Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9 No. 2
For most Indians Bangladesh (BD) remains an enigma. We just cannot understand the anti-India sentiments pervading the attitude of Bangladeshi establishment and society, excepting a small, though significant, section of civil society subscribing to Bangla nationism. This remains inexplicable particularly in view of the positive and active role played by India in creation of BD as an independent nation. In fact, we seem to understand Pakistan better than B.D. Bangladesh is a case of expectations and hopes having gone four following a brief honeymoon (1971-75). Evidently our expectation post 1971 did not factor in the pre-and post partition history of hostility built around the two-nation theory.
“Bangladesh Decoded” a book writen by Shri R.N. P. Singh and published by India First Foundation, will help in better understanding of the well-springs of the causes of adversarial , if not hostile, relationship between the two neighbours. Shri Singh has worked in Intelligence Bureau and has painstakingly brought out and unravelled the factors behind the partition and creation of Pakistan, evolution of East Pakistan into Bangladesh and the events thereafter imparting definitive Islamic bias to the state and society. The book, not only provides an insight into the realities of Bangladesh, but it is hoped, will start an unbiased and healthy debate on understanding a difficult and at times intractable neighbour.
In Bangladesh Decoded Shri Singh has traced the history of growth of Islam in BD and how it has acquired radical hues in recent years. Erstwhile Bengal had, an early brush with islam whose propagation received considerable boost with the establishment a muslim sultanate in 1338. Visiting and resident Sufis, Arab traders and through them
*Bangladesh Decoded, R.N.P. Singh; New Delhi, India First Foundation, 2007. +Reviewer: Shri J.N. Roy, IPS (Retd.); former Comissioner , Civil Aviation Security.
5252 close contacts with Saudi Arabia had played a role in spreading Islam in Bengal. However, the rise of assertive political Islam was a later day phenomenon, considerably and deliberately, accentuated by Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905. With the Muslim league activities and promotion of two-nation theory, the hostility against “Hindu India” as the independence struggle was seen by the League, the muslims of Bengal embraced the theory and after partition the muslim majority eastern part of Bengal became East Pakistan (EP).
Even in 1947 the Islamists in EP had a distinct pride in the Bengali language and culture, which found expression in founding of Awami League in 1948 by Sheikh Mujib and Maulana Bhashani It was in protest against the fears of West Pakistan imposing urdu and its culture on the Bengalis. It was a precursor of what is today called the Bangla nationalism built around Bengali language and culture. However its unintended fall out was the sharp decline of Muslim League in East Pakistan and rise of Jamat-e-Islamic (JEI) to fill in the political space vacated by the former. Thus the foundation for the rise of Islamism and later radical Islam were laid. The rise of JEI was slow, but steady. The Islamic identity forged during the struggle for creation of Pakistan was reinforced by the high esteem Saudi Arabia enjoyed in the psyche of the Muslims of East-Pakistan and muslims of EP/BD since mid 60’s hosted an annual congregation of Tabligh Jamaat, which is the second largest in the world after Haj. Despite the growing clout of JEI and other Islamists, the radical Islam’s influence was a later day development, particularly after the creation of Bangladesh – which is a real surprise – particularly because the Islamist JEI etc had opposed the independence movement of Awami League and assisted in the brutalities and genocide of the Pak army in 1971.
However, the Islamists staged a comeback even during the life time of Sheikh Mujib with the nationalist fervour giving way to pragmatic international Islamic solidarity. Anti-India propaganda based on allegations of hegemonistic designs of India, inferior treatment given to Mukti Bahini etc had started surfacing. Assassination of Mujabi in 1975 began the gradual decline of influence of Bangla nationalism and rise of Islamists. It culminated in an amendment of the Constitution in 1988 and declaration of Islam as a state religion. Yet another affirmation of the clout of radical Islam was the JEI’s growing influence during the two regimes of BNP – 1991-96 and in 2001-2006, – with JEI becoming a coalition partner alongwith Islamic Oikyo Jote (IOJ) another Islamic group with links with the Huji, and JMB (Jamatul Muslim Bangladesh) known terrorist groups.
Infact since 1991 Islamisation of BD society and polity has been steady, protestations of protagonists of Bengali nationalism, notwithstanding. Awami League a secular outfit made the ultimate statement when on the eve of aborted 2007 general elections, it admitted a radical Islamic group (Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish) as its electoral ally to ward-off allegations of soft Islamic credentials.
Shri Singh brings out in detail the fallout of these developments to the security of India’s north-east, emasculation of minorities, and persistent denial of illegal migration of Bangladeshis to the adjoining states of India; sheltering of anti-India militants and terrorists in its territory and abetting with the ISI insurgency in North-East India. The Hindu minority in Bangladesh, according to Bangladesh Decoded, which was 31% in 1947 has progressively declined to 19% in 1961, 14% in 1974 and was estimated to be 9% in 2002. Neither India nor the international community has raised an effective voice over this or deliberate and forcible demographic change in Chittagong Hill Tract – where Buddhist Chackmas are being systematically ousted and dispossessed.
These developments; according to Shri Singh, have made BD a hub of radical and fundamentalist Islamic resurgence and terrorism with connivance of the BNP led govt. So much so that till August 2005 the BD govt. and its PM denied existence of dangerous terrorist groups talk the JMB and Huji (B) etc. Only when on August 17, 2005. JMB organised countrywide bombings and earlier attacks on Judges, that the BD govt woke-up and banned them and started taking action. The action – infact followed considerable international pressure to act against the Islamic terrorist groups.
But what should be worrying us is by now well established anti-Indianism of the B.D. establishment including the Army, polity and society. In chapter 7 Shri Singh, recounts various factors, besides the role of fundamentalist JEI, in this phenomenon. Propaganda of Indian hegemonist designs against BD has received a fillip by external players like Pakistan and China in stoking anti-Indianism. Besides the BD Army itself for various reasons is anti-India as it is steeped essentially in Pak army culture. No wonder its intelligence wing DGFI activity collaborates with the ISI in its anti-India designs in promoting insurgency in NE India.
Shri Singh while bringing out these aspects; has not touched upon India’s response and reactions to the advent of radical Islam and anti-Indianism in BD. Infact there is considerable amount of ambivalence and confusion in India about BD. There is an informed opinion in India which feels that India has been unfair to a smaller neighbour and should be more accommodative towards its concerns. This section includes, besides liberal intellectuals, some senior Indian diplomats, particularly those who have served in Bangladesh. This section also does not believe that Islamic forces have gained upperhand in the country and that they are anti-India. This viewpoint from the very beginning has been unduly influenced by the Bangla nationalism group which is articulate and has influences in Dhaka and academic institutions. They assest that India must support these “secular elements. Infact their limited interactions with this Bangla groups have blinded them to the emerging realities of BD.
That India should build good relations with BD and encourage secular elements is unexceptionable. But India cannot shut its eyes to the realities and accommodation of concerns cannot be unilateral. Infact the liberals and admirers of Bangla nationalism have resisted adoption of a realistic and pragmatic policy towards BD. These elements mistake what is desirable for reality of BD, which is not so. They are like ostriches who feel bad omens will go away if they did not acknowledge it presence. The fact that the BD govt. does’nt allow India transit rights which was available in East Pak days; it blocks gas/oil pipeline from Myanmar imposing unrealistic conditionalties; it blocks passage of Asian Highway on the ground that it will provide transit facility to India; it negotiates and them dumps offer of Tatas to set up industries etc in BD while welcoming variety of Chinese offers; it systematically discourage, contacts between BD and Indian business houses; it forces Hindu minority either to migrate to India or live in subjugation; it helps anti-India insurgents and refuses to accept illegal migrants from Bangladesh; yet these means nothing to some of us who are blinded by the moderate attitude of Dhaka based literati and liberals. That they have no influence and even the five year rule (1996-2001) of Awami league did not make any difference is of no consequence to these myopic liberals. They overestimate the influence of Bangla liberals, as we did in respect of Pakistan. They have a role but balance favours the other side of BD polity.
All this does not mean that we should not try to improve relations with a diffcult neighbour. It only means that our efforts should be based on a realistic appraisal of the actions and intents of Bangladeshi govt and society and not on make believes. Shri Singh’s findings will help in this exercise in realism.
The fact of the matter is that Bangladeshi establishment is still mired in pre-partition mindset vis-à-vis India and advent of radical Islam has only deepened the crisis. In short term, there is no chance of BD giving up its anti-India stance even if we concede all their demands and present these on a platter. They would invent other grievances. It’s the mind-set and unless it changes no amount of ersatz bonhomie with the army backed Care Taker Govt. and others is going to help. Pakistan is changing its mind-set, but not Bangladesh. We can only wait but let us not entertain false hopes.
In conclusion; Shri Singh needs to be complimented for his labour in unraveling the emerging true character of the Bangladeshi state and society. More such studies are needed so that we have better understanding of the country. We may not agree with some of his conclusions like Bangladesh having became a hub of radical Islam and terrorism in the region, yet it in no way detracts from the value and merit of the work. On the contrary if it opens a debate. Its an useful addition to books on Bangladesh offering a needed perspective.
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