Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bangladesh Begum’s India Visit: Real Or Ephimeral? – Analysis

Can ideology and political agenda change overnight? At least, that is the message Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia carried when she arrived in India on October 28 for an eight-day visit.

Begum Zia came at the invitation of the Government of India. There have been some comments that this is a change in India’s Bangladesh strategy. This is not correct.

Certainly, following the assassination of Sk. Mujibur Rahaman in August 1975, New Delhi felt betrayed. The operation to kill Sk. Mujib was a cooperative venture between the USA (read mainly Secretary of State Henry Kissenger), Pakistan, and a group of Bangladeshis who pretended to be pro-liberation but were trying to reverse history. Hence, not only the government of India but the Indian people at large burst out with a series of emotions.

Relations began to improve when Gen. H.M. Ershad became president of Bangladesh. From the 1990s, the Indian government adopted the policy that India will be nice to Bangladesh and ‘hope Bangladesh’ would reciprocate. And this policy was irrespective of the political party in power at the centre.

With economic liberalization in the early 1990s under Prime Minister Narsimha Rao and architected by Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, India began to grow. But the growth story would be a greater success if the neighbours also grew together.

But that did not happen. Pakistan expectedly remained the spoiler. But there was a great opportunity for Bangladesh to join India. The entire Bangladeshi policies went through a regressive storm, especially during the BNP’s rule from 2001 to 2006. The ruling four-party alliance comprising mainly of the BNP and JEI marked India as the main enemy. Those were tense years. The JEI spoke about winning the majority in Parliament by 2013 and bringing Bangladesh under Sharia law. Some BNP leaders also floated an idea of confederation type of relationship with Pakistan.

The BNP-JEI coalition gave enough opportunities to India to react strongly on the ground. It was not only of attacks on Hindus just after the elections which saw Hindu migration to India. An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officer was abducted from Indian Territory by Bangladeshi villagers assisted by the Bangladeshi border force, the BDR, tortured and killed, and his body taken around tied to a bamboo pole, and photographs widely printed in the media. Had the BSF retaliated, the BDR would have been routed. But calmer political counsel prevailed in New Delhi. Then were many other incidents of provocation.

A major insurgency in North-East India was prevented when ten-truck loads of arms landed in the Chittagong port in April 2004 was accidentally detected. The BNP-JEI government tried to paper over the incident. These arms were meant for the Assam insurgents ULFA, the Naga insurgents and others.

This case is in the court now, and witness’ statements reveal that those involved include Begum Zia’s elder son Tareq Reheman, de facto leader of the BNP, the then Minister of State for Home, Lutffozaman Babar, JEI Chief Motiur Reheman Nizami, and a host of intelligence officers. Pakistan’s ISI funded the operation through a media front. The arms were brought from China.

During her meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, Begum Zia assured they will support anti-terrorism policy and would not allow Bangladesh’s territory to be used against India. When asked by journalists on the BNP’s position on the Chittagong arms haul case, one of Khaleda Zia’s spokesmen said if they returned to power the case would be reinvestigated by an independent body. This gives lie to all the nice pronouncements.’

Khaleda Zia is on record to say that if her party came to power all agreements with Indian signed by the present Awami League government would be annulled. The BNP opposed the transport corridor for India to its North-East on several grounds. The most important reason proferred was if an India-China war broke out, India will be able transfer arms and troops quickly through Bangladesh to its border, and it would annoy China.

The BNP cannot do without the JEI and the other anti-India radical parties. The JEI has its fixed agenda and has close relations with the terrorist organizations some of which have begun to stir against. Connections of some of the BNP leaders including that of Tareq Reheman with terrorist organizations is well known and recorded. BNP-JEI terrorists form a triangular relationship which Khaleda Zia cannot discard. She knows that if she does so, she will be creating two new and dangerous enemies. She is caught in that vicious trap. Khaleda cannot afford to support the Liberation War Crimes trial because it would be counter-productive.

Begum Khaleda Zia’s sudden change is a riddle. Before coming to India she visited China on a party invitation and a high level Chinese led by Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun was in Dhaka and held discussions with her and her party leaders. At the moment the Chinese do not want instability in South Asia and would have advised Khaleda to mend relations with India. China had in the past months also advised Pakistan to improve relations with India. For Beijing, Indian influence is preferable to American influence.

After a whole history of anti-Indianism, a sudden showering of goodwill from the BNP is difficult to digest. For India it will be good if the BNP adopts a normal relationship with India. If not, the status quo will remain and Bangladesh’s economic development will be hurt. It will be for the voters of Bangladesh to judge that at the next elections just over a year ahead.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Prohibitory orders along Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam

Prohibitory orders have been promulgated along Assam-Bangladesh international border in Cachar district in view of reports about extremist elements entering the district for creating law and order problem.

South Assam's Cachar district magistrate H K Dev Mahanta promulgated the orders following reports about extremist elements likely to cross the border and enter Cachar from Bangladesh, official sources said.

There is also apprehension of the possibility of illegal export of commodities and cattle from the district to Bangladesh, besides efforts by illegal immigrants to cross over from across the border to cause disturbance and social tension.

The prohibitory orders have been enforced as a preventive measure.

The district magistrate has directed that no person shall move within one km radius of the Indo-Bangladesh border between 8 pm and 5 am.

The order also prohibits movement of people on river Surma and on its high banks within the limit of the territory in actual control of India in the district of Cachar from dusk to dawn.

Plying of boats in the river Surma without license from the village panchayat duly countersigned by the chief executive officer of Zila Parishad was also prohibited.

The circle officer of Katigorah circle may allow the authorised local lessees permission for fishing with the copy of such an order endorsed by the district magistrate of Cachar and the commandant of 63 Bn BSF Dholcherra.

The order also prohibits carrying of sugar, rice, wheat, edible oil, kerosene oil and salt by any sort of vehicle, cart, rickshaw or any other means between dusk to dawn within 5 km belt inside the district boundary of Cachar along Bangladesh border unless permit is issued by the circle officer.

Friday, November 2, 2012

New Delhi courts an ‘enemy’ like a friend

Begum Khaleda Zia was accorded a warm reception during her recent visit to India. But the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh has always been anti-India. There’s nothing to suggest that she has changed

By the the time this column appears, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh and a former Prime Minister of that country, would be close to the end of her week-long visit. She should be pleased with the outcome. She has had a half-an-hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh where, what might be called in ‘diplomatese’ as “matters of mutual interest”, were discussed. Mr Singh reportedly assured her that India will take Bangladesh along the path of economic growth it pursued and will not undermine Dhaka’s interests.

Things seem to have gone pleasantly. While Begum Zia sought greater transparency in India’s construction of dams on rivers common to both countries, Mr Singh assured her that his Government was trying to achieve political consensus on the Teesta waters treaty blocked by West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee, and on the exchange of border enclaves. Begum Zia was reportedly appreciative of the steps taken by India to liberalise trade with Bangladesh, increasing garment imports from the latter, providing it with power and strengthening its economic infrastructure. She is said to have been positive and forthcoming on terrorism and the activities of cross-border insurgent groups which are important to New Delhi.

The question is: What does India want from the visit? The basic objective apparently is to ensure that the good relations it enjoys with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Government continues with the successor regime — whoever heads it — after the general election due in the country latest by early 2014. An invitation to Lt-Gen HM Ershad, a former President of Bangladesh and head of the Bangladesh Jatiya Party, who visited India recently, is said to have been a part of the same exercise.

The approach, eminently sensible on paper, will recoil. Like her late husband President Ziaur Rahman, Begum Zia is intensely anti-Indian and instinctively pro-Pakistan. In November 1977, President Rahman converted the Directorate of Forces Intelligence, set up in 1972, into the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence. An organisational clone of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and linked almost umbilically to it, the DGFI was established shortly after a visit to Dhaka by the then ISI chief, Lt-Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan. Many of its officers have been trained at the ISI’s training centre at Islamabad.

Moloy Krishna Dhar,  a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, points out in Fulcrum of Evil: ISI-CIA-Al Qaeda Nexus, that the ISI and the DFI began collaborating from 1976 in “imparting training and supplying arms” to the militant groups of north-eastern India. The process, which ran into difficulties after Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister for the first time in 1996, picked up sharply after Begum Zia began her second innings in 2001. Dhar’s book, published in 2006, states that the number of camps of North-Eastern rebels in Bangladesh “have increased by about 40 in the last few months touching the figure of 180-200.”

Begum Zia’s own deeply anti-India approach was intensified by that of her coalition partner, Jama’at-e-Islami Bangladesh, which, in its policy on national defence, identified India as Bangladesh’s only enemy and called for the inculcation of the spirit of jihad in the country’s military against India’s Armed Forces. Given the close links which the Jama’at has with Pakistan and fundamentalist Islamist organisations like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, Jama’at-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Hizbut Tawhid, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh became a hub of ISI's anti-India terror operations during 2001-2006.

The Jama’at called the shots in Begum Zia’s Government and savagely persecuted the minorities. Ahmadiyyas were targeted relentlessly. Hindus came under vicious attack even before Begum Zia returned to power following the general election on October 1, 2001. Terrorised by murders, rapes, looting of property, burning of houses, and large-scale assaults, over 15,000 Hindus fled to the border areas of West Bengal. About 100,000 more were reportedly trying to follow suit but were being hindered by the police and the paramilitary personnel.

The Government of Bangladesh, of course, sought to play down the scale of the atrocities. In a statement in the country’s Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament), Home Minister Altaf Hussain Choudhury, put the number of those killed and raped over a period of 25 days at 266 and 213 respectively. While these figures are high enough, the actual incidence of the crimes appears to have been much higher. According to a report in the widely-circulated Bangla daily Janakantha (The Voice of the People), the atrocities on Hindus exceeded in places even those that were inflicted on them during the 1971 liberation war.

In a piece in the same daily of October 16, one of Bangladesh’s greatest poets ever, Samsur Rahman, wrote, “It is a matter of regret that atrocities by terrorists on the minorities have been continuously increasing in many parts of Bangladesh, particularly in the muffosils, over several days. There have been repeated attacks; the homes of the minorities have become deserted. Women have been victims of rape. To save their lives and honour, many have been compelled to leave their homes and hearths with heavy hearts and embrace endless agonies with tear-laden eyes in the hope of finding refuge in India.” (Translated from Bengali by this writer.)

Besides Begum Zia’s background and record in office, there is the experience of 2001, when her son Tareq Zia was brought to India, taken around, introduced to industrialists and generally given the red-carpet treatment. The sustained contempt and hostility with which she treated India after her return to power, is public knowledge. There is no indication that it will be any different if she again becomes Prime Minister. Meanwhile, nothing prevents Begum Zia from projecting her visit as an indication of India’s recognition of the inevitability of her return to power and an indication of its endorsement of the prospect. Recall the subtle manner in which she portrayed the outcome of her recent visit to China, announcing several promises made by Beijing in a manner which suggested that it was negotiating with a

Prime Minister elect.

This may well persuade a section of undecided voters to swing to her support for the rewards that await those on the winning side. Sheikh Hasina can hardly be blamed if she is not amused. And India will only have itself to blame if it loses a genuine friend. And what happens if she and the Awami League retain power, something which can by no means be ruled out?