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Is Hasina-II good news for India?

Is Hasina-II good news for India?

Author: Udayan Namboodiri
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: January 3, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/147410/Is-Hasina-II-good-news-for-India.html

Going by inherited wisdom we must rejoice every time a 'friendly' regime takes over in Dhaka. Hasina let us down before, but now we may have a new Hasina

Rajiv Gandhi commented after his landslide victory in the 1984 election: "People's expectations are scary". The same thought may have crossed Sheikh Hasina's mind this week after her party, the Awami League, was voted back to power with a margin that reminded many here in Delhi of Nehruvian era elections. For, let us not forget that if there is ever such a thing as a poisoned chalice of a political high office, the one that Hasina took over from the caretaker government is it.

Bangladesh's predicament is no secret to readers of Saturday Special, or for that matter The Pioneerl. Our colleague, Hiranmay Karlekar, won global recognition for highlighting the pernicious honeymoon between Bangladeshi polity and Talebanist forces. His depiction of that overcrowded, penurious little nation (Bangladesh: the next Afghanistan, New Delhi, 2005) struck a chord in concerned circles. Now that the hopes of Bangladeshis have been reposed on this matron who symbolises the liberal face of Bangladeshi Islam, what does she do with it?

Then, there is her other problem -- the upsurge of hope that has followed her victory in India. Almost every foreign policy expert in India believes that with Hasina in power in Dhaka, half of India's problems with her North-East are over. But there is little evidence to suggest that the period between 1996 and 2001 - the only time that Hasina has been in power -- was marked by remarkable collaboration on snuffing out North-East militancy. It is also time for the CII types to re-string their sitars to play the old tunes about gas collaboration, transit rights to the North-east and the oh-so-pleasurable "cultural ties". But even here her record has been topsy turvy.

As Kanchan Lakshman (The Other Voice) points out, hope and despair alternated in the Indo-Bangla track during the late 1990s. The December 1996 Ganga water sharing agreement was the starting point of a foreign policy based on deceiving India to the point where the victim begins to actually enjoy fantasia. Of course, we Indians must admit that something patently Hindu called "Gujral doctrine" provided the enabling environment for the premiers of all South Asian countries to guarantee everything, including the sun, moon and stars to their neighbours. So powerful was the drug of sham cooperation that nothing short of Pokhran II could end the somnabulence.

Hasina played an important role in that surreal drama. She got the three-decade-old Ganga water-sharing problem resolved in her favour along with a basket of other goodies that included trade benefits. Yet, she gave nothing in return. On several crucial issues Hasina revealed she had her father, the late Bangabandhu's, skill of running circles around India.

It's not polite to recall a lady's past in her hour of glory, but the memory of the Anoop Chetia incident just won't go away. Chetia, one of the founders of the dreaded ULFA, was enjoying the sanctuary given him by Khaleda Zia during her 1991-96 term. In early 1997, some police officer, mistaking his Prime Minister's glib talk as serious intent, raided Chetia's safehouse and arrested him. But the Hasina government did not do the next logical thing - deport Chetia as promised - but booked him in a hundred little cases and went on with business as usual. Eventually, a Bangladeshi court sentenced him and he served a part of it.By the time of his release(2005), Khaleda was back in power.

Now, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, New Delhi has revived the whole gamut of issues --North-East, HuJI etc. Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Lok Sabha on December 16: " A message must go that Bangladesh is duty-bound to honour its commitment and assurances." He went on to say that his ministry had 'information' regarding the presence of Indian insurgents in Bangladesh soil.

This could be the first touchstone for Hasina. She has already made the customary right noises. She has promised that Bangladeshi soil would not be permitted for use by terrorists. She has also called for setting up a joint task force to act against terrorism in the region. " It is crucial to combat terrorism and (carry out) development of the region. The (proposed) task force could end the mutual blame-game (on terrorism issue) between the countries in our region," announced the 61-year-old Prime Minister elect. But that is old hat. The first part of her statement is déjà vu. As for the 'proposal', it's nothing but a kite - first flown by Pakistan's Musharraf in the January 2002 SAARC Summit.

Let's also not forget that the Mankachar incident happened when Hasina was in power. In April 2001, a group of Border Security Force (BSF) jawans led by an Inspector was brutally murdered by Bangladesh security personnel. The chief of Bangladesh Rifles kept his job despite India's protests. That was the point when grave doubts surfaced in Indian policy circles about the leverage enjoyed by New Delhi in a Bangladesh led by "Mubib's daughter". For the first time, Indian realised that the post-1992 policy of putting all its eggs in the Awami basket was all wrong.

It was too late. Hasina was voted out of power in October that year. The news was received in India with complete shock. Remember, it was not four weeks since 9/11, and suddenly you had India sandwiched between two Islamic fundamentalist-backed nations. The grimness was exacerbated by the realisation that the doctrine of pandering to Hasina and ignoring the other Begum--Khaleda Zia--had led to a situation where it was clear that India lacked entry points to the new Dhaka establishment.

However, the Hasina of 2009 may not be the Hasina of 1996. As Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (Lookback) )points out, what we have just seen in Bangladesh is a mandate against religious fundamentalism, the very Talebanism of which Karlekar had alerted the world. Being the wily politician we know her as, it is unlikely that Hasina would give the mullahs a second chance. She was herself an almost-victim of a terrorist attack (2004) and therefore rides the crest of public sympathy. It may not be politically wise on her part to throw that goodwill away.

Another important change to the setting is America under Barack Obama. For decades, Washington has treated Bangladesh as inconsequential, a basket case (a Kissinger legacy) who has been caught in the whirlwind of Islamic fundamentalism as part of a general post-9/11 tendency. But when a time comes when a US President takes genuine interest in a comprehensive view of terrorism, it would be apparent that Bangladesh is Pakistan's strategic depth, a veritable reserve fund of the ISI, part of a bigger axis of evil. Of course, pegging this hope on Obama is part of the scary expectations that he encounters at the end of a campaign that changed everything in America. If and when Obama asserts himself ,a lot things, including Hasina's hour to make good on her pledge, could happen.

For now, the very fact that 75 per cent of the world's poorest Islamic nation voted, and that too in a superbly managed election, is evidence of a new era in the offing. In fact, Hasina, in her second innings, may be the point of rally for a new, self-cleansing movement within Islam. In this, she deserves all the support she needs from the world's other great democracies.

- The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer

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