Bangladesh, in recent decades, has been ruled by two women. The first one, Khaleda Zia, led a regime that was corrupt, anti-Indian and governed with the fundamentalist Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, before she lost power. Sheikh Hasina, who came in next, was not very different. But despite allegations of corruption and a growing autocratic way cropping up against her, it was her avowed commitment to secularism that made the Awami League leader India’s preferred choice as an ally.
For New Delhi, backing Hasina meant safeguarding the interest of Hindus, while taking care of India’s security priority in keeping the eastern flank stable.
That position of comfort and dependability is being questioned by many in Bangladesh and India. They want New Delhi to review its decade-long position and deal with the emerging reality in Dhaka.
The discomfiture stems from the Bangladesh prime minister’s recent cosiness with radical Islamic groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam—which demands imposition of stricter Islamic law, including a blasphemy code—and has started worrying liberal sections in Bangladesh as well as the Indian foreign policy establishment.
Many wonder if this budding entente with Islamists is just part of an Awami League tactic to face the challenge of the year-end parliamentary polls. The worse fear, of course, remains that of Hefazat members eventually exerting significant influence over government policies to fundamentally alter the pluralistic nature of Bangladeshi society.
“There is an intense debate within the Awami League government over this crucial issue,” says information minister Hasanul Haq Inu. Other Awami League insiders also admit that the PM’s tactic vis-a-vis the Hefazat has created consternation within...