Wednesday, August 23, 2006

BJP president’s call to attack Bangladesh

Published in The New Age, August 23, 2008

Bangladesh needs to first put its own house in order and build up genuine bipartisanship over her relations with India for the country’s future, not just that of the BNP or the Awami League, are inextricably linked with her for, first, reasons of geopolitics and, second, the emerging realities of international politics, writes M Serajul Islam

The statement made by Rajnath Singh, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that India should attack Pakistan and Bangladesh and destroy the terrorist bases in the two countries was a very serious matter. It was made by the president of a political party that was in government in New Delhi only recently and still has the potentials to return to power. For the president of such an important party of India to have made such a statement gives it a fair degree of legitimacy.

In Bangladesh, the statement of Rajnath was not treated with the seriousness that it deserved. The reaction of the government was kept at the diplomatic level where a director-general of the foreign ministry was asked to call the Indian deputy high commissioner to whom a diplomatic note was given as a protest. The vernacular newspapers reacted but, by and large, one did not see editorials or columns written on this item. At least one leading English daily totally overlooked the news. The worst part of the entire episode was to see the benign reaction from the political parties. Lip service reactions came from by the major political parties, with the Awami League reaction falling way short of public expectations. In fact, not unexpectedly, it was the Jamaat that arranged a public rally to protest the Rajnath statement.

It is however important for Bangladesh to look into the Rajnath statement dispassionately. The main focus of the Rajnath statement was Pakistan. Bangladesh was added as an extension to his (and India’s) frustration with ever-growing terrorist attacks inside India which are actively aided by Pakistan. In fact, the BJP president went to add Nepal and Sri Lanka also to the list of South Asian countries that were becoming hub of terrorist activities together with Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, Rajnath was specific in stating that the Indian government should take the international community into confidence and attack Pakistan and Bangladesh to dismantle terrorist camps in the two countries. So in the Rajnath statement, there was a definite threat against Bangladesh’s sovereignty and therefore a very serious matter that should not have been allowed just to pass by with almost passive reaction. Before going to that, one need to see the events in Bangladesh in the context of Rajnath’s statement about Bangladesh becoming a hub of Islamic terrorism since the BNP-led government came to office.

The policy of denials

In Bangladesh, Rajnath’s outrageous statement notwithstanding, the activities of the Islamic militants have risen by leaps and bounds since the BNP came to power. These activities culminated with the 500 bomb blasts carried by the JMB and fellow terrorists on August 17th last year. A year has passed by and although the key leaders of the JMB terrorists have been incarcerated, the way they are being treated has raised more questions than they have answered about the real intentions of the government in dealing with the rising Islamic terrorism in the country. When the JMB started their operations in northern Bangladesh, they were actively aided by the government’s intelligence agencies and political leadership.

The US Ambassador Harry Thomas made the issue a major one among his responsibilities as his country’s envoy to Bangladesh, urging and pleading the government to curb the rising trend. His pleas were dismissed by the government as a creation of the media and anti-Bangladesh elements. The media, the opposition political parties and the NGOs, with graphic details, placed before the government undeniable proof of the rising Islamic militancy in the country. They too were scorned as unpatriotic and anti-Bangladesh elements. While the government went into a state of denial with this issue, the militants were encouraged to openly carry out their activities. As a result, Bangladesh became clearly identified abroad as a country harbouring and assisting the rise of Islamic militancy.

When Condoleezza Rice came on a visit to India last year, the rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh was an important agenda of her discussions with the government of India. During that visit, following the briefing given to her by the Indians, Rice stated whilst in India that after Afghanistan, Bangladesh was the next country to watch in the context of rising Islamic militancy. Salig S Harrison, an author with extensive experience in South Asian affairs, wrote a very critical article in the Washington Post’s issue of August 2nd in which he has chronicled the rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh under this government even naming a secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs for actively assisting the Islamic militants for his alleged connections with them.

The worries of India
The developments in Bangladesh in the context of rising Islamic militancy have to be seen and related to the emergence of India as a global player. India today has aspirations for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council based on her fantastic economic development where it is now well set to emerge as a leading economic power of the world. It is also a nuclear power. The stakes for India are too high for her to feel comfortable with rising Islamic militancy inside Bangladesh which shares borders with India’s Seven Sisters where a number of separatist movements are active. Then there is the lingering suspicion in India about Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies’ connections with Pakistan‘s ISI. From the Indian point of view these are more than suspicions that they have communicated to the Bangladesh government over and over again that have been denied without convincing the Indians. These factors have created in the minds of the Indian government, their political parties and the public a feeling about the intentions of Bangladesh.

There are two other factors here worth mentioning. The first goes back to Bangladesh’s war of liberation. The Indian view of Bangladesh’s liberation is that the country was liberated in 1971 as a result of India’s direct intervention in which many thousand Indian soldiers were killed. Thus the minimum that the Indians expect of Bangladesh is a country friendly towards her, particularly towards her security concerns. Second, in India, the opposition and the government fight each other tooth and nail on internal issues with the people likewise divided. However, on foreign policy and security issues the parties and the government seldom take opposing views. The people too almost always back their government on these issues. This is why on the Rajnath statement, the government of India has not spoken, Bangladesh’s protest note notwithstanding while in the press and media, his statement was well received.

The ironies
There was also an irony to Bangladesh’s reaction to the Rajnath statement. The most vociferous reaction came from the Jamaat, a party widely accused by the opposition political parties as one working actively against the country’s sovereignty. While the Jamaat organised a big rally to protest a genuine threat to the country’s sovereignty, the parties that claim as the patriotic forces allowed this threat to pass by. The foreign ministry that never lost any opportunity to attack India in the media in terms often undiplomatic on much lesser issues left the Rajnath statement to a diplomatic protest note and that too to be handled at a low level in the ministry.

The lack of united approach
Thus, while from the Indian side, the underlying message in Rajnath’s threat has been shared and supported by all shades of opinion there, in Bangladesh the threat has revealed the internal divisions in the country. Where there was a genuine reason for the country to have shown a united resolve and bipartisanship, unfortunately no such unity was witnessed. Even the media, normally quite alert on such issues, did not treat the implied threat in the BJP president’s statement appropriately.

Bangladesh must look at the Rajnath statement and reflect upon the current international situation as well. After 9/11, the war against terrorism has become the critical issue of international politics. The concept of pre-emptive strike against countries and groups that support terrorism either actively or by default has become accepted despite protestations to the contrary. Bangladesh must therefore deal with the rising Islamic militancy better than the way she has so far. The BNP’s indulgence with the Islamic forces for electoral gains that has helped the growth of Islamic militancy in the country must end not by merely claiming in the media that Bangladesh is the only country to have arrested the kingpins of Islamic terrorism but by punishing those who have been arrested and revealing the names of those who have given them the encouragement to work right under the nose of the government for years till they were arrested, that too in dramatic fashions which was too good to believe. The government’s claims to the contrary, there are many in Bangladesh and abroad who are yet to be convinced that this government is sincere about dealing with the rise of Islamic militancy.

Bangladesh needs to first put its own house in order and build up genuine bipartisanship over her relations with India for the country’s future, not just that of the BNP or the Awami League, are inextricably linked with her for, first, reasons of geopolitics and, second, the emerging realities of international politics. India’s unfriendly attitude and narrow mindedness are there that they have shown consistently in dealing with Bangladesh over a wide range of bilateral issues such as her water and territorial rights and trade issues. These rights and issues cannot be achieved the way Bangladesh has been dealing with India. The country must also look seriously into India’s interests such as her security concerns and her requests for land transit, use of her ports and purchase of gas and within those considerations develop an India Policy where the start must be by bringing all shades of political and public opinion in the country on board. The task is an immense one for at the moment the country does not have even the semblance of such a policy.

The start to developing an India Policy could come from the country’s think tanks whose recommendations could then filter through the media to the government and the political parties who should put the nation’s interests ahead of political ones and help the country come up with an India Policy. The execution of that policy must invariably rest with the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has so far dealt with Bangladesh’s relations with India by way of reacting, without showing any pragmatic or professional approach. The BJP president’s remarks should wake up Bangladesh to these realities and the urgent need to develop an India Policy.

The writer is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan