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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

After 2009 Bangladesh mutiny, India rallied support for Hasina


U.S. EMBASSY Charge d'Affaires Steven White was surprised when he was called in for a meeting with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on the last weekend of February 2009.

That “unusual Saturday meeting” was to discuss the mutiny by troopers of the Bangladesh Rifles a couple of days earlier, and the worry in the Indian government about its implications for the newly elected government of Sheikh Hasina, perceived as being a friend of India.

The cable that was sent on March 2, 2009 (194661: confidential), and accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, details the conversation between the American stand-in envoy and Mr. Menon.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had telephoned External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee during the mutiny to ask for assistance from the international community but had not been specific about the kind of help she needed. Mr. Mukherjee had offered “to be responsive” if needed.

The Foreign Secretary, Shivshankar Menon, revealed that the Indian government had also rallied London, Beijing and Tokyo.

India had two concerns. One, it feared that the Jamat-e-Islami would exploit the instability resulting from the rebellion to “fish in troubled waters.” The Foreign Secretary described the mutiny as long in the planning. Mr. Menon did not blame the Jamat-e-Islami directly for it, but said the party was disappointed by the results of the December 2008 election, and the steps taken by the new government to counter extremism.

Secondly, it appears India was worried that the mutiny could affect the civilian government's relations with the military.

Mr. Menon expressed concern about the likely effect of the violence on the Army, which had lost several officers while quelling the mutiny. The Foreign Secretary indicated this might lead to trouble for the Hasina government with the Army. He noted that the mutineers had thrown the bodies of military officials into sewers. But he was encouraged that the Army chief was working closely with the government to stabilise the situation.

“Menon appreciated the U.S. statement on the violence and stressed the importance of close coordination and consultation between the U.S. and India as the situation developed. He warned that while the initial violence was over, it would take several days before it was clear what would happen next and that further trouble was possible,” the U.S. official cabled.

A month later, India continued to be worried about the after-effects of the mutiny. On March 26, 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi cabled ( 198952: confidential) that India's main concern was to stabilise Prime Minister Hasina's government.

The Ministry of External Affairs Deputy Secretary told Embassy officials that India was concerned about the possible involvement of “radical forces.”

He related that many of the known culprits in the massacre were recruited under the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party government and have Jamaat-e-Islami links.

India's concerns appear to have cast a shadow on the Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Dhaka on April 13 and 14 that year. A day later, he shared with U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh his assessment that the situation in Bangladesh was “fragile” following the mutiny.

According to a cable sent on April 16, 2009 from New Delhi ( 202615: confidential) reporting the meeting, Mr. Menon expressed the Indian government's worry that the current environment would allow extremist groups in Bangladesh to destabilise the democratic government and provide them with a “freer hand” to launch attacks in India.

“Pressed by the Ambassador to identify which groups India was concerned about, Mr. Menon said that India's worries extended from political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami to extremist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangadesh (HUJI, B),” the Embassy cabled.

The Indian official told the U.S. Ambassador that even though petty issues often consumed politics in Bangladesh, he was surprised that despite the instability created by the mutiny, “politicians were focused on matters such as Opposition Leader Begum Zia's housing.”

“India was concerned about a sense of drift in the government and [Menon] judged that the government was not functioning in a normal fashion,” the cable said.

This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.

Nirupama Subramanian, was The Hindu’s correspondent in Pakistan, Sri Lanka was awarded the Prem Bhatia Award

First published in The Hindu, Chennai, India, March 27, 2011

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