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Growing bonhomie

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s singular focus on Pakistan-sponsored terror has received the unflinching support of the Bangladesh government. In the aftermath of the surgical strikes beyond the Line of Control, New Delhi went on a ‘diplomatic offensive’ against Pakistan for its role in harbouring terrorists across multilateral forums. Within the international community, Bangladesh has proven to be India’s greatest supporter in its recent conflagration with Pakistan. Besides boycotting the SAARC summit, Bangladesh became the only country to support the surgical strikes explicitly. "India has got all legal, internationally accepted right to make a response to any attack on her sovereignty and her soil," Iqbal Chowdhury, Advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. Experts contend that Bangladesh is now India’s closest ally in South Asia, ahead of Nepal. In consonance with this narrative, Prime Minister Modi recently lauded his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina for coming up with a comprehensive plan to crackdown on militancy and has said that it could be a model for other countries. Modi interacted with Hasina during the bilateral meeting on the sidelines of BRICS summit in Goa on Sunday. At the meeting, Hasina made a detailed presentation on the various steps taken by her government after the militant attack on a Dhaka cafe in July this year. She briefed Modi on how her administration united all the districts of Bangladesh and ensured that all the imams were also on their side. Meanwhile, Bangladesh police have informed their Indian counterparts that at least four mid-level leaders of the banned Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh militant faction, the group behind the July 1 Dhaka terror attack, have sneaked into India. The JMB follows the ideology of the Islamic State. 

This development comes a few weeks after the Kolkata Police had arrested six top operatives of the Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. Reports indicate that the arrests had foiled the JMB’s plans to carry out terror attacks in Bengal and Assam. Two of the accused have cases registered against them for their role in the terror attack at an upscale café in Dhaka. Bangladeshi officials had earlier passed on intelligence that money and arms for the July 22 attack were routed through India. The terror outfit has also been known to carry out brutal attacks on atheists and other religious minorities in Bangladesh. Through the porous India-Bangladesh border, terror groups like the JMB and IS have spread their influence across both India and Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment continue to support and finance terror groups in the subcontinent to fulfil their strategic objectives. Given these circumstances, New Delhi has reached out to Dhaka and offered all assistance, both regarding intelligence and equipment. Following the Burdwan blast in 2014, a probe by the NIA had unearthed a vast JMB terror network that spread its tentacles across individual eastern Indian states. It was during Khaleda Zia's tenure that Bangladesh witnessed the rise of the JMB on its soil, despite constant denials by her regime. The arrest of senior JMB leaders back in 2010 by Bangladeshi authorities had also proven beyond doubt that a close relationship existed between Zia’s political allies, the Jamaat and the JMB. Since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League took office in 2009, Dhaka has taken stringent action against the terror groups and their affiliates. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, declares itself to be a secular party that seeks to protect the rights of minorities. But it has also been accused of appeasing to sections of the radical Muslim community, much to the dismay of liberals, atheists and religious, sexual minorities.

Since its inception as an independent country, critics argue that Bangladesh has traversed on an uneasy path between its secular ethos and the Islamic doctrine professed by its majority. In a recent column, noted Bangladeshi writer and director, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed, writes: “Yet, the nation’s constitution, as it stands now after various politically expedient amendments, has diluted the pledge to secularism in the original 1972 version. It is a testament to the government hedging its bets to pacify both Islamists and secularists. It states that Islam is the national religion, but grants equal status to all faiths. State functions are routinely opened with an Islamic prayer, the irony lost or ignored.” At stake here is the secular character that many Bangladeshis seek to espouse. The country’s war of Independence in 1971 is often used as an anchor for modern-day struggles in Bangladesh to maintain its secular identity. These struggles reached their zenith during the Shahbag protests in 2013 that demanded the death sentence for senior Jamaat-e- Islami leaders accused of numerous war crimes in collusion with the Pakistani forces. The ruling Awami League government has used these struggles to not only prosecute people involved with war crimes but also perpetuate its “secular” credentials. “The basic conflict in Bangladesh is between modernism and Islamism,” said Saeed Naqvi, a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. “Bunched together as Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), the Islamists constitute about 30 percent of the country living in an ‘Islamic’ past, divorced from the magic of its syncretism.” There is an insidious intent behind these attacks on secular writers and bloggers, according to Naqvi. “Macabre attacks on soft targets in Bangladesh have multiple purposes: they discredit the Hasina government, intimidate liberals, the anti-Jamaat e Islami masses,” he said. Religious fanatics seek the formation of an Islamic state based on Sharia law. 

The key role India played in Bangladesh’s struggle for Independence in 1971 will be forever etched in the memory of both nations. At the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian Army supported the Bengali War of Liberation against Pakistan. At the core of Pakistan’s policy in Kashmir and Bangladesh lies the humiliation of 1971. However, the most recent phase of bonhomie between Dhaka and New Delhi arrived after the controversial 2014 general elections in Bangladesh, which the Awami League won by a landslide. Opposition parties had boycotted the elections amidst allegations of excessive government interference in the poll process. The voter turnout was an abysmal 22 percent, and more than half the parliamentary seats were decided without any contest. Western democracies, including the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union had called for an immediate reelection. India, however, stood tall with the Awami League government and its leader Sheikh Hasina. In other words, New Delhi played a significant role in garnering international acceptance for the 2014 verdict. Without New Delhi’s support, one might have seen the Opposition BNP in office, which maintains close ties to extremist elements.

Experts, however, contend that New Delhi’s support for the Awami League government was expected. In its previous term, the Sheikh Hasina government played a significant role in severely dismantling the United Liberation Front of Asom, a militant group that aims to establish a sovereign Assam. “In 2009, Sheikh Hasina’s government had captured and expelled nearly the entire ULFA leadership and, even more crucially, frozen all its funds – a figure amounting to a staggering $532 million, showing just how effective the militant group’s so-called tax collection had been in Assam,” according to Scroll. The relationship has now extended to trade and commerce. Bangladesh is now India’s largest trading partners in South Asia. Last year, both Modi and Hasina signed a host of agreements that allowed the Indian mainland access to its Northeast and South East Asia through routes in Bangladesh. Instead of SAARC, overshadowed by the quagmire of India’s troubled ties with Pakistan, New Delhi has put new effort into the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) organisation. This multilateral group aims to revive the rich commerce around the Bay of Bengal. Finally, last year, both nations agreed to the settle the complicated border issue.
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