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When Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf arrives in Bangladesh on a three-day official visit on July 29, he'll be assured of a rousing reception by the government. Ironically, though, he'll also encounter street demonstrations, reflecting the uneasy ties between Dhaka and Islamabad even 30 years after Bangladesh wrested freedom. Those who plan to protest are no doubt small political outfits—the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and the Nirmul Committee—and thus can't possibly overshadow the Pakistani leader's first visit to this country.
But they have raised doubts about Dhaka's intentions in inviting Musharraf at a time he's under fire in his own country for subverting democracy. Many here are asking if the visit is intended to grant the military dictator legitimacy. Or if it's a signal to New Delhi of the government's displeasure with India.
The officials, of course, rubbish these doubts. But foreign minister Morshed Khan did clarify that Bangladesh doesn't want to grant legitimacy to any dictator, that "it (democracy) is entirely an internal matter of Pakistan and its people". He further said that Musharraf's visit was in response to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's open invitation to SAARC leaders at the Kathmandu summit early this year. "We are ready to embrace any leader who wants to come here," he said.
Diplomatic observers, though, are sceptical. A former Bangladesh high commissioner to India, Mostafa Faruque Mohammed, feels New Delhi does have reason to be upset as it "wants to isolate Musharraf in its current battle. There's no reason for them to feel happy when the man they love to hate is being warmly courted".
Others brush aside New Delhi's sensitivity to claim that this is the moment for Dhaka to extract concessions from Musharraf. Diplomat-turned-columnist Mohiuddin Ahmed feels Dhaka can resolve long-standing bilateral issues like the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis and asset sharing. More importantly, it can take practical lessons from Musharraf in countering fundamentalism—a virus that plagues this country too.
But even Ahmed cautions Dhaka against the possibility of Gen Musharraf exploiting the visit to activate the ISI network here through Jamaat-e-Islami elements in the government. Not only is the Jamaat part of the government, there are also elements in the ruling BNP hierarchy who do not shirk from publicly taking an anti-India stance.
Some public statements of important cabinet members underscore this. Home minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury said in March that India still believed in creating Akhand Bharat through the annexation of territories from the Khyber Pass to Chittagong and from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. And the foreign minister in February, while addressing a gathering in London, had said, "India must drop its big brotherly attitude for the sake of regional peace and security." He called upon Delhi to "live and let live", for a spouse can be divorced, not neighbours.
In January, diplomatic sources say communications minister Nazmul Huda even told an Indian diplomat, rather bluntly, that in consonance with the BNP's publicly-stated policy, Bangladesh's existing agreement with India would be reviewed even at the expense of compromising national interest. No wonder, the agreements on the Dhaka-Agartala bus service and the Calcutta-Benapole passenger train service haven't been implemented.
If India is unhappy about these developments, its diplomats are not showing it. Indian high commissioner Manilal Tripathi is emphatic: "What kind of relations Bangladesh wants to have with Pakistan is an internal matter and we're not concerned."
Analysts, however, attribute India's unperturbed stance to the huge trade surplus it has against Bangladesh."They don't want to upset the present arrangement that's made Bangladesh a huge market," says Ahmed. But this trade imbalance has severely strained relations between the two countries, prompting Bangladesh to demand duty-free access to the Indian market for some of its goods. Following prolonged negotiations, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee announced three years ago that India won't levy duties on 25 Bangla items. But the decision is yet to be implemented.
Which only fans the belief here that India wants to destroy Bangladesh economically. "As a big neighbour India must show the magnanimity to grant some concessions," says Ahmed. The popular image of India as predator leads many to believe that Musharraf's visit could be the start of the two countries coordinating foreign policy to counter their giant neighbour.