One evening last week, the national television showed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handing out cheques of Taka one lakh each to the families of the three Bangladesh Rifles (bdr) personnel killed in the recent clashes with the Indian bsf. On her side was bdr chief Maj Gen Fazlur Rahman.
This was Rahman's first public appearance nearly a week after the Bangladesh government bungled in trying to distance itself from the bdr action in which 16 bsf men were killed. Maj Gen Rahman was then cast as a villain whose action didn't have prime ministerial endorsement. His 'rehabilitation' last week is seen as an attempt to placate the army which might have felt let down by the way Rahman was made a scapegoat.
The government's ambivalence over the bdr action, analysts say, could have adversely affected the morale of the troops. Says Maj Gen (retd) Moinul Hossain Chowdhury: "No sensible government should try to indulge in that kind of suicidal game."
More importantly, the television image, many believe, was an attempt to repair the damage caused to the ruling Awami League in general and the prime minister in particular. For supposedly being too eager to please New Delhi. This perception was further reinforced when Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh claimed that the bdr had acted alone and without Dhaka's approval.
"This is extremely damaging to her political career and she can't afford to carry such a burden at a time when the election is just around the corner," says Shahidul Haq Munshi, a political scientist at Dhaka University.
In an apparent attempt to further allay public suspicion, Hasina praised the bdr personnel for their bold action to defend the border saying they acted in self-defence—an assertion intended to put the blame on the bsf for their incursions into Bangladesh.
Foreign secretary Syed Moazzem Ali publicly said the bdr moved into Padua (Pyrdiwah to Indians)—the Bangladeshi village which the bsf has kept under its control since 1971—after the latter began construction of a road to connect Padua with the Indian territory violating international law, which prohibits any construction within 150 metres of the zero line. The recapture of Padua saw the bsf retaliate at Roumari (or Boraibari), 300 km from Padua, in which 16 border guards were killed.
Analysts say the episode and its aftermath once again highlight the India factor that remains crucial here even after 30 years of independence, albeit negatively. "It's unfortunate that India is still seen here as an adversary and it's largely because of their big brotherly attitude," says popular columnist Nirmal Sen. Criticising the successive governments in New Delhi for squandering the enormous goodwill generated by the crucial Indian support for Bangladesh's independence movement, Sen says even in the initial days of liberation (1971), the widespread plunder Indian soldiers resorted to horrified and alienated the people.
Political analyst Serajul Chowdhury avers that even before they could recover from this shock, Bangladeshis saw a new brand of colonialists in the form of Marwari Indian businessmen flooding the local market with substandard goods. This only bolstered the perception that pure altruism wasn't the reason why India helped it in the Liberation War against Pakistan.
The bond of friendship between the two countries was further strained when India failed to honour the treaty it signed with Bangladesh for resolving the border disputes. While Dhaka ratified the treaty immediately after the Mujib-Indira pact was signed in 1974, New Delhi is yet to act upon it.
The border dispute remains a major irritant between the two countries, sparking skirmishes in which hundreds of lives have been lost. Until the latest flare-up, no one really took note, especially the Indians, that there had been 53 clashes in the past two years alone in which 45 Bangladeshis, including two bdr men, were killed. The Indian casualties were less than 10. Dhaka on several occasions lodged protests with the Indian government, summoned its high commissioner six times and demanded compensation. India didn't even regret the bsf actions. Sen says that the reason for the hue and cry over the recent border incident is only because India suffered heavy casualties, something it finds hard to accept.