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Between the line

Problems galore in Bangladesh
September 23, 2009


IT was a feeling of humiliation that gave brick and mortar to the people in East Pakistan to build a country of their own. That was some 38 years ago when Bangladesh was born. With skimpy resources and a larger population, it did not flag their determination to convert the country into a Sonar Bangla. But gradually a mood of uncertainty has taken over the nation.

The first blow came when Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the father of the nation, was assassinated. He had the vision and the support of people who were willing to offer any sacrifice at his asking. The second blow was the military-inspired coup that destroyed the open and democratic society. Such elements were unleashed which drove the liberals—and their ideals—to the wall. The dictum of force, fanaticism and feud came in train.

Bangladesh needed unity to develop. But it witnessed a rash of military rules and authoritarian regimes. Then there were the ever battling begums, Sheikh Hasina of Awami League confronting Khalida Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Exasperated nation has gone back to the beginning and given more than two-thirds of parliament seats to the daughter of the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Still the political unity has eluded the country because the BNP has boycotted parliament.

Some developments are ominous. Islamist extremism is rearing its head again. It is selling hatred and anachronism. Jihadis are sprouting here and there. That the hanging of Bangla Bhai and his eight fundamentalist colleagues last year did not evoke any protest is a healthy sign. But he was more of a killer than a religious figure. Even the mullahs felt relieved.

The manner in which the fundamentalists have joined hands with the BNP indicates that religion and politics are sought to be mixed. The Jamaat-i-Islami is their supporter, although it has reluctantly conceded that the liberation struggle contributed to independence. The Awami League, slipping in performance, may find these forces catching the imagination of the common man despite the liberal temperament of Bangladeshis. (Their national anthem is a song by Rabindranath Tgore, an Indian Bengali poet).

The other unfavourable development is that Bangladesh, pre-occupied with the problem of finding lakhs of jobs, has neglected its borders. It has become a haven for all the banned organizations in India, Sri Lanka and even Myanmar. They operate from the Bangladesh soil and find it safe to do so. They belong to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other lawless groups.

A concerted fight against them is what Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Doni’s promised Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna when they met at Delhi a few days ago. “We will not allow any terrorist on our soil, be it any creed or colour,” she assured. “We are undertaking action to arrest and uproot them.” She has signed an agreement to combat international terrorism and crime.

India has, in turn, allowed border markets and given Bangladesh 1000MW of power straightaway, apart from developing power grid connectivity. (Bangladesh is helplessly short of power). After straightening things with the West, India was the first country to which Sheikh Hasina sent her foreign minister as her emissary to assess how far India was willing to accommodate Bangladesh. It is apparent that Sheikh Hasina cannot be satisfied with an agreement on power. She expects wider and closer economic cooperation.

In fact, after the liberation of Bangladesh there was a joint planning board of New Delhi and Dhaka. An outline was prepared how economy of the two countries would be dovetailed to benefit each other. Everything has remained on paper since the assassination of Mujib-ur Rahman. True, New Delhi has its own limitations. But it has a larger economy. It can do much more than it has promised. Perhaps New Delhi can encourage some private investors to pump in money in Bangladesh or set up joint ventures to produce what India requires. The Tatas had a bad experience. But then the BNP was in power and its plank was anti-India. It still is.

India has exacted a price in the shape of Dhaka’s undertaking to go after the Islamist extremists and militants operating from its soil. But, as Sheikh Hasina found during her earlier stint of rule, it is not easy to fight against them when they have god fathers in both the countries. The drug trafficking by the militants gives them an income of hundreds of crores. It is difficult to demolish their network or that of criminals, smugglers and religious bigots because those who use them wield political power as well.

The steps that Dhaka takes against them—it has tinkered with the problem in the past—may stoke anti-India fire which is already burning fiercely. The anti-Pakistan feeling has been replaced by anti-India feeling. Still Dhaka has to face the situation. It cannot be seen running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Bangladesh knows that the failure to tackle the terrorists operating from its soil may cost the country dear. After all, the assistance by India is at stake.

The point to worry about is New Delhi. It expects much more than Dhaka can deliver. India also wants it to give transit rights to reach its northeastern states and facilities at the Chittagong port for exports. Such steps are seen by the common man as New Delhi’s hegemony. Talks on such matters soured relations in the past. New Delhi will have to sell them to the people of Bangladesh with reason and in what they see their own advantage. Thank god, the demand for natural gas has not been renewed. This is a touchy subject for Bangladesh.

Again, there is apprehension in Bangladesh over the Tipaimukh Dam project located near the confluence of the Barak and Tuivai rivers in Manipur. True, New Delhi says that there will be no diversion of water. Why not suggest a joint board of engineers from India and Bangladesh to supervise the project to remove any doubts? With great difficulty we have been able to quieten the Farakka barrage controversy. Let us not have another one.

The matter to ponder over by India is why all neighbouring countries have distanced themselves from it. No doubt, its size deters them. But more than that, their feeling is that New Delhi is becoming increasingly conscious of emerging as a world power. It tends to throw its weight around in such a manner that the neighbours have come to have doubts about its bona fides.
New Delhi must do some introspection because it is not that all next-door neighbours have turned hostile. They are suspicious, something which India must remove by its deeds.

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