South Asian politics are caught up in the usual swing of polarities, though this time round the scales are heavily tipped to one side when it comes to Bangladesh’s interactions in the region. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed is back from a recent trip to New Delhi where, according to analysts back home in her own country, she gave all that India asked for but gained little for her own people.
It is not surprising that India-Bangladesh relations have reached at all time high, though whether that reflects the sentiments of the people or not is another matter. To all appearances the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina has given India carte blanche.
On the other hand, Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan have dipped to an all-time low, steadily deteriorating ever since the present Awami League government came to power through questionable elections. Sheikh Hasina, her ministers and the leaders of her party mince no words when it comes to castigating Pakistan. Their attitude is becoming increasingly hostile.
Analysts feel that India wants to isolate Bangladesh and render it friendless. This will help New Delhi gain stronger grip on the country. Already the US has ‘withdrawn’ itself and shows a marked lack of interest in Bangladesh affairs. The US had long been eyeing Bangladesh for a deep sea port at Sonadia and also offshore gas. Frustrated by an inordinately long wait, it finally gave up pursuing for the port deal. Now, the US views Bangladesh through the Indian prism and is likely to follow New Delhi’s advice on Bangladesh matters. In the meantime, a few Bangladesh ministers have made derogatory remarks against John Kerry, Nisha Desai and other senior US officials. The European Union generally had a soft corner for Awami League for its so-called secular garb, but they are presently unhappy with the government on human rights issues.
China, which made huge commitment to Bangladesh, is now raising an eyebrow after Hasina’s recent overtures with New Delhi where she signed agreements on defence-related sensitive issues. Moreover, India showed total disregard to Bejing’s request not to entertain the Dalai Lama at Tawang and China considers this a blow below the belt. It has already withdrawn itself from the forthcoming trilateral Moscow meet, because of India’s participation. So in the case of Bangladesh too, China will not look favourably to any hobnobbing with India. Bejing generally does not flex its military muscles, but it has a propensity to aim at the right nerve – the economy. Bangladesh has to be careful not to overstep.
Moreover, Bejing is not happy with the way Bangladesh is treating its close ally Pakistan. Presently, Pakistan means a lot to China and has been a tried and tested friend. Bangladesh’s policy towards Islamabad will be under Beijing’s radar.
Pakistan too on its part had initially turned a blind eye and deaf ear to various snubs from Bangladesh, but finally it took a stand by refusing to participate in the 136th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly which took place on 1-5 April 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The 10-member parliamentary delegation was to participate in the international parliamentary moot under the leadership of National Assembly Speaker, Ayaz Sadiq.
However, explaining why they decided against attending the moot, Pakistan’s Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq stated, “The members of the National Assembly and I have noted with dismay and disappointment the continuing actions and negative public statements of the leadership, public officials and media of Bangladesh despite Pakistan’s restraint and overtures to the country. I have, therefore, decided not to travel to Bangladesh; as a visit at this point will not serve the purpose.”
He said Pakistan had repeatedly endeavoured to ensure better relations with Bangladesh. It was Pakistan’s parliamentary delegation that had unanimously voted in favor of the current Speaker of Bangladesh, Dr Shireen Sharmeen Chowdhury, for the post of the chairperson of the executive committee of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Cameroon in 2014. She won this election with an extremely narrow margin of four votes, 82 votes in favor and 78 against. This would not have been possible without Pakistani support.
The Pakistan authorities feel that the friendly gestures were never reciprocated. The speaker of Bangladesh did not visit Pakistan despite repeated invitations. The parliament of Bangladesh also boycotted all international parliamentary moots, organized by the parliament of Pakistan during the last two years despite personal requests by the highest parliamentary leadership to the speaker of Bangladesh. This includes the SAARC Young Parliamentarians Conference in August 2016, the International Women Parliamentarians Conference 2017 and the Asian Parliamentary Assembly in 2017.”
Moreover, Sheikh Hasina has used the 1971 independence movement of Bangladesh, and a continued anti-Pakistan tirade, to make India happy. With the 1971 war of liberation being possibly the only success story for Awami League, it essentially clings to that for survival. And for obvious reasons the party wants to keep alive the ‘issue’. Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, a party that sided with Pakistan during the liberation war, all these years was a convenient subject for ‘shadow boxing’. Now, with the trial and execution of its major leaders over, Jamaat too has become a dead issue. So, a new issue was concocted. This year her government passed a motion declaring that 25 March each year would be commemorated as ‘Genocide Day.’ India also agreed to lend a helping hand to raise it with the UN.
The Economist recently wrote, “It is in the League’s interests that no one should forget the war: independence, after all, is the party’s raison d’être.” The Awami League since coming in power in December 2008, has maintained an increasingly authoritarian control in the country. It has oppressed and repressed leaders of the major opposition BNP and its supporters. It has persecuted leaders of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. It formed a Bangladeshi tribunal court named ‘International Crimes Tribunal’ to prosecute Bengalis who did not support the Bangladesh independence cause in 1971 and were ‘collaborators’ of the Pakistan government.
Recently the Bangladesh government partially funded a video game in which players kill Pakistani soldiers. The game targets the Bangladeshi youth with a narrative shaping of guerilla leaders killing Pakistani soldiers in a replication of 1971 events.
The motivation for this game is simple – to reinforce the version of history that suits Hasina Sheikh’s party, Awami League, by glorifying the party’s role in liberation war and show anyone who did not support it as a traitor and worthy of being killed. It aims at mobilizing the mindset of the youth against Pakistan.
In a continued manifestation of strained relations, Bangladesh has recently also announced that it would not send its cricket team to Pakistan’s T20 matches. Last year Bangladesh supported India in boycotting SAARC meetings that were due to be held in Pakistan in October. Recently, it instructed its Ambassador in Pakistan to complain to Pakistan’s Foreign Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sartaj Aziz, about the book written by Dr Junaid Ahmed: ‘Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded’ which has challenged Bangladesh’s version of events. The Bangladeshi Ambassador apparently claimed that the book has been funded by National Defense University in Islamabad to reinvent history.
Interestingly, almost immediately after the independence of Bangladesh, the animosity against Pakistan dissipated to a large degree. Relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh flourished for over 30 years, until recently. In 1974 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto went to Dhaka he was greeted with garlands of flowers and was greeted with spontaneous warm slogans from the public of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib was so embarrassed with the outpour of ‘goodwill’ towards Bhutto, that he ordered young officers of Rakkhi Bahani, his para-military force of loyalists, to wear civvies (vests and lungi) and demonstrate against Bhutto. While Bhutto was at the martyrs’ memorial at Savar, some members of Rakkhi Bahani in civil garb came up with anti-Pakistan and anti-Bhutto slogans.
SAARC’s creation in 1985 was because of the push of Bangladesh and Pakistan wanting to create a regional body in South Asia that would increase cooperation and regional connectivity. Even as far as 2013, Sheikh Hasina and Nawaz Sharif seemed to share cordial relations.
It is no secret that Hasina’s government has always been under New Delhi’s influence from the very beginning. Her party, Awami League, founded and orchestrated by her father, was always aligned with India. Hasina targeted Jamaat -e-Islami because by doing so, it helps to destroy the electoral chances of Khaleda Zia who won the last election with Jamaat as an ally. By neutralizing Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh’s politics, Hasina gets a free hand in her political manipulations. Last elections in 2014 were mere eyewash where a large number of Awami League contestants were elected unopposed even before the actual elections.
New Delhi has patted Hasina on the back in appreciation of her allegiance, but in concrete terms Bangladesh has received nothing from its large neighbour. Killings continue along the borders. Any financial credit extended by India is heavily loaded down with conditionalities that see the money being channeled back into India’s coffers. India continues to reject Bangladesh’s pleas for a fair share of water from common rivers. Bangladesh’s overtures with China were met with a rap on the knuckles from India and during her recent Indian visit, Hasina signed three defence MOUs with India.
Thus under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh tends to view Pakistan from India’s strategic position. Dhaka’s foreign policies are apparently an extension of Indian policy in the region.
The people of Bangladesh have no love lost for India. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both large Muslim nations that share a history together. Their commonalities far outnumber their differences. But with Hasina in power, it will be difficult for any tangible and constructive relations to materialize. But if cricket is seen as a benchmark of any kind, surely the minds of the Bangladeshis are out there for all to see when they chant their support for Pakistan in unison against the Indian team every single time.