Bangladesh's embattled leader has made stunning concessions to Islamic fundamentalists critics say could undermine secularist support for her regime
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has turned to the right to placate hardline Islamists after facing flak for her recent visit to neighboring India, a trip her opponents have claimed sold out national interests to its giant western neighbor.
Hasina’s concessions to hard-line Islamists have upset her own party supporters who value Bangladesh’s secular heritage and could also rattle India, which sees rising radical Islamist activities in Bangladesh as a growing security threat.
Hasina’s recently concluded four-day visit to India led to 22 new agreements with India, including a crucial US$4.5 billion concessionary line of credit to finance development projects and defense purchases. It was the largest amount India has ever offered Bangladesh or any other neighbor.
The two defense-related memoranda of understanding, however, set tongues wagging in Dhaka, with the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) claiming the deals undermine the autonomy of Bangladesh’s armed forces vis-à-vis India.
BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, for one, has vowed to review all of Hasina’s deals with India and would scrap those found to go against “national interests” if she rises to power at the next polls, due in December 2018.
BNP joint general secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi has claimed Hasina’s decision to deport anti-India rebels, allowances for India to traverse Bangladesh territory to reach its northeastern territories and use its ports have been one-way deals where Dhaka has received nothing in return.
The biggest issue, however, was Hasina’s inability to notch a water-sharing treaty Bangladesh has sought with India since 2011 on the contested Teesta river. BNP has said Hasina should raise the issue at the United Nations, a confrontational step the premier has declined to take.
Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh carried a draft of the proposed treaty to Dhaka in 2011, but fierce opposition from influential Indian West Bengal state chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has claimed the treaty would parch her state, forced him to return without a deal.
Singh’s coalition government was dependent on Banerjee’s support for its survival.
Banerjee’s opposition to the treaty also apparently stymied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a breakthrough with Hasina on the issue, which has vexed bilateral relations for years. The joint Hasina-Modi declaration vaguely promised an “early resolution” to the Teesta issue as well as seven other less contentious common rivers.
“Now Modi has to push these deals within this year to give Hasina a fighting chance in next year’s elections,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta. “Otherwise the stigma of being an Indian surrogate will sink her.”
Underscoring that political risk, Hasina asked her ruling Awami League party to cancel a public reception it had planned for her return from Delhi. A close aide to Hasina, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cancellation was motivated by her inability to secure a hoped for breakthrough on the emotive issue.
The local press smelled blood in the water. “India only knows how to take, not how to give,” shrieked Bangla Tribune, a top local broadsheet. “Hasina comes back empty-handed,” wrote another. “Only warmth, no water for Hasina,” The Daily Star ran on its front page.
On one TV channel after another, panelists tore into Hasina, with some commentators even suggesting that India may not have pushed the Teesta deal to send a signal it would not mind a change of regime in Dhaka.
Hasina has responded to the rising criticism with a surprising appeasement of Islamic fundamentalists, a lurch that critics claim could erode support among her government’s most ardent secular backers.
After harshly suppressing past rallies staged by the fundamentalist Hifazat-e-Islam, an Islamist pressure group of madrassah teachers and students, Hasina has recently conceded to two of the group’s key demands: government recognition of Qaumi madrassa degrees, which allow such graduates to compete for state jobs, and the removal of a Greek statue from the premises of the Supreme Court in Dhaka.
Secularist groups view Hasina’s concessions as a conciliatory first step towards bringing hardened Islamists into her beleaguered government. Hifazat-e-Islam’s chief, Allama Shafi, has frequently threatened to curb many of the freedoms women enjoy in Muslim majority Bangladesh, including access to higher education and ability to work outside of their homes.
Shafi heads the board that runs the so-called Qaumi of the Madrassas, widely seen as a breeding ground for jihadis and other Islamist militants.
Bangladesh’s powerful nationalist secular constituency, including veterans of the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, have been openly peeved by the moves.
“We vote for Hasina and her party, we have shed our blood for this country, but how can we accept a deal with these arch fundamentalists,” said Haroon Habib, now secretary general of the Sectors Commanders Forum, an organization of 1971 liberation war veterans. “This may be a costly mistake.”
Certain ministers in Hasina’s cabinet were also fumed by the concessions to fundamentalists. “The way Hijazat articulate their demands, it seems Bangladesh is not a people’s republic but rather an Islamic republic,” said Cultural Affairs minister Asad U Zaman Noor, a former leading theatre artist and Awami League member.
Other members of her party, however, defended the moves, claiming bizarrely that Hijazat leader Shafi is a voice of Muslim moderation. “Allama Shafi has strongly criticized militancy and suicide bombings as anti-Islam,” said Awami League general secretary and roads minister Obaidul Quader said “That’s a major gain.”
Some analysts suggest Hasina may be seeking to split the hardline Islamist constituency by courting Hifazat to counter BNP’s fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest hard-line Islamist group, though at a significant political cost.
“She risks upsetting her own hardcore support base, secular men and women, who are the majority in my country,” said Shahriar Kabir, who heads the Nirmul Committee, a group that pushed for 1971 war crimes trials that led to the conviction and execution of several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.
Kabir contends that Awami League won elections in 1996 and 2008 because it was able to leverage popular demands for trials of fundamentalist war criminals accused of murder, rape and torture in support of Pakistan’s efforts to break-up the Bengali nationalist struggle.
“But when the swing has been towards fundamentalism, like after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Awami League has lost,” Kabir said.
First published in the Asia Times, April 21, 2017
Subir Baumik, is PhD from Oxford University, is an award winning Indian journalist and specializes in northeast Indian affairs.