on economic and security relations. Bangladesh would not like India to get into alliances that can trouble the region which can put Dhaka in a difficult situation.

Bangladesh’s appreciation of India’s regional role was made very clear in an op-ed by a PMO official recently in the Daily Star. Anu Mohammad, a Director in the PMO dissected US President Barack Obama’s India visit as follows. He welcomed the growing India-US relations, and the growth of India’s economic power which could deliver the rest of South Asia from poverty. Yet there were some concerns. American policies created problems as in Afghanistan, and hoped India would not join USA’s encirclement of China strategy which would be disastrous for the region especially Bangladesh, said Anu Mohammad.

The article obviously reflected the Bangladesh PMO’s views and concerns. Bangladesh sincerely appreciated India’s growth to big power status as an engine of development for South Asia, especially Bangladesh. Dhaka expects the boundary and enclave issues will be resolved permanently when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh, probably next January. The expectations and concerns expressed through the Op-ed should be appreciated in India. At the same time, Bangladesh must remain reassured by the track record of India’s foreign policy. India and China are committed to engage each other for further improvement of relations and focusing on development. Bilateral issues between them remain in another compartment.
As a neighbour of India with a 4,000 kms border there is an urgent necessity to remove the basic contentious issues between the two countries, especially on the borders, and sign the boundary agreement with adjustments to the 1974 India-Mujib accord. The enclaves issue especially that of the Bangladeshi enclaves of Dahagram and Angarpota, remain a serious irritant which will be addressed. Resolution of water issues will follow. India and Bangladesh are on the stepping stone of a relationship that is momentous for the development of the region. Sk. Hasina’s efforts attract input from others including China, Japan, USA, Russia and the EU can make the dream of “Sonar Bangla” (Golden age of Bangla) come true. But beware of the spoilers.

The main opposition in Bangladesh, the BNP and the JEI, are fixated on derailing Bangladesh-India relations. They are a total counterpoise against development in Bangladesh with an Indian stamp. This is the main platform of their politics, and they are getting increasingly disturbed that they have failed till now to raise a national voice against the India-Bangladesh development initiatives. It will be a costly omission to forget that Pakistan remains a very interested party in derailing Bangladesh’s development in the current paradigm. Their comrades in arms remain the BNP-JEI alliance.

The Bangladeshis, have been influenced by decades long Chinese propaganda, as some others also have, that India was expanding its hegemonism over neighbours and beyond. This perception must be disabused. Hegemonism is an anti-thesis to India’s development strategy.

There is a lot of hard work ahead for Sk. Hasina and her government. She also has the responsibility to curb the ills in her own party and affiliated organization. Sk. Hasina has, perhaps, taken up the biggest challenge and the aspirations of liberation which no other predecessors had even conceived. The country is poised to acquire the escape velocity to break out of less developed gravity.

India is committed to Bangladesh’s development. But New Delhi must act more with alacrity on the pending issues and promises. India and Bangladesh are on the steps of a new sub regional development paradigm which includes Nepal and Bhutan. The natural extension is through Myanmar to South East Asia.

The BNP and the JEI are determined to derail the Awami League’s development road map. This group has support from some other quarters, and both Dhaka and New Delhi must be alert to that. This quadrangular region (India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan) is looking at a great future. It is for India to take the lead to steer this quadrangle through the rocky roads. Bangladesh can be an eminent partner. #

First published in South Asia Analysis Group, India, December 07, 2010


Bhaskar Roy is a research associate with South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG)