By Bhaskar Roy
Are the growing warm relations and co-operation between India and Bangladesh making some outside interests uncomfortable? If so, why? To some a strong India with an independent foreign policy should be prevented from growing, and India should be kept surrounded by inimical neighbours. At the same time, a Bangladesh growing at 7% and struggling to establish a truly secular and democratic state living in harmony with its large neighbour could be alarming for interests who prefer to feed on instability connected with India.
One cannot help but come to this conclusion after reading two issues of the otherwise reputable UK Weekly, The Economist. The issues of the weekly, July 30 – August 05 and August 13-19, carried two articles each slamming the two governments with a kind of vengeance mixed with petulance and frustration that was unbecoming of serious journalism. In fact, the articles reeked of cold war propaganda, and ignorance to boot. The following would illustrate the ‘poisonous west wind’.
The report under the ‘Leaders’ section of the issue dated July 30, starts with these words: “No one loves a large neighbours. For all that, India’s relations with countries that ring it are abysmal”. The same paragraph adds “Among its South Asian neighbours, the world’s largest democracy is incredible mainly because of its amazing ability to generate wariness and resentment”. The next paragraph castigates India for its “shoot-to-kill policy towards Bangladesh’s migrant workers” and “cattle rustlers”, and of “snuggling up to Myanmar’s thuggish dictators”, of prosecuting conflicting relations with Sri Lanka and meddling “madly” in Nepal’s internal affairs.
The words used so emphatically to berate India is a remarkable effort by the writer, to denigrate India’s foreign policy as much as possible. The tour de force on India’s relations painted India as a hegemon trying to bully its neighbours, and declining to share its economic development with its neighbours, remarking “India lacks any kind of vision”.
In the ‘Asia’ section of the same issue, The Economist charged that the Awami League won a landslide election in 2008 with the help of “bags of Indian money and advice”. A fabulous assessment. If this is believable then the Awami League should have won all the previous elections with “Indian money and advice” since the Indian government has enjoyed a good relationship with the Awami League since 1971.
Following strong protests from the Bangladesh government, The Economist issue dated August 13 made some self-correction, admitting that the 2008 election seemed to mark a water-shed in Bangladesh, and it was the fairest poll in the country’s history. It would seem an admission by the weekly that in its over enthusiastic agenda to damage the credibility of India and the Awami League, facts accepted and endorsed internationally were missed. The 2008 Bangladesh election was monitored and certified by international observers.
Relentless in its agenda, this weekly even attempted to ridicule Indian Congress Party’s president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s one-day visit to Dhaka (July 25) when she received Bangladesh’s highest civilian honour awarded posthumously to India’s Prime Minister during the 1971 liberation war, Ms. Indira Gandhi for her contribution to Bangladesh’s independence.
The Economist repeated almost verbatim Bangladesh’s main opposition party BNP’s misgivings on India’s approach for a land corridor facility through Bangladesh to India’s north-eastern states. The refrain was that it would facilitate (i) Indian military mobilization to the north-east to contain militancy and this could exact reprisals by Indian insurgents on Bangladesh, and (ii) China may retaliate against Bangladesh if it allowed India to transport troops through the corridor to buttress its disputed borders with China in Arunachal Pradesh. Such obtuse arguments are baffling, to say the least. While The Economist accuses India of not taking its neighbours along with its own development, it is blind to the fact that this corridor is a win-win infrastructure for all concerned. It will create a sub-regional trade and transport infrastructure for Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh’s Sea Ports in Chittagong and Mongla will be further activated and the infrastructure will create jobs for many Bangladeshis. The transit corridor can be extended to Pakistan, and to Myanmar and South East Asia as and when political relations and trust evolve.
That only 5 percent trade of South Asia is generated within the region has reasons outside India. Pakistan’s position against the SAARC Free Trade Area will provide the answer.
The two issues of The Economist scream out many other negatives. For example, consider the following. It projects vengeance politics from Sheikh Hasina in terms of the 1971 war crimes trial; dynastic retribution against former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia; attempts to decimate the Islamic political party the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI); and the Awami League government’s politics of vengeance against Khaleda Zia’s sons, Tareque Rahman and Arafat Rahman among many other allegations. Each of these issues needs to be addressed, and are brought to interface in the following.
The 1971 liberation war has its genesis in the linguistic and cultural differences between West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the economic exploitation of the latter by West Pakistan. In 1948, a year after the partition of India, East Pakistan’s dissatisfaction at being the “underdog”, took a leap in the (Bangalee) language movement of February 21, 1952, and culminated with West Pakistan refusing to accept Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Prime Minister of Pakistan when his party won the Pakistan elections in 1970. To disfranchise Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, West Pakistan unleashed military terror in its eastern wing in March 1971.
What occurred in East Pakistan was nothing short of genocide, next only to Adolf Hitler’s horrific attempted extermination of Jews in Germany. Short of using gas chambers the Pakistani army did everything to annihilate Bengalee leaders, intellectuals, students and innocent men, women and children. Bangladeshis who are with the JEI and parties like the Islamic Oikyo Jote (Amini group) were active collaborators in the genocide. The editors of The Economist should read the book “Witness to Surrender”, written by a Pakistani military officer, Maj. (Retd.) Sadiq Salik. He was in Bangladesh in 1971 and recounted the horrors committed by the Pakistani army and its Bengalee collaborators. More than three million Bangladeshis died and around three thousand women raped, not so much by the Pakistani army as by the collaborators.
The BNP government (2001-2006), in alliance with the JEI and two other Islamic parties was a regime of kleptocracy and a sponsor of terrorism. The regime was led de facto by Khaleda Zia’s elder son Tareque, a college dropout and a former drug addict. He and his henchmen not only looted and murdered, but also reared and exported terrorism. Three attempts were made to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, and in the third attempt (August 21, 2004) 24 Awami League members and leaders including Mrs. Ivy Rahman who was a member of the Awami League Presidium and wife of present President Zillur Rahman were killed; Sheikh Hasina escaped but with serious injuries. Apart from this, several other Awami League leaders were assassinated during the BNP JEI alliance regime. The main actors of these incidents have confessed, and have implicated Tareque Rahman and others.
Revert back to 2004 again. Ten truck loads of arms illegally imported from China were accidentally intercepted at the Chittagong port on April 01, 2004 by a couple of police officers. The arms were meant for the ULFA terrorist/separatists of India’s north-east state of Assam. Those involved in the plan included Tareque Rahman, other ministers of the BNP-JEI government including the Amir of JEI, Motiur Rehman Nizami, Pakistan’s ISI and international criminal Dawood Ibrahim (of Indian origin but under ISI’s protection in Pakistan). Tareque’s association with other terrorist organizations in Bangladesh are now officially recorded. All these cases are in Bangladesh courts. About the charge that Sheikh Hasina is trying to create a personality cult around her late father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as Bangabandhu (friend of Bangladesh) as the Father of the Nation, there is nothing nefarious or inconsistent. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a few days away from execution in a Pakistani jail, when the Pakistani army in Bangladesh surrendered to the Indian army. His was the voice that rallied the Bangalee people.
Different countries have placed leaders who led their independence struggle on a high pedestal. In India, Mahatma Gandhi is known as the Father of the Nation. So is Nelson Mandela in South Africa. America has its own icons. China has Mao Zedong.
The criticism over the Awami League government’s constitutional reforms is not understood. Sheikh Hasina has a majority in a fairly elected government to push through such amendments. She is trying to revert the post – Mujib constitution with the amendments to the Islamic constitution to the 1972 secular Bangladesh constitution, a platform on which the liberation war was fought. Is there any disagreement on this? Of course, there is the question of the removal of the “Care taker Government” system for 90 days before a new election. It is true that Sheikh Hasina had agreed to it when she was in the opposition. But the last caretaker government failed in every way to deliver an apolitical system. How many responsible countries have such a system?
The implied sarcasm about Indira Gandhi cannot be allowed to pass. Her contribution to Bangladesh’s liberation against all Western pressures, was a monumental act for liberty, equality and democracy. Not one, but several books can be written rebutting the views of The Economist.
There is no government in the world that is perfect. That goes for the UK, US, India and many other democratic countries. So is the case with Sheikh Hasina’s government. Democratic and pluralistic government work under several constraints including from their own parties, lawmakers and even Ministers. But that does not mean it must be trashed the way The Economist has done.
There is more to the articles than meet the general eye. It may be recalled that a highly educated writer of Indian origin, Ms. Sharmila Bose, wrote a book on the 1971 Bangladesh war. She claimed that she did empirical research in Bangladesh and found no evidence of atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators as alleged by official records. Her immediate relatives in India distanced themselves from the book. After her exposition at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. she has not been heard of again. Her inference was that the atrocities were Awami League – Indian propaganda, though she did not use these words.
One has not seen any article in The Economist that called the hunting down of the Nazis or prosecution of the Bosnian war criminals revenge politics. This writer may be corrected if he is wrong.
What is alarming in the essence of The Economist articles and the book by Ms. Bose is that the attacks are mainly primed towards India and the Awami League of Bangladesh with the sole purpose of demolishing a vibrant India-Bangladesh relationship. In some way there appears to be an agenda to promote a corrupt and religiously inclined Bangladesh to whatever purpose.
Of course, clever media warfare also puts positives for its targets. The Economist praises Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, setting him aside from hardline detractors in his government. At the same time the article takes a jibe at him calling him “the Gandhi family retainer”. This happens in the run up to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh (September 06-07) which is expected to build a mutually supportive relationship between India and Bangladesh. Who are the forces spinning these indefensible negatives and to what end?
It is imperative to realize the following (i) the ghosts of 1971 and 1975 can only be put to rest only if a transparent legal process brings these issues to conclusion. Otherwise, Bangladesh will be condemned to live in a festering abscess of hate, and (ii) the main opposition, the BNP, is beginning to understand that good relations with India can be beneficial for the country. One does not know if this is a tactical position. Let Bangladeshis resolve their own problems without foreign interference. Crime has to pay, howsoever, painful for the perpetrators.
(The author is an experienced analyst of South Asian region. He can be contacted at [email protected])