By Rajeev Sharma
India is wasting crucial time in strengthening the hands of Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina as both the countries are due to go for general elections in early 2014. Hasina is India’s best bet. Her arch-rival Khaleda Zia, who is itching to recapture power, is nothing but a Pakistani stooge. If Zia were to become PM again, it will have huge adverse fallout on India’s security and the northeast will be in flames.
India could lose significant strategic gains it has made in its relations with eastern neighbour Bangladesh in the last three years if, for lack of political and diplomatic support, the current friendly government loses out to rivals who are positively hostile to everything Indian.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that has made significant gestures towards India – the first since that country came into being in 1971 – direly needs Indian support in the form of a water sharing pact on Teesta river, a land border agreement (LBA) and many matters of neighbourly nitty-gritty if it were to win the next election, due in early 2014. Indeed, time is running out for both the countries in that the present Government of India too has time till early 2014. Without India’s help, Hasina, already dubbed an Ïndian vassal, could lose out to her arch rival, Begum Khaleda Zia.
Zia and her Bangladesh nationalist Party (BNP) have grown in opposition to India and its alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist forces could turn the clock back for India and throw it back to the 2001-2006 period when, under Zia, Bangladesh became the source of activities by Islamist militants, crossing border and will and fomenting trouble in India.
The period saw a dramatic rise of Islamist militancy, activities of the likes of Siddiqur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai, and organised activities of the Harkatul Jihad Islami (HUJI). Organised attacks were carried out on Hindu and Buddhist minorities. The Zia Government remained in denial mode about the very existence of any such activity till it was written about in the Western media and on its own independent checking, the US Congress threatened economic sanctions against Dhaka. It was only then that Bangla Bhai and other militants, jailed for specific offences, were tried, convicted and hanged.
Why Khaleda Zia is a threat to India
Under Zia, with collaboration from Pakistan’s ISI, Dhaka also fomented trouble among the tribal militants of the Indian northeast, giving them shelter, allowing training camps and even clandestinely importing arms and ammunition for them. One such incident of April 2004 came to light accidentally and ten truck-loads of arms and ammunition were found to have been clandestinely imported from China and shipped by a company owned by a senior BNP lawmaker. Top intelligence officials of Bangladesh Army and the civil bureaucracy, said to be under guidance from the then prime minister’s office (PMO), were involved in the operation. Some of these officials are jailed or are being tried by a court in Chittagong.
The list is endless and Zia has in the last three years let go no opportunity to raise issues pertaining to Indo-Bangla bilateral ties. Every effort by Hasina to make any positive move, whether bilaterally or multilaterally has been decried. A case in point is Dhaka’s move to join the international rail and road projects that link Bulgaria in the West to Bangkok in the east. The Zia Government had blocked them or stipulated conditions to ensure that India did not gain access to its northeast through these international highways. The Hasina Government has reversed this policy, earning criticism from Zia.
The problem, essentially, has been on the Indian side with decisions not taken, or delayed and details not worked out because of failure to settle internal issues. For one, West Bengal blocks anything that it fears would place it at a disadvantage vis a vis Bangladesh or the Indian northeast. Indeed, the attitude of West Bengal has been at divergence even from the north-eastern states which are yearning for access to the rest of the country.
Hasina needs concrete deliverables from India
Thus it was that after a yearlong buildup, and after giving Bangladesh a $ one billion line of credit, the biggest India has given to any single country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned empty-handed from his Dhaka visit last year. The prime minister has been personally engaged in building a strong relationship with Dhaka, but has been thwarted by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and bureaucracy that views Bangladesh from the old East Pakistan prism.
On the other hand, the northeast remains on the boil, as was evident from the Bodos versus Bengali violence in Assam. The problem has roots in history and is recurring. Meeting on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran, the two prime ministers did not even touch upon this sensitive issue. Instead, the Indian PM could only reassure Hasina that he would try to get the land boundary agreement (LBA) and Teesta pact done. He has failed so far because the political deadlock in India has made it well-nigh impossible to push through these pacts.
The government has wanted to introduce the constitutional amendment for the LBA in Parliament in the on-going monsoon session and had started consultations with other political parties on the issue. But now it seems highly uncertain with the stalled Parliament proceedings. These could come, if at all, only in the Winter Session.
To obviate the strains in ties with Dhaka, should Zia return to power, India has sought to open out to other political forces in Bangladesh. Former president H M Ershad was in India and there are reports of even Zia being invited. But those who recall the cold vibes with Manmohan Singh when she visited India in March 2006 say Zia depends entirely on her anti-India stance for her domestic politics and on the Islamists, who provide her the cadres and the cutting edge in her battle with Hasina. Although widow of a freedom fighter, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, her politics also moves around close ties with Pakistan. That being the case, she is unlikely to make any amends that would be favourable to India.
Hasina and her Awami League, whatever their failing and flaws, remain India’s best bet and India would do well to realise this and help out Hasina.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. Of his seven published books, five are non-fiction and on subjects like international politics, diplomacy and terrorism. His last non-fiction book was “Global Jihad: Current Patterns and Future Trends”. He can be reached [email protected]