Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Changing Dynamics of Bangladesh Politics and India’s Internal Security


Joyeeta Bhattacharjee*



India Bangladesh relations have perceptively grown after the military backed caretaker government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed took over that country’s reign in January 2007.  There has been progress on resolving certain issues. The major breakthroughs achieved are: a) resumption of the railway link between Kolkata and Dhaka, b) India’s unilateral decision to allow duty free access to Bangladeshi readymade garments thus addressing the issue of trade gap and c) bilateral investment agreement is also on the pipeline. But with the growing incidents of terror in India and possible Bangladeshi linkages, that country has emerged as a hotspot in the context of India’s internal security. It is alleged that many of the anti Indian groups utilize that country to export terror into India. Hence, security is major issue in the bilateral relations from India’s perspective. The question is whether the present government has addressed India’s security concerns or is it just a refinement of the earlier stand?

      In search of our question we need to understand the complexities of the present government and the internal challenges that it is facing.  Declaration of emergency due to deterioration of law and order situation that followed due to violent clashes between two major political parties Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL) surrounding the Ninth Parliamentary elections, led to the formation of the present military-backed caretaker government. The government was unique in two senses: a) notwithstanding the constitution the government declared to be in power for two years (country’s constitution stipulated only three months for a caretaker government to be in power) b) It undertook several constitutional and administrative reforms which were not within the competence of a caretaker government.  As per the constitution of Bangladesh main function of caretaker government is to hold elections. Despite, questions over constitutional validity, the government justified it as necesary for holding of free and fair elections.

     People of Bangladesh welcomed this government as this brought stability ending uncertainties and chaos. Soon the government pledged not to allow the country to return to the conditions prior to 1/11 as popularly referred. To achieve this goal they decided to clean up of politics and to root out corruption. So, they reconstituted the Anti Corruption Commission and took up huge anti corruption drive. The anti-corruption trials and arrests of many influential persons on charges of corruption like former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman received popular support. People also endorsed government’s action against the fundamentalist Islamic militancy that flourished in the country during the reign of the BNP-Jamaat led four party coalition.  Also appreciation flowed in for executing leaders of fundamentalist militant outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Bangla Bhai and his associates in March 2007.

     However, the initial enthusiasm soon gave way to apprehensions. The fears were of a possible military rule and solidification of fundamentalist forces in the political system of the country. The fear aroused due to lingering of emergency, the minus two formula and crackdown on the political parties. First the government tried to get rid of the two ladies from nation’s politics 'Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khelada Zia' by sending them abroad. The formula failed as Begum Zia refused to leave the country. While, Hasina went aboard, but she forced her way back. The government also made an attempt to cripple the mainstream political parties by banning all kind of political activities both indoor and outdoor. It even tried to engineer defections within established political parties. For this, it tried to influence leaders by bringing different charges against them or luring them with different advantages. AL managed to remain united. But a faction in the BNP fell to such pressures. Being unsuccessful with the previous attempts it took up a policy of arresting political leaders. Important political leaders including two former Prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khelada Zia (both of them are also the Chiefs of two major political parties BNP and AL) were arrested on corruption charges.

    Meanwhile, lack of major action against the fundamentalist political parties mainly Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) made people skeptic about a possible nexus between fundamentalist groups and the present government. Taking recourse to history of military rule in Bangladesh such possibilities cannot be denied as Islamic forces became stronger during military rule. As People became vocal in sounding such doubts, Matiur Rahman Nizami the JI Chief was arrested in May 2008 on corruption charges. But his easy release was regarded as more of eyewash than the government’s sincere effort to book such persons. 

    Again, involvement of military in all the spheres of state functions also contributed in the culmination of this fear. Ex-army officers were appointed to the key posts in the government. The Chief of Anti Corruption Commisison is a former Chief of Bangladesh Army, one of the Election Commissioners is also ex-army officer, and many of the advisors are also ex-army personnel. Army was also involved in activities like distribution of low cost rice and preparation of voter lists and etc. In fact Army Chief General Moeen Ahmed is alleged to be the person who is calling the shots and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed is only there to legitimize the civilian face of the government. 

      Over involvement of the military, acting partially with certain political groups and harassment of political leaders created resentment among the common people. This was further heightened with the poor performance of the economy and spiraling of food prices that adversely affected lives of the masses. Low intensity of protests started to emerge all across the country. Sensing growing popular discontent the political parties also started raising their voice against the government. They threatened to launch agitation against the government. Also, the international community started pressing for restoration of democracy and holding of elections.

      Finding no support both in the domestic and the international arena the government steadily moved towards an exit mode. It declared that elections will held in December this year. Knowing well after elections that either BNP or AL will be back in power and having degraded relationship their lives will be miserable, the present leadership is busy finalizing the exit strategy. In this process first they tried to float political parties that would facilitate control over the government. But the effort failed miserably. Hence they started negotiating and held talks with different political parties. They were able to reach and understanding with AL as a result of which Hasina was released on June 2008 and allowed to go abroad for treatment. Negotiations are also on with BNP but Khaleda being adamant on the release of both of her sons first complicated the matter. Khaleda’s younger son Arafat Rahman has been released and presently under treatment abroad. But government is not convinced on releasing her elder son Tarique Rahman. This has created some discomfort in the government’s relations with BNP.

     As skepticism existed about the future of democracy, to convince its commitment for reestablishing democracy, elections for the local bodies were held in August 4. These elections were significant as the government prescribed it to be a curtain raiser for the future parliamentary elections in December. But these polls provided an opportunity for the people to express their opinion about their future. As about 80 percent voter turnout was witnessed, the mandate was clearly in support of democracy. Now, realizing people’s mind the government is trying to hold on to the last straw of emergency and it is not willing to let it go that easy. And it was not hesitant when it declared soon after these polls that the emergency will continue and national elections will be held under emergency. Now it is under pressure to revoke emergency before elections.

     Another important aspect was that it also provided an opportunity to assess the impact of the reforms that it undertook. Were these reforms able the change the country’s politics? On analysis of the election results it appears the reforms seem to remain on paper only and hardly influenced politics. The corruption and influence of money and muscle remains prevalent in the country’s politics. The mayoral candidate of AL in Sylhet was in jail on charges of corruption during polls but has managed to win. The efforts of bringing alternative force to country’s politics also failed  AL and BNP continue to dominate politics as the results suggested the that majority of votes were shared by the candidates of these two parties. In the present context one can say that though the government started with the sincere motive of bringing change in the country, it failed to keep the momentum and had to compromise with the changing dynamics of the country’s politics. This was also reflected in the government’s policy towards India more so matters of addressing India’s security concerns.

     Some of the issues that are posing threat to India’s security are the illegal migration and the use of the countries soil for anti India activity. It is said that Bangladesh has been utilized by anti-Indian forces to export terror to India. With the advantage of geographical proximity to India and the porous border the country has turned out to be ideal for their activities. Again the porous border also facilitates illegal migration. People from Bangladesh are illegally migrating to India for years. They are regarded to be a threat to security as they are often utilized by anti India groups to act as a shield to carry out their clandestine activities in India. India has been urging Bangladesh to take proactive steps to address these issues. The need for such steps were pressed more after the Jaipur blasts of May 2008. The initial investigation reports suggested Bangladesh’s fundamentalist militant organisation Harkat-ul-Jihadi Bangladesh (Huji-bd) was involved in this blast and has allegedly  utilized large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh settled in the city to plan this blast.  However, this was not the first instance when a Bangladeshi hand was identified. In fact, Huji-Bd was also reported to be involved in formulating terror in the past also namely, the Sankat Mochan Mandir attacks in Varanasi in March 2006, Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad in 2007 and the serial blasts in Uttar Pradesh in November 2007. Hence, India’s concern was fairly justified.


Is Bangladesh’s role in the internal security a new phenomenon?


    Bangladesh’s connection to Northeast insurgency has long been known. It started when the Naga insurgent groups took shelters in the erstwhile East Pakistan. After independence in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took steps against these militants but his assassination changed the whole dynamics of India Bangladesh relations. The transformation of the country from a secular to a moderate Islamic state also transformed the India Bangladesh relations from friends to a big brother-small brother attitude and a potential inimical situation posing security challenges. The country turned to be a safe haven for many of the separatist groups of North East India. The top leadership United Liberation front of Assam (ULFA) are still using Bangladesh’s soil and are running businessess in that country. 

    Although, the Indian government had urged Bangladesh to take action against these insurgent groups, Bangladesh always denied the existence of such groups on its soil. Even, during AL regime (1996-2001) when the bilateral relations saw some improvement the regime avoided to take any drastic measures against such groups. Infact it was the pressure of the Bangladesh Army that prevented AL regime to take any action against these groups. During the rein of last BNP government the country’s antagonism towards India increased and so also increased the anti-India activities in that country and all this time Bangladesh’s prominence in matters of India’s security exceeded geography of North East and spread across India.  Various points of India became the target of Bangladesh based militant groups Huji-bd’s involvement was reported at the American Centre militant attack in Kolkata in 2002.

       Why does it refrain from taking action against such groups? Reason normally cited is the close linkage between the country’s military and Pakistan’s influential Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Taking the advantage of the porous border Pakistan’s ISI with the help of the country’s military is said to have found an ideal outlet to export its agents into India to create disturbances. It is also reported that many of the North East insurgents have links with ISI and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh’s military intelligence, who enjoys a safe heaven in lieu of their support services in India. Any action against these groups might lead them to problematic position. Military being an influential factor in the country and ISI also alleged to enjoy good relationship with some of the political factions of the country, enjoys position of influence in the government.

      Another important aspect that poses threat to our internal security that many observers in India believe is the concept of ‘Greater Bangladesh’.  A concept of uniting West Bengal, North East states and Bangladesh to form Greater Bangladesh which is reported to have been nurtured by many influential sections in Bangladesh. This concept in a way justifies illegal migration from Bangladesh to India. Illegal migration to North East and West Bengal and then to other parts of the country has become a big problem now. Though India had long urged to take action but Bangladesh denies any such migration. The illegal migration in the northeast had led to significant demographic change. Many of the ethnic groups have expressed their concern on this issue. This had often led to clashes between the locals and illegal migrants. Many of these migrants have acquired official documents like ration cards and other identity cards to legalise their stay. Fears also have been expressed in many constituencies in Assam that in near future an illegal migrant might actually become representative in the State Assembly. Demographical changes in bordering districts of Assam due to illegal migration are now a political issue of substance in the state.


Has there been any change under the caretaker government of Bangladesh?                                                                                                            

      The present government in developing relations with India displayed

great enthusiasm initially. Soon after it came to power, it declared that developing friendly relations with India was a top priority.  It also pledged not to allow its soil to be used for anti-India activity. As a mark of improving relations there had been many high level visits. Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherji visited Bangladesh in February and December 2007; Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed, Chief Advisor of the present caretaker government, visited Delhi in April 2007 and Bangladesh’s Army Chief General Moeen Ahmed visited India in March 2008. There also had been interactions between top officials of nations the most significant were the meeting of Home Secretaries of both sides and meeting of the Chief of Bangladesh Rifle and the DG of India’s Border Security Force. The latest in the strings of visits is the India’s Army Chief’s visit to Bangladesh in July 2008. There were some agreements that were arrived on areas of security cooperation. Like, an agreement was signed on sharing of information regarding cross border crimes, during the recently ended foreign secretary level talks both side also agreed to fight terror jointly.

    Does all this really address India’s security concerns? After more than one and half years in power, words of this government still await to be formulated into action. Like its political ancestors, the present government also has gone back to its previous inertia. The old game of denial is still continuing. When ever India had reported of the involvement of country’s militant organization in formulating terror within India, the government denied such references. Soon after the much publicized talks between the Chiefs of India’s Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifle held in April 2008 the Chief of BDR Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed simply dismissed India’s claims of the existence of insurgent camps in the country. On the other hand Bhutan and Myanmar have extended cooperation in flushing out militants from their soil based on the intelligence provided by India. Further during the recent visit of India’s Army Chief, it was expected that the visit would bring some major outcome with regard to India’s security concerns, but nothing came out. Thus despite promises by the Bangladesh government, on close analysis nothing tangible has been seen on the ground and some hidden agenda prevented it from taking the necessary actions. The striking example of such a contention is that of the transit agreement, which was to be signed during the Foreign Secretary level talks in Delhi in July 2008. Following internal pressures, the government had to declare publicly that no such issues would be discussed in the meeting. Similar inertia was witnessed in allowing India to use Bangladesh soil to bring gas from Myanmar to India despite the Energy Adviser’s assurance to this effect or even speeding the Tata investment offer of US$ 3 billion. Rather the government had backtracked on all these and the net result is that Bangladesh has been a loser as Tata announced their decision to withdraw their offer. The security issues also have the same story to tell. However, a positive beginning has been made as Bangladesh has handed over to India three Bodo militant in July this year. It remains to be seen if this is carried forward in the future or the attitude of denial remains.                                                       


      Now as the Caretaker Government has announced the elections in December this year, hence, once again a political dispensation will be back in power. It remains to be seen how the build up to the election happen and how the caretaker government also deals with the issue of terrorism and fundamentalism which is also affecting Bangladesh. The mandate of the hour is that India also needs to up its vigil and anti- terrorism infrastructure as no significant policy shift can be expected from Bangladesh.



Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati