Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On the cancelled meeting of Begum Zia with the Indian President

The Independent
March 9th., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

In the backdrop of the frenzy created by Shahabag; mayhem of Jamat and police atrocities that killed 49 people in one afternoon, the very important visit of the Indian President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee ended without the attention it deserved. It was indeed unfortunate that the Indian President decided to undertake his visit at a time when the country was in a state that was anything but normal.  Bangladesh had not seen such political turmoil since the end of its war of liberation and emergence as an independent and sovereign nation.

Mr. Mukherjee’s state visit was a rare honour to Bangladesh. It was his first overseas visit since becoming the 13th President of India and the first Bengali ever to earn the right to live in Rastrapati Bhavan.  Unfortunately, the visit was undertaken at a time that did not allow Bangladesh to show him the honour that he deserved. His visit also did not give the bilateral relations any major push except more assurances that New Delhi would soon going to resolve the major issues upon which the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations had stalled after India failed to deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta water sharing agreement during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September of 2011 and to ratify the land boundary agreement (LBA) thereafter.

The political situation in Bangladesh had been heating up weeks prior to the arrival of the Indian President in Dhaka and was at its worst when he undertook the visit. Thus, it would have been appropriate if the visit had been deferred instead. Even the media in India advised him to do so. To these sad aspects of the visit, a serious controversy was injected when the scheduled meeting between the Indian President and the Bangladesh Leader of the Opposition was cancelled after the Indian guest had arrived in Dhaka at the request of the BNP. The cancelled meeting between Mr. Mukherjee and Begum Zia in fact became the main issue of discussion in informed circles in Bangladesh in the context of the visit in the absence of any definite information from the Indian President on the time frame for the signing of the Teesta Agreement although on the LBA, he said that it would be ratified in the current session of the Indian parliament.

The BNP gave the excuse of security for seeking cancellation of the meeting. This explanation did not have many takers. The Indian side did not  give any explanation that was very understandable. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister described the cancellation as against democracy as the BNP had sought the meeting. While her criticism may have merit, she should have considered against going public. It appeared as if she was expressing the disappointment on behalf of the Indians!  Talking about democracy, the BNP has hurt feelings that they are carrying from the 2009 visit of Mr. Pranab Mukherjee when as his country’s Special Envoy, he declined to meet Begum Khaleda Zia on his visit to Dhaka on the excuse that he had no time although he had enough of it to meet then the already discredited Army chief General Moun U Ahmed and visit Dhaka University to  inaugurate
g a building!.  Nevertheless, in discussions in many circles, the decision of the BNP has been criticized. Many, who criticized, some  supporters of the BNP, said that the BNP would have done itself a favour if Begum Zia had met the Indian President because that would have given her the opportunity to explain her party’s views of the unfolding chain of events in Bangladesh.

Those critical of the BNP’s decision expressed their views without a proper perspective of the recent events in Bangladesh and the Indian reactions to these events. The critics also did not take into consideration  past issues of Bangladesh-India relations. If they had then perhaps the BNP’s decision would not have led them to be critical about it. The Indian President came to Dhaka almost a month after the events erupted at Shahabag. Like everybody in the nation, the BNP had also welcomed the youth movement albeit with conditions that their demand for the trials of those accused for the war crimes should be tried according to international standards. By the time the Indian Foreign Minister arrived in Dhaka, the BNP had made it abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with Shahabag because the youth was demanding death sentence for the accused by altering/changing/amending laws. In fact, they were demanding that those accused would have to be hanged or else they would not retreat from Shahabag. The BNP also saw in the Shahabag movement a clear sponsorship of the ruling party and the government that facilitated it in all ways possible.

Quite clearly, the demand of the Shahabag movement must be totally unacceptable to any democratic country with  respect for the rule of law. India that champions itself as a leading country on both traditions of democracy and rule of law should have taken a clear stand, dispassionately, against such demands of the youth from Shahabag. In addition, the some of the bloggers at Shahabag were also exposed to have written in their blogs anti-Islam diatribes that aroused the sentiments of neither a large section of  the people in Bangladesh who neither supported Jamat nor any other political party of Bangladesh. In fact, the anti-Islamic diatribes caused significant outcry among the Muslims of Paschim Bangla where 12 Islam based parties have come together against the Shahabag movement.

Notwithstanding all these, the Indian Foreign Minister on his visit to Dhaka gave his government’s blessings to the Shahabag movement! Before coming on his visit, the Indian President also blessed the Shahabag youth. In Dhaka, in interviews to the media, he spoke in glowing terms about the youth in Shahabag. Thus before he even arrived in Dhaka, the Indian President took sides in a domestic matter of Bangladesh. Just on the eve of his arrival, large number of Jamat supporters were killed by the police that brought censures from the UN; US State Department and international media all over the world. The Indian President had no words of regret for these killings. In fact, through their support for Shahabag, the leaders of the Indian Government openly played their card in the internal politics of Bangladesh. Therefore it was a courtesy that the BNP excused itself under the plea of security for cancelling the meeting and did not embarrass the Indian President by being more explicit on the issue.

Then there was a small matter of a historical reference that would explain the BNP stand. In 2005, the Indian Prime Minister refused to come to Dhaka for the SAARC Summit on the issue of security because there were hartals in Dhaka called against the BNP  government by the opposition Awami League. If that visit of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit in 2005 could have been called off for security reasons, then the one that the Indian President undertook should have also been cancelled because the security situation was many times worse when Pranab Mukherjee was in Bangladesh. He not only set aside the extremely volatile security situation in Bangladesh, he even went to his in laws place in Narail with his wife and children when the situation outside Dhaka was extremely volatile! By this chain of events, the Indians left no doubt that had Begum Zia met Pranab Mukherjee and explained to him her party’s views on current events, she would hardly have had any sympathetic hearing.

When Begum Khaleda Zia was enthusiastically welcomed in New Delhi not too long ago, many independent observers in Bangladesh expected that India would not choose between the parties in the country. They were also encouraged that the BNP was beginning to see the positive sides of bettering relations with India on a reciprocal basis. Unfortunately, without apportioning blames, it is regrettable that this positive development in Bangladesh-India relations was given a negative spin by the Indian President’s visit to Bangladesh.
All the above notwithstanding, the Indian President made a reference to the need for dialogue among the parties in Bangladesh to get over the dangerous situation into which the country has slipped just before leaving Bangladesh. That advice was under played in the media.  New Delhi that is at present the only government with any influence on the Bangladesh government would need to expand on this because the onus to call for a dialogue rests upon the latter. India could earn the respect of the people of Bangladesh as it did in 1971 if it took the initiative for a dialogue and negotiated settlement among the parties in Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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