Why India lost the plot in Bangladesh

Rebuffed by India’s betrayal over the Teesta, Prime Minister Hasina has been appeasing hardline Islamists at home

Published: 04th May 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd May 2017 11:04 PM   |  A+A-

I have kept an eye on Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, since she left New Delhi with a parched throat because we failed to quench her thirst for Teesta waters. Her actions on her return to Dhaka after the state visit to India are significant. But for starters let’s dissect Bangladesh’s agenda in May.

This month Bangladesh will participate with great enthusiasm in the grand One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit China is hosting in Beijing. Not only has Narendra Modi turned down an invitation to the event but he is unlikely to even send a representative. India is boycotting OBOR as one of its key arteries, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Xinjiang to Gwadar port runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. If we give in to Chinese entreaties, we would legitimise the joint illegal occupation of our territory by Pakistan and China.

But Bangladesh, which will be represented by Hasina or senior Awami League leaders and top government officials, has no reservations about jumping onto the OBOR bandwagon. The world’s 47th largest economy in our backyard publicly romancing the second largest sends a rather grim message. And that’s not all.

In May, Bangladesh will participate in a meeting of Defence Ministers of Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 41 Sunni Muslim countries for fighting terrorism and extremism. But the IMA Commander-in-Chief is Pakistan’s recently retired General Raheel Sharif who, incidentally, derived great pleasure from bleeding India during his tenure as army chief. And that General Sharif has summoned defence ministers to Riyadh to chalk out the “Muslim NATO’s” structure and modalities. As Hasina retains the defence portfolio, either she will fly to Riyadh or dispatch her Defence & Security Advisor, retired Major General Tariq Ahmed Siddiqui. Both scenarios will displease New Delhi immensely. But what can it do except grin and bear it!

Now let’s rewind to April. Within a day of returning from her botched up trip to India, she surrendered before Hefazat-e-Islam, or Protectorate of Islam, giving in to a hardline Islamist group’s demand to remove a  statue of the goddess of justice from the Supreme Court in Dhaka. The statue, a sari-clad version of the blindfolded Greek goddess Themis found in courtrooms the world over, was sculpted by a top Bangladeshi artist, Mrinal Haque, and Surendra Kumar Sinha, the Hindu Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over its inauguration in December 2016. Hefazat and other right-wing outfits immediately launched a campaign against the “idol” insisting that it was against the tenets of Islam.

But the “idol” became a test case for upholding secular and liberal values in the predominantly Muslim country. Countless intellectuals—invariably Muslims—urged Hasina not to give in to fundamentalists. Like any good politician, Hasina kept her counsel. Her silence seemed to indicate that as her own reputation as a progressive administrator was at stake, she would hold her ground come what may. But on April 11 she invited the Hefazat chief, Shah Ahmad Shafi along with representatives of various Islamic outfits to her residence and announced that she “disliked” the statue and would talk to Justice Sinha about it. Speaking on the occasion, cleric Fariduddin Masud ecstatically called Hasina the political head of the state and Shafi the religious head of Bangladesh.

The removal of the statue is now a certainty. But Hasina declared a bonus too! She announced her government’s decision to recognize degrees from madrassas, or Islamic educational institutions, paving the way for millions of madrassa products to qualify for jobs in public and private sectors. This has shocked secular groups, who consider it further evidence of creeping Islamisation.

The appeasement of Hefazat is clearly a watershed in Hasina’s long innings in power. Hefazat wants enactment of Pakistan-style blasphemy laws, expulsion of Ahmediyas from the Islamic fold and introduction of Shariat laws rule in Bangladesh. When 17 poems and stories were recently removed from school textbooks on the grounds that they were either atheistic or promoted Hindu culture, no one had an inkling of the compromises to come.

I don’t think that India can wash its hands of Hasina’s capitulation domestically or externally. She has to fend for herself after New Delhi’s betrayal. Let’s admit it that Hasina returned to Bangladesh empty-handed. She came to India knowing fully well that the Teesta River water-sharing treaty wasn’t going to be signed in April. But she was given a solemn assurance that ‘Big Brother’ India would handle the crucial water-sharing issue with such finesse that her countrymen would believe that the Teesta Treaty is going to land in Hasina’s bag in no time.

But Modi and Sushma Swaraj had not factored in an angry Mamata Banerjee who was looking for an opportunity to prove to the whole world that as Chief Minister she doesn’t necessarily take orders from the Prime Minister! So, without mincing her words, Mamata announced during Hasina’s visit that the question of sharing the Teesta waters with Bangladesh doesn’t arise as there isn’t enough water even for West Bengal. Whatever Modi said subsequently to repair the damage didn’t mean a thing after Mamata's stand. She had the last word and the last laugh—and her popularity in West Bengal shot up for safeguarding the state’s interest.

New Delhi is guilty of not doing its homework before inviting Hasina. Let alone gauge Mamata's mood, the Centre didn’t seriously pursue the idea of augmenting the Teesta flow through the Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga canal conceived under the Himalayan component of India’s River Linking Project. These failures account for Hasina’s post-visit behaviour which has a direct bearing on India’s national interests.

S N M Abdi

Award-winning journalist and commentator based in Kolkata



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