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The other guilty neighbour
September 23, 2003
That was my first reaction when I came across the article inEmbassy Row, the Washington Times column.
Titled 'Terror in Bangladesh,' the article begins by contending that 'Bangladesh promotes itself as a 'moderate, progressive and democratic Muslim country,' but a leading human rights activist from the South Asian nation says it is a land of terror for many of its Hindu, Buddhist and Christian citizens.'
It then goes on to quote Rosaline Costa, director of Hotline Bangladesh and a former nun, as saying that 'in the Bhola islands on the southern coast of the country, 98 per cent of Hindu women interviewed had been raped by Muslim thugs.'
A former nun, Ms Costa 'has turned down offers to emigrate for her own safety, saying she prefers to stay in the land of her birth and monitor what she says is a rising tide of killings, maimings, beatings, land grabs, destruction of homes, vandalism, extortion and destruction of temples and churches,' it says.
This is a nation which would still be an oppressed part of Pakistan if India had not helped free it in 1971. This is a nation which India can drown or dry out with a turn of the tap at Farakka.
And this is a nation where Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her supporting cast of Islamists came to power on an anti-India platform.
Politically, the earlier Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, was always seen as being closer to India. Her opposition capitalised on that fact, by claiming she was selling out the nation to big brother India.
Yet it was during Sheikh Hasina's tenure that a border clash led to the unforgettable pictures of BSF soldiers tied like animals to poles being removed by the Bangladeshi Rifles. 16 Indian soldiers were killed in that clash, which the external affairs ministry later described as 'local adventurism,' thereby absolving Dhaka of any guilt.
In 'the general election in October 2001, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami emerged as Bangladesh's third largest party, capturing 17 seats in the 300-strong parliament' says a May 2002 report in Jane's Intelligence Review.
'The Society for Environment and Human Development, a well-respected local non-governmental organisation, quotes a local report that says non-Muslim minorities have suffered as a result: 'The intimidation of the minorities, which had begun before the election, became worse afterwards.' Amnesty International reported in December 2001 that Hindus -- who make up less than 10% of Bangladesh's population of 130 million -- in particular have come under attack. Hindu places of worship have been ransacked, villages destroyed and more than 100 Hindu women are reported to have been raped, says the report.
This, obviously, added to the flood of refugees who seek a better life in India streaming across the 4,096 km border, India's longest with any neighbour.
In January last year, US and Indian intelligence agencies suspected the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami -- Bangladesh's main militant outfit, of being behind the attack on the USIS building in Kolkata. The group is said to have strong links with fundamentalist Muslim outfits in West Bengal and Assam. And until the US attack on terror began, HUJI was known as the 'Bangladeshi Taliban.'
In July last year, Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharraf was accorded a red carpet treatment in Dhaka, followed immediately by reports of renewed cooperation between Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and Pakistan's ISI. Though these ties existed informally even after Bangladesh was 'liberated,' Musharraf's visit reportedly kicked the interaction to a 'much higher level, mostly directed against India.'
Yet, despite all the provocation, New Delhi firmly believes that diplomacy rather than belligerence is the answer. That boosting economic ties and political ties with Dhaka would ultimately give it the leverage needed to convince Dhaka to cease and desist. Overt coercion would only foster and fuel the anti-India feeling further, argue officials. Quiet, subtle diplomacy rather than the gunboat kind is the order of the day. Hence the inauguration of a Dhaka-Agartala bus route recently. Hence the issuing of nearly 3,000 Indian visas every day from our missions in Bangladesh.
The question, of course, is how long will this take?
India has given Dhaka a list of nearly a hundred terrorist camps operating on Bangladeshi soil, mostly northeastern rebel groups who attack and fade back across the border. Dhaka, like our western neighbour Pakistan, denies such camps exist. Indian intelligence officials have also repeatedly voiced concerned over the large number of madrassas springing up almost daily along the border. But fears of a minority backlash seems to have prevented much action on that front. No marks for guessing how Bangladesh would react if a temple a day started springing up inside their borders.
'For the time being Bangladesh's secular roots are holding, but the fundamentalist cause is in the ascendant. And as the rise of militant Muslim groups in Indonesia has shown, economic collapse and political crisis can galvanize support for extremists very quickly,' theFar Eastern Economic Review warned in April last year.
'The process is not irreversible, but if left unchallenged for too long, Bangladesh could deteriorate and become a new nest for terror. There is still time for a counter-revolution,' it concluded.
Bangladesh, of course, is still known more for the annual floods that devastates three fourths of the country rather than Islamic fundamentalism. But general poverty and the perceived realignment of the world into religious rather than idealistic blocs post 9/11 has led to a spurt in the growth of radical Islam. Many closet Islamists are coming out of the cold to find supporters. And Pakistan's ISI has been quick to take advantage of this. Which is why I was not surprised to learn that the explosives used in the Mumbai blasts had come from Bangladesh.
In anearlier column, I had argued that India needed to convince the Bangladesh government that developing ties with India would be far more beneficial than those with Pakistan. That we also needed to check our own politicians who encourage, aid and abet the influx of Bangladeshi refugees since they apparently form a vote bank.
(The fact that I received only six responses to that article made me believe that the issue was a dead one. )
When I mailed the Washington Times item to an old school friend who lives in Dhaka, he replied that the common man is perturbed by the rising fundamentalism and political instability in his country, but that things were not half as bad as made out by the Indian media. He also claimed that Bangladesh had always been a 'tolerant' nation, and that the attacks on minorities were exceptions rather than the rule.
However, the political rise of the Jaamat had encouraged the growth of various fundamentalist outfits all over the nation, and the government, perpetually besieged by the opposition, seemed powerless to do much about it, he said.
While admitting that it would be political suicide for Khaleda to ever be perceived as being close to India, he believed that privately, efforts were being made to assuage Indian concerns. All India needed to do 'was to be patient,' he urged.
I am not sure that Rosaline Costa would agree.Ramananda Sengupta