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.
INDIA HAS a habit of provoking controversies in Bangladesh - and often for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. When Sheikh Hasina's government started a massive crackdown against north-east Indian militants holed up in the country in 2009, home minister P Chidambaram alleged in public that tens of thousands of Bangladeshis were illegally infiltrating into India, many of them terrorists. The allegations, not entirely unfounded, may have stuck during the previous regime when Pakistan-backed Islamic radicals were using Bangladesh to enter India for subversive action. But Hasina's government has cracked down hard against both north-east Indian militants and Islamic radicals, so Chidambaram would have done well to hold fire. Manmohan Singh's ill-informed briefing of Indian editors about Bangladesh comes at a time when Dhaka is preparing to welcome him - and possibly Sonia Gandhi - in September. Hasina's government, in fact, intends to formally acknowledge India's role in the 1971 liberation war by naming a road in Dhaka after Indira Gandhi. Her statue will be placed in an appropriate crossing of that road. Bangladesh has also prepared a list of a few hundred Indians who will be formally honoured for their unstinted support to the cause of that country's liberation.
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.
"Islamic radicalism has no future in Bangladesh. We are moderate Muslims but we are Bengalis first, " says anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriar Kabir. Adds leading film-maker Nasiruddin Yusuf: "We are not Pakistan. We will never be. Pakistan is a failed state; it failed in 1971. But there are conspiracies to turn our beloved country into a Pakistan. If that happens, it will lead to another mukti juddho (freedom struggle)." Yusuf's Guerrilla, based on the Bangladesh war of independence, is currently running to full houses in that country. In the theatres, cutting across generations and class, people can often be seen weeping through the film, cursing Pakistanis. "India helped us win the war. Our only complaint with India is it should have intervened earlier.
That would have saved much bloodshed, " says Abdul Bari Liton, whose father fought in 1971 as a guerrilla in the Mukti Fauj.
All Bangladeshis who value their hard-fought independence hate the Jamaat because it supported Pakistan and its brutal army.
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."
"So why should a poorly-informed Indian prime minister give Jamaat credit for a popular support base that it has never enjoyed at any point, " asks writer Saleem Samad. "Why should he mislead Indian editors who are equally ill-informed about Bangladesh?" Samad fled the country during the five years of the BNP-Jamaat government after he was tortured by military intelligence agency DGFI for exposing the government fundamentalist-military nexus.
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."
The interesting fact is that India has been a role model for Bangladesh's large secular constituency. So any awkward statement from New Delhi comes as a rap on their knuckles and as a shot in the arm of the discredited Islamic radicals. When Begum Zia took power in Dhaka in 2001, hot on the heels of anti-Hindu pogroms in the country, former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra rushed to Dhaka and became the first foreign dignitary to congratulate her. The Awami League and its secular allies haven't forgiven Mishra - and the BJP - for announcing that "India has no favourites in Dhaka.”
Chittagong broadcaster Samaresh Baidya says, "So when a Congress leader like Manmohan Singh shoots off absolute rubbish, we are hurt. It wounds our pride and it bolsters our enemies. He and his advisers have got us totally wrong. "
Manmohan Singh will be visiting Bangladesh at a time when it's not exactly smooth sailing for his counterpart Sheikh Hasina. For one, the BNP has been frequently hitting the streets to protest against Hasina's efforts to end the caretaker system during elections. Since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991, the country has reverted to a caretaker administration that stays in place three months before a national parliament election. But the caretaker increasingly came to be dominated by the army that went beyond its mandate, provoking the government to try and curb its influence. While Hasina feels polls, like in India, can be held by a ruling government with a strong election commission, the opposition alleges that it's just a ground to rig the next parliament polls.
As if that wasn't enough, Hasina's allies are pulling her up for not proceeding decisively to restore the 1972 secular constitution promulgated by her father 'Bangabandhu' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She is, of course, apprehensive about the reaction from religious bodies as it involves doing away with 'Bismillah' and replacing it with 'Sristhikorta' (creator).
Hasina's test lies in strengthening the secular fabric of her country while fighting back the activities of Islamic radicals. It's clearly a tough job and Indian leaders like Manmohan Singh would do well to understand the complexity. They have to understand the dynamics and handle relations with the eastern neighbour with greater care and empathy.
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'