After Awami League government’s brutal handling of a children’s protest, charges of unbridled corruption, a rush of Chinese money in polity, and gratuitous attacks on Hindus beneath secular talk, India must rethink whether we continue to back an increasingly unpopular regime or come up with Plan B and C
Unknown to many of us, our friendly neighbour’s house is on fire.
Bangladesh has been immobilised by citizens’ anger for the last few days, and it is not the mullahs’ Jamaat or the Pakistan-loving Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) shaking up India’s trusted Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) government.
Little schoolchildren are out on the streets to protest the Hasina government’s arrogance and intransigence over a road accident in which a bus belonging to a minister’s relative killed at least two children in Dhaka; a tragedy he shrugged off with a smirk.
Even a media largely muted by the state has come out with shocking visuals of the police and alleged Chhatra League (AL’s youth wing) elements mercilessly beating the protesting children with sticks, dragging them by the hair, lifting them by the throat.
Hundreds of children have been injured in the crackdown, and there is speculation about deaths. Instead of making the concerned minister resign, the state machinery has unleashed more reckless oppression and vilification of mere teenagers, along with a hollow public relations exercise involving influential citizens like cricket captain Shakib-al-Hassan asking kids to stop the protest.
Institutions have been shut down. There are accounts of the internet being sporadically blocked as citizens’ fury goes viral.
The result? More children have taken to the streets, and their outraged parents are joining them.
This kind of pitiless handling of school students is unprecedented even in rogue or war-torn nations, and Hasina runs the risk of alienating an entire generation of future voters.
A litany of letdowns
This anger is not sudden. Just as in a soured marriage the biggest flare-ups happen over seemingly small things, this was perhaps Bangladesh’s tipping point.
The Hasina regime’s popularity is at its lowest. Even before the children’s movement, Indian intelligence sources put its approval ratings at under 20%.
After a decade of rule uninterrupted by any worry of fair elections, the government seems to have slid into a morass of corruption and complacency. Indian foreign office is increasingly worried about allegedly unbridled corruption from defence deals to petty bureaucratic work. Kickbacks are apparently up to as much as 30%, and Indian sources say aides handpicked by sections of the ruling family preside over it from highest positions.
Transparency International ranks Bangladesh at a miserable 143 among 174 nations for corruption. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators put it at the bottom of the percentile ranks, with a score of 20.6 on 100, in a fight against corruption.
China’s dubious loans for projects and bribes to high-ranking officials and politicians have flooded the polity. Sri Lanka knows, to its peril, what the Faustian pact with Chinese money means. It pays a massive part of its state revenue in servicing debts. These loans have made Pakistan into a virtual colony of China.
The Hasina government took fierce steps against Islamist terror by hanging the war criminals of 1971, went hard after Holey Artisan Bakery perpetrators and dismantled Jamaat’s structure in the Islami Bank. But with general elections around the corner, overtly embracing the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam and backdoor flirting with Jamaat has undone much.
Hundreds of Hindus and other minorities continue to be killed, attacked, raped, converted and dispossessed of their ancestral land every year under Hasina’s watch, often allegedly by Awami League’s own.
India’s time to rethink
In Bangladesh, India is increasingly being looked upon as the power that keeps the Hasina regime illegitimately in power. People fear that the regime’s arrogance comes from the fact that India, through its might and money, will shield it from an angry mandate in the coming elections.
Most disturbingly, PM Narendra Modi’s image among people in Bangladesh is getting smudged as the Hasina government gets discredited.
Can India afford that? Is the spectre of pro-Pakistan BNP and the radical Jamaat enough to make us unquestioningly support a deeply unpopular ruling dispensation, which is now seen brutalising its children?
It didn’t help that a frail and ageing Khaleda Zia, undoubtedly corrupt, was sent to jail for years amid a sympathy wave.
And, most importantly, how committed has been our biggest ally in Dhaka?
How friendly is our friend?
India, through direct and indirect channels, has been alerting the Hasina government about extensive resentment over corruption. To no avail.
To India’s disappointment, Bangladesh promoted as Army chief Aziz Ahmed, superseding other supposedly capable generals. The flow of China’s money in defence, infrastructure and politics are unabated despite India’s concerns.
But possibly the most insidious betrayal is the regime’s seeming double-game on Jamaat, Islamic fundamentalism and protection of minorities. An unsettling picture is slowly emerging.
Hit Hindus, cheat with Jamaat?
In January, local papers reported that according to the minority rights group Bangladesh Jatiya Hindu Mahajote, 107 Hindus were killed, 31 disappeared mysteriously and 235 temples were vandalised in 2017.
This was even higher than in 2016, when 98 Hindus were killed and 141 temples vandalised, according to the organisation’s report.
Awami League members are accused of direct involvement in many of these attacks.
While the Hasina government commendably hung several 1971 Jamaat war criminals, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi strangely got his death sentence commuted to life, and is now believed to run Jamaat’s activities from his prison cell.
Jamaat candidates fought as Independent in the recent Sylhet municipal elections – what some say was in tacit understanding with Awami League – to split votes three-way and defeat the BNP. Moreover, Intel believes more than 50,000 bogus votes were cast even before the voting. But still, BNP won, such has been the dive in AL’s popularity.
Supreme Court bar association elections in March were swept by Jamaat-backed candidates. Is the Jamaat creeping back to normal life because Hasina wants to wean away its underground support to the BNP before general elections?
Time for a new Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is of utmost importance for safety and prosperity on India’s eastern border. We cannot afford an unstable and vastly unpopular government in Dhaka.
Worryingly, there are very few options in the traditional scheme of things.
Love for Pakistan is in BNP’s DNA. Zia’s exiled son Tarique Rahman may want a secret door open with India, but the mother’s old politics is unlikely to change dramatically.
Former President HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party is widely considered AL’s B-team. With an aged leader and no dynamic succession plan, India will be wary to place a long-term bet.
In spite of its concerns, India has always wanted Hasina to succeed. But that looks like a slipping possibility now.
The new India has emerged from mass movements and a popular uprising against corruption and dynastic elite. Its inflexion point was leaders like Modi and Arvind Kejriwal exploding on to national politics, capturing the popular imagination, demanding patriotism, transparency, and accountability from elected governments.
Bangladesh could be at that inflexion point. Modi as the PM who represents a new, merit-driven, patriotic India could use our influence in Bangladesh to help a new polity and leadership emerge, putting behind a long legacy of warring dynasts and a corrupt elite on either side happily enjoying the spoils in turns.
In this time of turmoil – from within AL or BNP, or from the outside – may emerge a leader with an entirely fresh and constructive worldview.
This is the time for India’s intelligence to be at its sniffing best in Bangladesh. Not for trouble, but talent. And for India’s leadership to identify future leaders and help Bangladesh achieve freedom a second time.