In tough times
India’s support to Bangladesh in a turbulent situation when internal and extraneous forces are collaborating to discredit the government is a significant gesture
As this piece goes to the press, Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM), S Jaishankar would already have been in Dhaka tying up the loose ends ahead of PM Modi's upcoming visit to Bangladesh (March 26-27) in connection with the Mujib centenary, combined with the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh's independence. Other than paying a courtesy call to the PM Sheikh Hasina, the EAM is also expected to hold meetings on a slew of bilateral issues with his Bangladesh counterpart, AK Abdul Momen. The visiting EAM is also paving the way for Prime Minister Modi to discuss with Sheikh Hasina on border management issues, Teesta water sharing, road connectivity projects etc. PM Modi during his two-day stay in Dhaka will pay a visit to the birthplace of Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Tungipara to pay tribute on his 100th year.
There is no structured agenda as yet but Bangladesh is likely to join the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project which was touched upon by PM Modi on his telephonic talk with BD PM on December 17 last year. Bangladesh is also keen to use the good offices of India as a member of the UN Security Council for hastening the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Most of the bilateral issues between India and Bangladesh stand adequately addressed except the sharing of Teesta waters. Forces opposed to Hasina or a harmonious relationship between the two countries are trying to rake up the Teesta issue more as a prestige issue than based on any sound reasoning. They are, through articulations in a section of the media, seem to be supporting the Chinese offer of managing the Teesta water project. There are speculations that in return for the Chinese gesture, Chinese in good numbers could be settled along the 'chicken neck' in the Siliguri corridor. This seems highly utopian but proves that certain lobbies are at work trying to impair growing Indo-BD ties. Some of such elements have also questioned the non-implementation of the Teesta water-sharing alleging that it was overdue as it was decided in principle four years ago.
While India and Bangladesh ties, as of today, are on a solid footing and has every indication of growing from strength to strength, Bangladesh is saddled with certain hiccups beginning from the start of this year. These have been unsettling, albeit briefly for the BD government. It began with an investigative scoop by media house Al Jazeera which in a secretive video recording, blamed the BD Army Chief Gen Aziz Ahmed for protecting his brothers from the charges of murder and other organised crimes including money laundering and blatantly interfering into the transfer and postings in key positions. These charges, though unproven, caused embarrassment to the establishment leading them to consider taking legal recourse against Al Jazeera's coverage titled "All the Prime Minister's Men". The government in Dhaka is trying its best to address this issue to be seen to be clean to the people.
As soon as this issue started settling down, the Digital Security Act (DSA), initiated by the BD government stood opposed by many who are not favourably disposed towards Hasina and her government. Things got compounded when a 53-year-old activist, Mushtaq Ahmed, who was charged for abusing cyberspace by posting objectionable contents, under DSA on 25 May last year, died (Feb 25) while in captivity in the Ghazipur high-security prison. His death has given a pretext to the opposing forces to protest for an early repeal of the DSA who feel this Act as draconian. Mushtaq's death has brought protestors on the streets and a few days ago, they marched and violently clashed with the police on the main arteries of the city shouting slogans and displaying anti-government posters. On March 3, they made it clear that unless the Act is not repealed, the protestors might gherao the Prime Minister's house and office on March 26 coinciding with the 50th Independence Day celebrations when several world dignitaries would be present in Dhaka. Under these circumstances, it seems imperative on part of the BD government to iron out all the creases particularly on the solemn occasion of the Mujib centenary year and the golden jubilee of its freedom.
A cautious approach coupled with tact and patience, seems to be called for so as not to provoke the opposition or ruffle the feathers of the protestors or sympathisers of Mushtaq Ahmed lest the moves prove counterproductive. The autopsy of Mushtaq doesn't show any mark of injury or foul play and thus the factor needs to be played up to silence the opposition. Also, the family members of Mushtaq have not accused the government of any highhandedness and this fact calls to be driven home.
Meanwhile, several foreign diplomats in Dhaka have called (Feb 28) for an impartial, independent and transparent enquiry into Mushtaq's demise. BD Foreign Minister, Dr AK Abdul Momen criticised (March 1) them for interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh as such interference did not behove the status of the diplomatic community. He also said that Bangladesh never meddled in the internal matters of the US or any other country so expects the same nicety from the diplomats accredited to Bangladesh. Most of these protests are coming from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation ( OECD). Forthcoming days appear crucial for the law enforcers to handle this sensitive development especially in the light of upcoming celebrations.
These issues apart, the otherwise dormant political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in a surprising move, has disclosed its plans of participation in the independence day rejoicings so as not to be labelled as 'anti-National' or 'anti-freedom' movement. This comes in the wake of the government decision to strip late President and founder of BNP Zia Ur Rahman of the title of Bir Uttam bestowed in the past for his 'contribution' in the freedom struggle. In fact, Zia is always strongly suspected to be behind plotting the coup and complicit in the Mujib and his entire family's assassination on August 15, 1975.
BNP somehow is trying in desperation to revive Zia howsoever faint the attempt may be. The party is also chalking out programmes to honour the freedom fighters by holding a reception for them, blood donation camps, organising cultural seminars and workshops etc. Basically, the politically dead BNP wants its presence to be felt in the national mainstream though their leader and ex-PM Khaleda Zia is keeping indifferent health and still slapped with many criminal charges, is unable to lead and her son Tareq Rahman, the present Chairman of the Party, is living in exile in London. Hence, the party is rudderless yet it's getting publicity in the news space and merits a close watch as it's not openly clear which extraneous forces are supporting the party with muscle and material posing some kind of challenge to Hasina, her government and the party.
With India strongly holding the hand of Bangladesh, as always for the last half a century, the chances of Bangladesh moving ahead in its 50th year of independence remains bright. Both the countries in such a vibrant partnership must reinforce their ties more strongly for a robust and economically viable and secure Bangladesh for future generations to see. India which had steadfastly collaborated with Bangladesh in the latter's liberation war in 1971, is still a friend with proven credentials strengthening pro-liberation and progressive forces. This is likely to be more than visible in letter and spirit when the Indian PM is in Dhaka at the grand events, later this month.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the PM of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal