Dhaka is angry and sad that the Indian PM said a fourth of Bangladesh sympathises with the radical Jamaat. As TOI-Crest followed up the faux pas with a cross-section of people in that country, their unanimous sentiment was: We aren't Pakistan and we try hard not to be one.
Moreover, many key agreements - sharing of Teesta waters, for instance, and removal of tariff barriers on Bangladesh products - are likely to be concluded during Manmohan's visit. "We look forward to this visit with great hope. This may open a new chapter in India-Bangladesh relations," Bangladesh foreign secretary Mijarul Quayes told this writer in Dhaka in late-June. The Indian prime minister's salvo, then, which encourages foes and berates friends in Dhaka, couldn't have been more mistimed. To say that 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are supporters of Islamic radical group Jamaat-e-Islami and thus pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian is factually incorrect, mildly put. In the December 2008 parliament elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami got only 2 seats out of 300. Post 9/11, too, the Jamaat managed only 17 seats in the 2001 elections - and that because it had an alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Seven years later, it was all but wiped out. Its share of popular vote has never crossed single digit.
Hasina's government has already started a war crimes trial to bring the offenders of 1971 to justice and many top Jamaat leaders are in jail on non-bailable charges. Some members like Ali Ahsan Mujahid have been booked in the Dhaka grenade attack case of 2004 when 24 Awami league leaders and supporters were killed. Hasina herself had barely managed to escape the murderous assault. Other leaders have been implicated in the Chittagong arms case (of 2004 again) in which ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua is facing an arrest warrant. The Jamaat has not been able to take out a proper rally or procession in the last two years to protest against Hasina's crackdown on their leaders or against the commission of the war crimes trial. Manmohan's statement did give them cause for one, but that too was poorly attended. Even religious clerics like Maulana Zia Hassan openly support the war crimes trial and call for punishment of Jamaatis. "Islam does not permit torture and use of force against non-believers," says the Maulana, asserting that only liberal Islam can survive in Bangladesh. "We are a Bengali nation and we value our Bengali heritage.
We are a nation of believers, but we broke off from Pakistan because we were not like them. Many Indians though, especially in the far right, feel we are another Pakistan. And that is a great tragedy, " says Major (retd) Shamsul Arefin, whose magnum opus Bangladesh Elections explains why the Jamaat and other religious parties have done so poorly in Bangladesh. “They are seen as the forces of counter-revolution, as those who opposed our freedom."
Many liberal Bangladeshis actually see their country as a future model for the Islamic world. "We want the best of (Rabindranath) Tagore and the best of the Prophet,” says history student Mustapha Mohsin Ali. "How can you deny the power of local nationalism for the sake of pan-Islamism? That does not work."
First published in The Times of India, India, July 9, 2011
Subir Baumik, a former BBC correspondent, is author of 'Troubled Periphery' and 'Insurgent Crossfire'