Saturday, May 28, 2011

Muslim discontent and West Bengal elections

Daily Sun , May 22nd, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A few expatriates in Washington with whom I had a conversation recently were hot happy that our Prime Minister should be so overtly happy with the landside victory of Trinamool in elections in a province in India. They felt that the message of felicitations should have gone from a lower level in the Government.

These expatriates also referred to a 1999 incident when Sheikh Hasina was introduced to the audience as Chief Minister when she had gone to Kolkata for that city’s famous Book Festival as a Chief Guest. These expats felt that our Prime Minister had allowed herself to be “humiliated” by visiting an Indian province where she was not shown proper respect.

I corrected some of the false notions of the expats. I told them that I was present at the 1999 Book Festival as a member of the Prime Minister’s delegation and that the reference to Sheikh Hasina as a Chief Minister was totally un-intended and that when a few members of the Prime Minister’s delegation objected, the individual who was conducting the event apologized profusely. He said that West Bengal hardly if ever had an opportunity to welcome a Prime Minister and hence not accustomed with protocol concerning one. Sheikh Hasina herself was amused instead of feeling humiliated and I thought correctly so. She allowed the incident to be resolved in a manner that I thought was diplomatic and correct and enhanced her respect to the people of West Bengal.

Sheikh Hasina had good reasons to visit Kolkata in 1999. West Bengal’s Chief Minister then was Jyoti Basu who played a key role in reaching the Ganges water Sharing Accord earlier in that term of Sheikh Hasina. Jyoti Basu was also very influential in Indian politics and hence it made additional good reasons for the Prime Minister to go to Kolkata to make him happy for his support in resolving Bangladesh’s other problems with India.

Mamata Banarjee’s stature and influence in New Delhi where she was a Cabinet Minister before becoming West Bengal’s Chief Minister, is also significant. Hence it makes sense for our Prime Minister to make Mamata Banarjee happy as a strategy to achieve the country’s foreign policy interests. Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool Congress is also an ally of the Congress that is in power at the Centre. The reservations of the expatriates in Washington notwithstanding, there are serious foreign policy considerations that have gone to not just the Prime Minister extending her felicitations to Mamata Banarjee but also the Foreign Minister who too warmly congratulated the new West Bengal Chief Minister.

Nevertheless, the concerns expressed by the expats in Washington cannot be dismissed lightly. Bangladesh must not forget its sovereign status. It is this sovereign status that must dictate its relations with West Bengal. In this context, our foreign policy makers must make an objective assessment of importance of West Bengal to our foreign policy needs and to that extent try and get that province on its side but at the same time remember that West Bengal is not really one of those provinces that matter a great deal in India’s politics.

At the same time, our foreign policy makers should examine the reasons that helped Trinamool earn such a landslide victory. In analysis in the media in Bangladesh on these reasons, a fact that has not been touched at all is the role of Muslim voters in the election’s outcome. Despite all the good things that have been attributed to the communists in West Bengal, including the fact that the province did not see any violence against the Muslims since 1964, the status of Muslims in the province has gone from bad to worse in this period. This fact has not gone to any analysis in our media about Trinamool’s victory. One newspaper’s editorial instead suggested that we could learn from the way Buddhadev Bhattacharya accepted his party’s defeat. The editor must have lost sight of two things. First the defeat was expected and so overwhelming that there was nothing left for the former Chief Minister but to accept defeat. Second, and more importantly, he also forgot that West Bengal is a province and subject to control by the Centre where there was just no alternative for Buddhadev Bhattacharya but to accept defeat, gracefully or otherwise.

The polarization of Muslims in West Bengal was there for all political analysts to see soon after the Sachar Commission Report of 2005 was published to predict that the leftists there were headed for a defeat just on this fact alone. The Commission was established by Prime Minister Manmohon Singh to find out the social, economic and political status of Muslims in India under the Chairmanship of Justice Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of New Delhi High Court. The Report reveled that in the so-called non-communal West Bengal, Muslims who constitute 25% of the province’s population, occupied 2.5% of Government jobs! The Sachar Committee Report that pictured a very depressing state for Muslims of India gave West Bengal the worst marks for treating Muslims as second class citizens. Analysts of this report gave West Bengal even worse marks than Gujarat where its Chief Minister prides and thrives on his hatred for Muslims.

It is true friendly relations are desirable with India and West Bengal can help further that objective. Nevertheless, Bangladesh should not forget that the Indian Government and media regularly refer to us as fundamentalist that treats its minorities unfairly. Bangladesh should muster the courage to tell India that it should treat its Muslims fairly before criticizing Bangladesh that has a much better record for treatment of its minorities.

Bangladesh must keep in mind while dealing with Trinamool that the feelings in West Bengal against Muslims are not restricted just to the leftists. It is deeper and more widespread than what our foreign policy pundits and the government realize. Despite winning the elections so massively on votes of Muslims, Trinamool may not change their fate unless they are pressured. As a sovereign nation with a huge Muslim population, Bangladesh has a responsibility to encourage India in general and West Bengal in particular to deal with Muslims fairly.

Thus the expats in Washington may have a point. Bangladesh should restrain its excitement over change of government in West Bengal because on its records, the province does not deserve our unqualified felicitations. Our sovereign status demands this of us particularly where that province has lots more to show for our respect. In any case, the Indian Prime Minister who had postponed his long awaited visit to Dhaka for West Bengal elections where results have been achieved to make New Delhi happy would be visiting Bangladesh soon. Therefore what West Bengal means to the Centre and how much it can help Bangladesh’s interests, would be known soon.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan

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