15 years India has been so engrossed with the threat from
Pakistan, that it has almost completely ignored the threat
that has slowly developed on its east. This originates
in its slowly deteriorating relations with Bangladesh.
Indians tend to react with perplexity and irritation when
they are confronted by the hostility that many Bangladeshis
feel towards their country and the apparent lack of cooperation
by their government on issues vital to India''s security.
Did India not aid in the birth of their country? Did its
troops not behave in an exemplary manner while they were
there, and did Mrs Indra Gandhi not withdraw them in record
that building the, Farakka barrage was a mistake, did
India not make handsome amends during Mr Inder Gujral''s
prime ministership by guaranteeing Bangladesh a minimum
of 30,000 cusecs of water from the barrage even during
the worst of the lean season?
Why then does Bangladesh ''repay'' India by allowing the
ULFA and other north-eastern extremists to make permanent
camps inside its borders? Why is it becoming a staging
post for attacks on Indian targets by Islamic extremist
groups, possibly aided by Pakistan''s ISI ? Why does it
refuse, point blank, to even admit that there is a serious
exodus of Bangladeshis to India, when anyone who visits
Nizamuddin in faraway Delhi, can hear Bengali being spoken
freely in the narrow lanes around the dargah? Why does
Bangladesh impose draconian non-tariff barriers (NTBs)
on Indian exports by banning the ''overland'' imports of
key consumer goods? Why has it ignored its own bilateral
commitments in 1972 and 1980 and a multilateral one under
SAARC in 1993 to allow rail and water transit to Indian
goods from the north-east?
perplexing of all, why does it refuse to take up key infrastructure
projects with India, when these will benefit it enormously?
Why has it not even considered a proposal to link the
Brahmaputra and the Ganges with a canal that would marginally
reduce flood waters in the former and augment the lean-season
flow in the latter, that has been on the table since 1976?
Why is it objecting so vigorously to Indian hydro-electric
projects on several of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra
when these will help to regulate the flow in that monster
river, and reduce the annual flooding of Bangladesh itself
has its own catalogue of complaints. Its officials bridle
at the mere suggestion that it is abetting ULFA and other
militants:" When most of them target Muslims who,
you yourselves claim, are coming from Bangladesh, why
should we help them?" They categorically deny turning
a blind eye towards Islamic terrorists or tolerating the
presence of the ISI. They regret the occasional forced
seizure of lands owned by Hindus, but claim that this
is a product of the weakness of the law and order machinery
in the rural areas, and not specifically of religious
persecution. The media insists that it is India that is
pushing West Bengali Muslims over the border into Bangladesh,
and not the other way about.
an explanation for the NTBs they cite Bangladesh''s huge
trade deficit with India, forgetting that all they are
doing is to drive the imports from India underground and
deny themselves the customs revenues that these could
yield. Finally, to explain their reluctance to collaborate
in infrastructure projects, they point to India''s insistence
on bilateralism, its refusal to involve Nepal and China
in the discussion of river water projects, and its imperious
unilateralism demonstrated by Farakka and other
alleged misdeeds. Bilateral deals with a huge neighbour
can too easily end in a loss of control, and therefore
of economic sovereignty.
end product of these reciprocal pinpricks is a stalemate.
New Delhi thinks it can live with this because in the
end, unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh does not pose a serious
threat to its security. In Bangladesh, the right wing
of the ruling elite, consisting of the Bangladesh National
Party and a sizable track two force of retired military
officers and civil servants, is also happy to cash in
on the resulting low level anti-Indian sentiment to keep
the Awami League on the defensive. Both are living in
a fool''s paradise. Foreign policy is very largely shaped
by domestic political change, and the changes taking place
in Bangladesh are steadily eroding even the fragile equilibrium
that exists today.
far the most important is the creeping Islamisation of
the country. Its roots lie in Bangladesh''s massive export
of manpower to West Asia. About three million Bangladeshis
work there and a large proportion come back changed almost
beyond recognition: " They go as ordinary men but
come back completely different. They wear different clothes,
cut their beards differently, put their women in burqas
and profess an intolerant Wahabi type of Islam that is
completely alien to us", one Bangladeshi intellectual
told me. A second cause is the failure of the state educational
system. This has sent more and more children to madrassas,
which are funded by private donations, and by liberal
inflows of funds from religious trusts in Saudi Arabia
and other West Asian countries.
changes have led to the emergence of an intolerant, aggressive,
messianic fringe of ''reformed '' Sunni Muslims, who are
bent upon ''purifying'' Bangladesh on the lines of the Taliban
in Afghanistan. A telltale sign is the rise of vigilante
forces bent upon persecuting the minorities. Hindus, Buddhists
and Christians are once again becoming a convenient target.
May 18 this year, Frank Pallone, the Democratic Congressman
from New Jersey, drew the attention of the US House of
Representatives to the plight of the Hindus whom he called
a ''disappearing minority''. Pallone''s sources were entirely
from within Bangladesh, its media, BBC, CNN and the US
even more disturbing development is the emergence of the
Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, an unabashedly terrorist
organisation which claims 10,000 full time cadres and
300,000 part timers and helpers in the country, and has
been killing cadres of extremist groups like the Purbo
Banglar Communist Party, whom the police has not been
able to control. By doing this it has gained a spurious
legitimacy with not only key members of the BNP but also
the police. The JMJB has openly modelled itself on the
Taliban and claims that its aim is to " build a society
based on the Islamic model laid out in the Holy Quran-Hadith".
It is therefore only a matter of time before it turns
its guns on the non-Muslim minorities and heretical Muslims.
most revealing development, because it is so new, is the
attack by the Jamaat-e-Islami on the Ahmadiyas of Bangladesh.
While the Jamaat-e-Islami had tried to emulate its Pakistani
counterpart and get the Ahmadiyas declared non-Muslims
in the seventies and eighties, till the early nineties
it made absolutely no dent on the population. Things however
changed rapidly for the worse from 1997, when it began
a violent campaign to seize Ahmadiya mosques, that has
cost scores of lives and heaped untold misery on this
talented, and deeply secular minority.
Bangladesh''s political parties, and its intelligentsia,
are trying to ride the tide. Under the BNP Bangladesh
has recognised the ubiquity of the madrassas and opted
to recognise their degrees and to modernise their curricula.
Recognising the growing strength of the Jamaat-e-Islami,
and realising that it is concentrated in the western border
belt alongside India, the BNP was quick to form an alliance
with it. This was the main reason for its stunning and
unexpected victory in 2001. But the BNP is having to pay
a price for its support. In January this year it banned
all Ahmadiya publications, and in May a member of the
ruling coalition introduced an anti-blasphemy bill in
such compromises seldom succeed. The compromisers end
by losing in small degrees all that they had hoped to
preserve. Secularism is
thus definitely under threat in Bangladesh. This cannot
fail to make its relations with India more difficult.
But it also threatens to sweep away the secular Muslim
tradition of which Bangladesh is so justifiably proud.
( A sequel to this article, "", will be published on Monday.)
The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the
Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The
Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister
of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous
Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China,
and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and
a regular columnist with several leading publications.