Published: December 10, 2012 - 14:27 Updated: December 18, 2012 - 16:30

There is a new verve of change and empowerment in the air in ‘secular’ Bangladesh. And India’s creative engagement can mark a turning point

Sanjay Kapoor Dhaka 

Dhaka traffic jams are legendary. During peak hours—and that is 24/7—traffic moves at a pace that can at times be measured on a six-inch scale. The only time this heaving city of 17 million empties out is during the holy festival celebration of
Eid-ul-Zuha—the day when the faithful sacrifice animals.

For ordinary people it is an occasion to spend time with their families, shop for new clothes and eat Eid food and delicacies. The big news in the Bangladeshi newspapers before the day of sacrifice is about the movement of lakhs of sacrificial animals to the capital, and how, again, they are causing traffic jams. According to official estimates, about 30 lakh animals were sacrificed this year compared to 23 lakhs last year.

“There would have been more qurbani (sacrifice) of animals if people were richer. The majority just cannot afford the high price of the animal,” explained a local, standing in a queue outside the fancy Gulshan Club to collect Eid alms or Eidi.

Two weeks earlier, the Hindus of Bangladesh celebrated Durga Puja with colour, pomp and gusto. About 23,000 Durga Puja pandals were set up in the city. This was followed by Dussehra. Street festivals passed off peacefully. “Dhaka’s Durga Puja is celebrated in a manner that is different from that of Kolkata, and those cultural differences are preserved here,” explained a Hindu Bangladeshi.

The hike in the number of animal sacrifices and the peaceful conduct of the festivals provide a firm indication that the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, despite allegations of governance deficit, is doing a few things right. First, the economy, despite the global slowdown, maintains a robust 6 per cent, the impact of which can be felt on the ground; the other, more compelling issue, is that of law and order. 

Women working in the garment industry, as well professionals, mark an open expression of women’s empowerment. They serve as a living, secular challenge to the Islamist orthodoxy unleashed by hardliners

Peaceful celebrations of festivals in a plural society are an important test for any administration. It is more so in Bangladesh where Islamist forces are aggressively trying to challenge the secular, plural culture of this country. Some time back these forces of atavism had bared their hand in Cox Bazaar where historic Buddhist shrines that housed valuable manuscripts were torched as retaliation against the violence against Muslim Rohingiyas in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Awami League government promised to rebuild the destroyed shrines.

Women working in the massive garment industry, as well as professionals in the government and private sector, and also NGOs, mark an open expression of women’s empowerment. They serve as a living, secular challenge to the Islamist orthodoxy unleashed
by hardliners.

However, the challenge to preserve the secular soul has proved to be unrelenting ever since the country gained freedom in 1971. In the last 40 years of independence, many of the issues that proved to be the raison d’être of the freedom movement led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, remain unresolved. These pertain to both its relationship with India and its identity. (see pg 20)

These dilemmas have shaped Bangladesh’s past and cast their imprint on the future; that is, till India abandons much of its approach of the past and gets down to ironing out all the creases and bumps that have developed in this relationship. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conscious attempt to meet half-way with Sheikh Hasina to sort out river water and territory disputes and restore connectivity between the two countries and pass on its dividends to the people trapped in poverty, could be a major game-changer. 

In many ways, Bangladesh, in the act of its creation, destroyed and undid the Partition project of Mohammed Ali Jinnah where he had claimed that Hindus and Muslims are two different cultures and cannot stay together. During the run-up to the brutal crackdown unleashed by the Pakistani Army in 1971, it was evident to the Awami League and its supporters that West Pakistan, as it was known then, had little respect for Bangla culture or its aspirations. Expectedly, the Pakistani Army went about brutally imposing their version of how Pakistani society should conduct itself. Pakistan believed that the Bangla identity was a Hindu one, a fact disputed by many political scientists.

With the return of Hasina in 2008, a lot of unresolved issues are sought to be corrected. The first decision with serious implications is the war crimes trial of those who collaborated with the Pakistani Army 

During the organised crackdown and brutality against Bangla nationalists, Pakistani forces targetted the Hindu population, intellectuals and those who were proud of Bangla language and culture. They sought to ethnically cleanse all the Hindus, leading to mass exodus to India. As the Pakistani Army justified its actions with a religious mandate, they got help from razakars and members of the Jamaat in killing thousands of people. Rape was used as an instrument to bring shame and humiliation to a people that did not agree with Pakistan’s version of building an Islamic society. (see pg 24)

To escape the genocide, 10 million people crossed over to India. A generation of Indians growing up in the 1970s learnt the meaning of philanthropy when they organised clothes and food for Bangladeshi refugees. Due to Pakistan’s presence in the Commonwealth and its proximity to the US, its crimes were ignored till India militarily intervened and liberated Bangladesh in a 14-day war.

Sheikh Mujib declared Bangladesh a secular society and made ties with India the cornerstone of its foreign policy. In 1975, he and his family were brutally assassinated and pro-Islamic forces returned to power; they beefed up all those forces that opposed the country’s liberation and collaborated in the genocide. With the return of such forces, relations with India remained mired in suspicion and mistrust. A large mass of people living in poverty in northeast India and Bangladesh remained trapped in politics that did not allow connectivity and thus any economic engagement.

Bangladesh, too, was fed on a heavy dose of anti-Indian-ism triggered by the decision to build the Farakka barrage. ‘Bombastic nationalism’ brought greater grief to a country devastated by natural calamities and poor economic growth. Indian investments were spurned for specious reasons.

With the return of Sheikh Hasina in 2008, a lot of unresolved issues are sought to be corrected. The first decision with serious implications is the war crimes trial of those who collaborated with the Pakistani Army. Many of these Jamaat members were beneficiaries of an independent Bangladesh and never paid for their inhuman crimes. Expectedly, the trial is attracting criticism, but it is believed that the sentence will be announced much before the 2013 elections. 

Mamata Banerjee’s move to block the Teesta accord was a serious dampener. Bangladesh’s strategic community was livid with the inability of Manmohan Singh to have his way. “Indian policy making has become fractured,” claimed ex-ambassador Humayun Kabir 

The Jamaat leadership, which has sustained the rival party of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Begun Khaleda Zia, could be hurt. It is the Jamaat that provides the ideological fodder to the BNP against India and nudges the BNP to Islamise the society. (see pg 26) From this standpoint the recent visit of Khaleda Zia to India suggests that she is reconfiguring her divisive politics. (see pg 33)

Sheikh Hasina has worked on building a close relationship with India. She sorted out the biggest irritant by refusing to provide refuge to militants and anti-India groupings. Some key leaders of ULFA were handed over
to India.

During her visit to India in 2010, she was offered a $1 billion credit line —the biggest India has offered to any country. She promised connectivity and transit facilities to undo the colossal damage that partition had done to the eastern part of South Asia. Manmohan Singh reciprocated the visit in September 2011, which was to be an epochal visit, till the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, backed out on the Teesta accord.

Banerjee’s move was a serious dampener. Expectedly, the transit rights were put on hold. Bangladesh’s strategic community has been livid with the inability of Manmohan Singh to have his way. “Indian policy making has become fractured,” claimed
ex-ambassador Humayun Kabir of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. (see pg 46)

Indians have tried to cushion the blow by removing the non-tariff barriers and helping Bangladesh reduce its balance of trade with India. At present, the deficit is a considerable $4.74 billion. The Indian government has lowered the rate of interest on credit line and offered $200 million as grant. It is supplying power and opened up the land route for Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan. High-level visits are taking place between both the countries to forge deeper ties.


Bangladesh recognises that greater integration with the Indian economy will boost its economy which is cruising at around 6 per cent. With connectivity and the signing of Free Trade Agreement, a move opposed by Bangladesh, the component of trade between the two countries will go up from 4.5 per cent of the overall South Asian trade to 11 per cent.

Bangladesh can be a big beneficiary of the improvement in ties, but there is a big business lobby that continues to harp that they would be swamped by Indian goods. This anti-India lobby finds sustenance in the poor optics put out by India, when its Border Security Force (BSF) shoots down those trying to cross over to India. To check illegal immigrants, the Indian government has put a barbed fence along much of the 4,096-km border. Many of those who earned a livelihood by moving through this continuous landmass have suffered badly.

For instance, a community of Muslim Behdas are familiar with Hindu rituals. They travel all over India and entertain during festivals. The aggressive campaign by Hindu nationalist outfits about Bangladeshis changing the demographic profile of Assam and other areas prevents the Indian government and
other agencies from taking a more humanitarian view.

The Indian government’s inability to fulfil part of its promise on the Teesta — a development that would have bolstered its image and profile among the people of Bangladesh, besides improving Hasina’s prospect for a re-election — is a clear setback. There is also the issue of corruption. In recent months, newspapers in Dhaka have reported nothing but corruption scandals.

What has sullied the Sheikh Hasina government’s reputation is the manner in which the World Bank stopped the funding for the 4-km $1.2 billion Padma River Bridge project on charges of corruption. The bank insisted that one of her advisors be removed. Some arrests, too, have taken place of people considered to be influential in the government.

Governance is a big issue, but the government is failing to provide a fix to it. Expectedly, NGOs like Grameen and BRAC fulfil critical responsibilities of providing education and microfinance. (see pg 18) Grameen’s founder, Muhammad Yunus is running foul of this government; this has given the regime a bad name. The cancellation of the bank project is also linked to ‘l’affaire Yunus’.

Despite all the corruption scandals and the problems that this government faces, a lot of good has happened under the rule of the Awami League. Although the Indian government has tried to break the earlier paradigm of one-state-one-party relationship by reviving ties with the BNP, there are little guarantees that the party will not resort to its anti-India, pro-Islamic rhetoric. (see pg 41)

Significantly, India has decided to remain politically and economically engaged with Bangladesh. This will go a long way in creating tangible grounds for changing the face of South Asia.  

Bangladesh at a glance

Area: 143,998 sq km

Land: 130,168 sq km

Water: 13,830 sq km

Land boundaries: 4,246 km

Border countries: Burma (193 km), India (4,053 km)

Ethnic groups: Bengali: 98 per cent, others (tribals and non-Bengali Muslims) 2 per cent

Religious diversity: 89.5 per cent Muslims, 9.6 per cent Hindus, 0.9 per cent others

Population: 16,10,83,804

Sex ratio: .95 males to 1 female

Maternal mortality rate: 240 deaths per 1,00,000 live births

Infant mortality rate: 48.99 deaths per 1,000 live births

Underweight children (0-5 years): 41.3 per cent

Literacy rate: 56.8 per cent

GDP (purchasing power parity): $283.5 billion

GDP (official exchange rate): $112 billion

GDP (per capita): $1,900

GDP( real growth rate): 6.5 per cent

GDP (composition by sector): agriculture—18.3 per cent; industry—28.3 per cent; service—53.4 per cent

Population below poverty line: 31.51 per cent

Source: CIA world factbook

There is a new verve of change and empowerment in the air in ‘secular’ Bangladesh. And India’s creative engagement can mark a turning point
Sanjay Kapoor Dhaka 

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