For better ties with our neighbour
We have grown accustomed to receiving greeting cards at the end of the year.
That is why BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi’s beautifully inscribed New Year greetings marked April 14, the first of Baishakh, always registered with me as no more than an eccentric attachment to his pre-historic agenda. But this year, upon my return from Dhaka, when I found his annual greetings awaiting me in my office, it had a meaning, a context - my abiding differences with him notwithstanding.
I suspect, he himself will find celebrations in Dhaka an eye-opener.
Celebrating “Pahela Baishakh”, the New Year, earlier this month in Dhaka was pure enchantment - exquisitely choreographed dance, music, in chorus by hundreds in colourful kurtas and the stately sari which, in Bangladesh, is the popular garb. And all in Ramna Park, the vast maidan in the heart of Dhaka - masks of birds, animals, carnival-like, in a “Mangal Shobhajatra”, peace procession.
That the price of Hilsa, Bangladesh’s national fish, shoots through the ceiling during this season is sufficient evidence that ‘Pahela Baishakh’ feasts continue in homes across the country.
We found ourselves in the residence of Mahfuz Anam, celebrated editor of Daily Star. Attendance at his Pahela Baishakh party is in inverse proportion to his difficulties with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But neither he nor Shaheen, his gracious wife, look any the worse for the 84 cases Awami League workers have slapped on him across the country’s 56 districts for a “crime” gaining regional popularity - “sedition”. Obviously, the Anams are harassed, but much more worried should be the prime minister.
There is a growing perception of rising intolerance.
There was no trace of anxiety on the face of Anam’s wife as she stood at the entrance welcoming guests. She had a strip of “bindis” in her hand - which she put, with diligent care, on the forehead of every woman who was without a bindi. Artists, writers, dancers, senior bureaucrats and a cross section of the diplomatic corps, including the US ambassador, elegant in a Dhaka sari - and a bindi.
Second track professionals addicted to Pakistani hospitality must look eastwards for greater gastronomical celebration - in Kolkata and Dhaka. Pakistanis almost make a statement with red meat. Bengal, on both sides of the border, is blessed with its range of fish and the cuisine handed down from Matia Burj outside Kolkata where the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled in 1856 for 31 years. The sub continent’s best biryani is available both in Kolkata and Dhaka.
The basic conflict in Bangladesh is between modernism and Islamism. Bunched together as Jamaat-e-Islami and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Islamists constitute about 30 percent of the country living in an “Islamic” past, divorced from the magic of Pahela Baishakh. On the eve of the festivities, clerics with Jamaat support issued a “fatwa” declaring Baishakh festivities as “haram” or impure.
It must never be forgotten that in 30, out of its 45 years as a nation, Bangladesh has been under some form of Army rule. During the remaining 15, BNP’s Khaleda Zia and Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina have been routinely quarrelling. Who can blame an exasperated elite, indeed, the political class, dreaming up a scheme which came to be known as the “Minus 2 formula”. It required the two ladies to live in exile. Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus was considered as a possible prime minister but the plan never took off.
Given Hasina’s temperament, the upshot is quite predictable: Yunus’ name is like a red rag to the regime. That is where Anam’s current troubles began. At the Daily Star’s 25th anniversary celebrations, Awami League ministers walked out as soon as Yunus got up to speak. Bits of Anam’s interview were seized upon by Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed, a Bangladeshi American, parked in Washington.
“Sedition” he screamed. Awami League storm troopers ran to the courts.
The Anam controversy had not quite subsided when newspapers carried a front page photograph of 81-year-old Shafiq Rehman, one of the country’s most respected journalists, being escorted to the courts by policemen. His guilt? He plotted to have Sajeeb killed in the US.
Never have India-Bangladesh relations been better. Militant camps in the North East have been closed. There is relative tranquility on the migrant issue and business between the two countries is booming. Only the Chinese are doing better. Anil Ambani and the Adanis are expected in Dhaka to sign $6 billion deals. There is much more in the pipeline including the water sharing issue.
The future depends on the durability of the secular edifice. Here is a superb relationship shaping up, quite in contrast to the unfortunate one with Pakistan. But how secure can secularism and democracy be if the regime is sliding into intolerance and one-party authoritarianism? What can New Delhi do? Does it see itself embarrassingly as someone in a glass house?
It is a delicate relationship. Slightest pressure and up goes the chorus: high-handed. Release the pressure and it is taken for license.
Murmurs are rising against a billion dollars’ worth of beef migration stopped by India. “It hurts the poor on both sides.” This becomes a tool in the hands of Islamists to target the evolving “special relationship”. Complaints rise to a crescendo at India “throwing its weight” in world cricket. “In our 15-year history as a Test playing nation, we have not been invited to play a single Test match in India”.
I spent the best part of an evening being harangued on a “no ball” controversy I knew nothing about. Apparently during a match in Australia, Virat Kohli was caught in the deep but the umpire declared it a no ball despite protests by Bangladesh players. I rubbed my eyes as the incident was cited as India’s “hegemonic ways”.
“Le saans bhi ahista ki nazuk hai bahut kaam!”
(Breathe very gently because the task at hand is of utmost delicacy)
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal)