Did India actually bankroll Sheikh Hasina to win 2008 polls?
By Rajeev Sharma
British weekly The Economist in its recent issue (July 31 – August 5) carried a report under the heading ‘India and Bangladesh: Embraceable You’, questioning India- Bangladesh relations, emergence of Bangladesh, the genocide perpetrated by Pakistani occupation army in 1971 and the trial process of the collaborators of Pakistani occupying forces and war criminals of 1971. The report, high on rhetoric and low on hard evidence, has brought out serious allegations that Indian Government sponsored the Awami League with money and advice to win the 2008 elections.
The Indian National Congress and Awami League (AL) of Bangladesh enjoy some compatibility as both champion democracy. The British weekly’s unsubstantiated charge that the Congress-led UPA Government of India provided monetary support to AL to win elections in 2008 is outlandish and harms the credibility of the respected magazine. The Economist seems to be ignorant that the international community has already certified the last parliamentary elections held in December 2008 as the fairest election in the history of independent Bangladesh and through this election the AL returned to power with a resounding majority. Neutral observers, and world media unanimously acclaimed the free, fair and transparent elections of 2008 in Bangladesh. No major objection was raised by any of the opponents. But how, after more than two and half years, The Economist could bring up such a wild and baseless allegation?
This report has definitely undermined and in fact embarrassed both India and Bangladesh. The two countries have every reason to question validity and authenticity of the report. This is more pertinent at this moment since the two friendly SAARC neighbours after years of mistrust and disbelief have initiated positive measures to resolve several outstanding issues – water sharing, enclave exchange, joint actions against terrorists, boundary disputes resolution, regional connectivity, trade rationalisation. Some issues were fundamentally agreed during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010 and most of the others are at advanced stage for meeting of minds of the highest level at the upcoming summit of two heads of government in Dhaka in September 2011.
The report even referred to the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s recent visit to Dhaka in a satirical manner. Sonia was in Dhaka on invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to attend an international seminar on autistics children and to receive the highest civilian award (Posthumous) on behalf of late Indira Gandhi for her immense contribution during the liberation war. There cannot be any question if the chief of the two ruling political parties share ideas and opinions on the regional politics and government affairs anytime anywhere.
The report also questioned the crackdown on militant groups and terrorists by Bangladesh Government. The section of the report may be quoted here:
‘Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh, relations with India have blossomed. To Indian delight, Bangladesh has cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India’s home-grown terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen, as well as on vociferous Islamist (and anti-Indian) politicians in the country. India feels that bit safer’.
During the period 2001 – 2006 Bangladesh became safe haven for terrorists. Former Finance Minister SAMS Kibria and AL MP Ahsanullah Master were killed by grenade attacks. Attacks were carried out on the British High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Mayor of Sylhet, and AL MP Suranjit Sen Gupta. Finally, terrorists under state sponsorship killed several Awami League leaders including wife of Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman in a carnage and mayhem in front of Awami League Central office at the heart of the capital city in 2004. The terrorists became so organised that they could carry out simultaneous grenade explosion in 64 of the country’s 65 districts in a synchronised manner. Advent of suicide bombers also came to notice during this period. People were killed at court buildings and cinema halls. Demands were made for introduction of ‘Allah’s laws’ instead of man-made laws in the country. Pakistani intelligence agency ISI set up training camps and safe shelter within Bangladesh for training terrorists and providing deadly weapons to carry out subversive activities within Bangladesh and India. A huge arms haul was seized at CUFL Jetty of Chittagong which was meant to be transited through Bangladesh for the Indian insurgent group ULFA.
Present AL led government very courageously took appropriate actions against the terrorists and the Indian insurgent groups that were operating with impunity in Bangladesh. The Government has also initiated actions to authentically probe all acts of terrorism of the past. Instead of admiring the efforts initiated by the AL led Government, The Economist report has unfortunately preferred to criticise the praise-worthy actions of the Bangladesh Government.
The saddest part of the report is that it questions the motive behind Bangladesh Government’s initiative to bring the 1971 war criminals to justice. There can be any or many difference of opinion about the process of conducting trial of the war criminals. In fact, it is a long term legitimate demand of the Bangladeshis to try and punish the collaborators of Pakistan Army for carrying out genocide, rape and looting in 1971. The Economist has unfortunately advocated for the war criminals presently under custody. The intent and purpose of the report is obnoxious and ill-motivated and intended to subvert the process of war crimes trial initiated by the Bangladesh Government.
Jamaat-e-Islami is a coalition partner of the BNP and as such BNP will never pursue war crimes trial. That leaves only the AL to bring the war criminals to justice. But, The Economist report states that ‘the upcoming trials over the events of 1971 are being used as a path to justice to crush an opposition political party Jamaat-e-Islami’. The suggestion of The Economist that these trials are a witch hunt compromises the validity and effectiveness of the rule of law and justice. The fact that there is widespread desire among the people to bring the war criminals to justice simply cannot be ignored. This was one of the major election commitments of the AL before the 2008 elections for which the party secured massive public mandate.
The report also questioned about the resolution process of various outstanding bilateral issues. It has questioned regional connectivity. Bangladesh cannot deny its geographical reality. The country is surrounded by India from three sides. Any regional connectivity will benefit both the nations. If India can connect with its North East through transit, how will it harm Bangladesh? This connectivity is for trade and commerce only and India will certainly not transport arms and ammunition through the corridor.
India and Bangladesh will do well to ignore The Economist report which seeks to sow seeds of suspicion and distrust in their bilateral ties. It is a crass attempt to thwart peace efforts in South Asia. In fact, the uncharitable report is a confirmation that the two neighbours are on the right track and they need to keep up this momentum.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst and a journalist-author who regularly writes in a dozen-odd leading Indian and international media outlets.)