By Jawaid Akhtar
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘off the record’ remarks on Bangladesh during an interaction with a group of print editors, last week, have led to discontent in Bangladesh. Singh was quoted as saying “at least 25 per cent of the population in Bangladesh swears by the Jamaat-e-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI. So the political landscape in Bangladesh can change at anytime. We do not know what these terrorist elements, who have a hold on the Jamaat-e-Islami elements in Bangladesh, can be upto.”
These remarks bear the potential to undermine India and Bangladesh which have seen some positive engagements in the last two years. The statement was first posted on the PMO website and later retracted. What is the relevance of this statement? Is it a case of expressing genuine concerns in wrong set of words? Or is it a hint of India’s carrot and stick policy towards Bangladesh?
To understand this, there is a need to read the full statement, which besides his controversial remarks on JeI influence and anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh, includes India’s acknowledgment of the Bangladeshi government’s help in apprehending the anti-Indian insurgents who were operating from Bangladesh for a long time. In the same statement he added that India was looking at ways and means of some additional unilateral concessions, and finding a pragmatic solution to the sharing of Teesta waters. The overall statement was a balanced assessment of India-Bangladesh relations, where the Prime Minister tried to focus on the positives as well as on India’s concerns on anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh.
It is apparent from the course of Bangladesh’s politics that anti-India feelings are strong in certain sections and there is a broad overlap between the parties that espouse such politics and a significant mass of the population there. Otherwise, there is no other explanation of why anti-India feelings remain strong. The Prime Minister was probably trying to point towards this issue which was conveyed inappropriately.
While Dhaka took strong resentment to these remarks on JeI influence in Bangladesh, diplomatic circles within India also termed the statement as factually incorrect and insensitive. Quarters in Bangladesh have blamed Indian intelligence agencies for misguiding the Indian Prime Minister on the figures quoted, and that one-fourth the population is anti-Indian. The Daily Star, a leading newspaper of Bangladesh, said that Manmohan Singh’s comments show a lack of understanding on Bangladesh, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the government and the stability of political system in Bangladesh. The Daily also raised questions on India’s attitude towards Bangladesh despite many signs of every day improvement in bilateral relations.
Even Indian analysts are of the view that the figure is unrealistic as the JeI has never won more than nine per cent of the polled votes in any elections since 1971. In 1996, the party won just over eight per cent, its highest showing since Independence. In the 1986, 2001 and 2009 elections, it won about four per cent of the vote; in 1991, it won just about one per cent of the vote.
While it would be an over statement to say that one-fourth of the total Bangladeshi population swears by JeI, it is also well known that political influence and electoral arithmetic often don’t tally. It is true that the Awami League Government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown keen interest in improving bilateral ties, working towards that direction. At the same time, maintaining good relations with India have been problematic, with opposition from the Bangladesh National Party (the main opposition party), the Je,I among others, who have always blamed her for selling the country to Indian interests. The BNP maintains that Bangladeshi interests are not served by India.
Keeping these facts in mind, it seems that the statement is a part of carrot and stick policy towards Bangladesh. Foreign Minister S M Krishna has just returned from an official visit to Dhaka, other Indian dignitaries including Water Resources Minister Slaman Khurshid, ruling coalition Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram are scheduled to visit Bangladesh in the next two months. They will prepare the grounds for Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh in the first week of September.
During these visits India is also likely to extend unilateral concessions to Bangladesh. Bangladeshi concerns on delay in disbursal of US$ 1 billion line of credit, sharing of Teesta Water, on border trade operations and border demarcation and exchange of enclaves is also likely to be addressed. India has also assured Bangladesh that the killing at the border would be brought down to a zero level through a joint border management. While India is offering concessions to Bangladesh, it was pertinent to address India’s concerns as well. Prime Minister’s statement therefore, was definitely ‘by no means intended to be judgmental’ as PMO has already clarified. Though, he could have chosen to be more politically correct rather than being candid on the issue.
Research Officer, IPCS
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