Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval described Bangladesh as India’s “most important neighbour”, as the Sikri couple had done years ago.
I remember Rajiv Sikri, then an additional secretary in MEA, coming up with that description during a Kolkata seminar. His wife Veena, one time Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, could be heard pushing for a more active Bangladesh policy in the corridors of power in Delhi, where there were enough bullheads who would compare Pakistan and Bangladesh because both were Muslim majority countries.
I once ran into a former Indian intelligence tsar who had served in Dhaka under consular cover, and was shocked to find him arguing loudly in a party that Bangladesh and Pakistan as “Muslim countries” deserved a similar policy response from India.
It is true he said that when Khaleda Zia’s government was backing anti-Indian rebels, both the ethnic rebel groups of north-east and the Islamist radicals, in all possible ways.
But he conveniently forgot that even in 2001, when Awami League lost the elections and Zia came to power, Hasina’s party was the single largest party in terms of vote share. It was undone by many of its own failures, and the usual anti-incumbency tendency of the Bangladesh electorate.
Tragically, when Zia was riding to power on the crest of a post-9/11 Islamist wave across the world, and Hindus were facing huge pogroms across the country, India’s national security adviser Brajesh Mishra was rushing to Dhaka to congratulate the new prime minister on her victory.
“We should not place all our eggs in one basket,” Mishra said to justify friendly engagement with the Zia administration that was in power with Jamaat-e-Islami as coalition partner. Vajpayee fell for the trap as he got carried away to Lahore, and India got Kargil.
Thankfully, Modi has played the opposite.
He has been cautious and tough on Pakistan and has gone out of his way to engage and be friendly to Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina. He did meet Khaleda Zia in Dhaka, if only to prove the point that she had made a huge mistake by not keeping her scheduled appointment with President Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka two years ago.
Bangladesh is, as Lawrence Lifschultz said, burdened with an ‘unfinished revolution’. This is the country which buried Jinnah’s Two-Nation theory in the muddy swampy battlefields of 1971.
This is the Muslim dominated country that prides itself on its Bengali heritage; where young bloggers fall to the sword of the radical but do not flinch from upholding liberal Bengali values that led to the creation of the nation.
This is a Muslim country where men and women recite Tagore, Nazrul, Jibananda Das, and Michael Madhusudhan on February 21 to remember the fallen heroes of the Bengali language movement.
This is the country which never fails to celebrate December 16 as Victory Day, and where the surrender ceremony of Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. Niazi to India’s Lt. Gen. J S Arora, is religiously re-enacted every year when dozens of veteran freedom-fighters relive their experience of fighting alongside Indian troops to liberate their country from the brutal Pakistanis.
True, this is also the country where bigots continue to sometimes attack minorities, but one should never forget that liberal Muslim Bengalis suffer as much in their hands as Hindus.
For every Avijit Ray who falls to the sword of the Faithful, there is a Rajib Haider who has met the same fate, and for an Ananta Bijoy Das, there is always a Washiqur Rahman Babu.
The bigots who Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina describes as the ‘defeated forces of 1971’ still tend to surface virulently and subject the secular forces to merciless attack.
The attack on secular bloggers drives home the point that Islamist radicals fear the liberal thought more than anything else. Two days before Dhaka fell to the Indian forces and Mukti Bahini, the Pakistanis and their local cohorts massacred dozens of Bengali liberal intellectuals, Hindus and Muslims alike.
Bangladesh remembers it as ‘Buddhijibi Hatyakhando’ (Intellectual Massacre). The bigots carry forward that brutal fundamentalist tradition which the seculars face with as much bravery as the men and women in 1971, when millions died to create a new nation over a ‘river of blood’ (Ek Sagar Rakter Binomoy).
Hasina’s administration has taken the bold move to try the ‘war criminals of 1971’ — the brutal men who collaborated with Pakistan to stifle the Bengali fight for independence.
Some have been hanged. Others are waiting for the gallows. Many others are facing trial or have been given life imprisonment. She has cracked down hard and tough on the Islamist radicals of a whole range, knowing full well that she may be hit by an assassin’s bullet any unguarded moment as her illustrious father.
In Bangladesh, India has a neighbour to befriend and a case to make by extending the hands of friendship. For those who fly the flags of Pakistan in Kashmir, Bangladesh is a quiet reminder of a failed state that is Pakistan.
If Bengali Muslims who made up more than 60 percent of undivided Pakistan’s population could not get justice and had to break away, what can Kashmiris expect? Kashmiris who will remain a single digit population group in Pakistan, even if the whole Srinagar valley goes over? 1971 should remind the West, which sees Pakistan’s army as an ally in the War against Terror, that it is an useless though vicious, politically-pampered force, which can use terror but never fight it.
Talking of morale, what more can one say about an army which surrenders a part of its own country with 93,000 soldiers still left to fight? So much for Bhutto’s Thousand Year War!
Bangladesh is the best example India can find to torpedo Jinnah’s Two-nation theory that remains the edifice of a failed state called Pakistan. Bangladesh does not have nuclear weapons like Pakistan, but it has overtaken not only Pakistan, but even India in most indices of human development.
Modi did the right thing by admitting it in his Dhaka University speech — he had obviously done his homework. Bangladesh’s economy is no longer the basket-case that Kissinger said it was.
Bangladesh has a current account surplus when India has a huge current account deficit (forget about Pakistan). When Pakistan has to beg for World Bank support to keep its economy afloat, Bangladesh can afford to tell the World Bank to get lost and take up the challenge to fund the Padma Bridge with its own resources.
The strength of Bengali nationalism that sustains Bangladesh is nowhere more apparent than in the rising remittances, which now total close to $25 billion a year. These are the poor workers who slog their hearts out in foreign lands but save their money in their own ‘Sonar Bangla’ unlike the tiny corrupt elite who siphon and money-launder to buy houses in Canada and Malaysia.
Bangladesh is the anti-thesis of Pakistan. Though both are Muslim nations, and Bangladeshis take their religion as seriously as Pakistanis without overdoing it, the bedrock of its national identity is liberal Bengali values and culture, inherited from the Bengal renaissance but in a more profound way than by the 19th century bhadralok.
For those in Delhi who equate Bangladesh and Pakistan, a free ticket to Dhaka to witness Shahbagh 2013 would be an eye-opener: Demonstrations in support of secularism and the demand for a ban on religion-driven politics.
Hasina’s government took the cue from the movement, where women outnumbered men on any given day and where Lucky Akhtar raised sloganeering to state-of-art, to enforce a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami. It stands in stark contrast to what has happened in India in recent months where some in Shiv Sena have gone to the extent of supporting Jinnah’s Two-nation theory.
There are bigots in Bangladesh and they attack minorities, much as there are bigots in India who do the same. These are the people who keep the ghost of Jinnah alive outside Pakistan.
Hasina’s battle against these forces is a stern reminder that her nation’s revolution is still ‘unfinished’. She needs huge Indian support to win that revolution — from aid to water-sharing to support for building infrastructure.
Perhaps Modi is beginning to understand that more profoundly after his visit to Dhaka. India needs a strong and economically thriving Bangladesh to prove so many points to Pakistan (one being, friendship with India will bring growth and development), and it needs Bangladesh to secure India’s long troubled Northeast.
That is why Doval or the Sikris had the good sense to describe Bangladesh as India’s most important neighbour — a far cry from Bangladesh editor Mahfuz Anam’s complaint that India has two neighbours and Bangladesh is not one of them.
Syed Bashir is a bdnews24.com columnist.