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India Should Revisit Its Bangladesh Strategy: Bangladesh Opposition Leader Writes

India’s role in keeping the regime of Sheikh Hasina in power has irked most Bangladeshis who are venting their anger in every possible way, A K M Wahiduzzaman writes

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Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) activists take part in a rally in Dhaka on October 18, 2023
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Bangladesh's main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has decided to boycott the January 7 parliamentary election, arguing that for the election to be free and fair, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must first step down and hand over charge to a neutral caretaker government. The ruling party, Hasina's Awami League (AL), has ruled it out, arguing there is no constitutional provision for such an arrangement. 

The politics around the Bangladesh election took an interesting turn in May after the U.S. started displaying an active interest in ensuring a free and fair election. India maintained silence while watching the developments closely for a few months. In Bangladesh, many BNP leaders hoped the U.S. activities around the Bangladesh election would also lead to India exerting pressure on Bangladesh to ensure a free and fair election. The usual anti-India tone of Bangladesh's opposition leaders was missing for some time. 

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However, after China started displaying a pro-Hasina stance, India broke its silence in November, with foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra terming the Bangladesh election as the country's "domestic affair."  This meant India was not going to interfere. This upset and angered the BNP, which was hoping for India to change its mind and pressurise the AL, which is otherwise known as a trusted ally. 

In this following essay, A K M Wahiduzzaman, the BNP's Information and Technology affairs secretary, narrates why the party thinks India should revisit its Bangladesh's policy. 

-- A K M Wahiduzzaman

“We all wanted India's defeat. Our happiness is more about India's loss than's Australia victory,” said a cricket fan while celebrating with his fellows India’s defeat in the Cricket World Cup 2023 final in November. “We are celebrating Eid today,” added another fan.

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While Indians, including political analysts and journalists, are offering a range of explanations referring to India’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation war, they are turning a blind eye to the most persistent issue that needs to be addressed to understand the growing anti-Indian hatred.

Violent crackdown on the protestors

Sharmeen Murshid, the chief executive officer of the election observation group Brotee, shared a telling story in a discussion organised by Bangladesh’s The Hunger Project. It was about opposition leaders and activists of a village who had to flee their homes as the leaders of Awami League, the ruling party, were guiding the police to their homes to arrest them. When they did not find the BNP men in their homes, police arrested other family members who were not involved in politics. 

“I saw this in Ekattor (during the 1971 liberation war). From when did supporting the opposition party become a criminal offence (in Bangladesh)?” she asked during the discussion. In 1971, during the war, the Rajakars used to guide the Pakistani military to find the homes of freedom fighters and if they could not find the men they were looking for, they used to take away their family members.

Since October 28, after a BNP rally demanding democratic reforms was foiled by Police, Bangladesh has jailed around 20,000 opposition activists. The total number of inmates in jail is almost 2.5 times the capacity as the arrest spree continues targeting the opposition, mostly BNP leaders and activists, supported by Awami League leaders. Besides, attacks on opposition men, their homes and business offices by masked Awami League men and police are on the rise. Several BNP leaders have died in those attacks. Three BNP leaders have died in one of the jails within a week.

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The systematic oppression against the opposition parties, particularly the BNP, ahead of the election is no new. A recent interactive report by Netra News revealed how before the last two lopsided elections, in January 2014 and December 2018, extrajudicial deaths increased manifolds compared to other years. 

Killing dissenters in Bangladesh went so far that the U.S. Department of Treasury had to impose sanctions on Bangladesh’s brutal security force RAB and made CTTC ineligible for support because of their involvement in human rights violations.

India on the wrong side again?

Thanks to the speeches from AL’s senior leaders, the public perception is that this war against pro-democracy protestors, particularly on BNP, who are asking for the restoration of the right to suffrage, by the ruling AL government ahead of elections, is backed by India. 

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Even in 2023, while the U.S. took some strategic steps to ensure fair polls in Bangladesh and the EU warned of possible consequences of an unfair poll, India played the “neutral” card by calling the election an internal matter. 

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” India chose to stay on the side of the oppressor in Bangladesh, i.e. the ruling Awami League, who not only is hunting pro-democracy activists of BNP but also denied Bangladeshi people of their voting rights by holding two flawed elections in 2014 and 2018, that lacked legitimacy, according to around 200 global leaders.

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As it stands, unlike 1971, when India backed the aspiration of Bangladeshis for freedom, India is siding with the ones who are against the struggle for Bangladeshis' freedom by bringing in democratic reforms to hold a free and fair election in 2024. 

This is a repeat of their role in 2014 and 2018. It is no secret, thanks to the autobiography of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, that India took AL’s side in the 2014 election, which left around 80 per cent of the population disenfranchised, and then again in 2018 which is known as the “Night Vote” because of the popular allegation that the vote boxes were stuffed in the night before the election.

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India’s role in keeping the brutal regime of Sheikh Hasina in power has irked most Bangladeshis who are venting their anger in every possible way. However, India’s support for Hasina has more serious consequences that India should be aware of.

Bangladesh’s balance is shifting

In Bangladesh, traditionally, the vote bank was divided into four informal parts, the leftists, centre-left, centre-right and the rightists, with the centre-left and centre-right being to most dominant parts. While the centre-left voters have traditionally supported AL, the centre-right vote bank favoured BNP. The leftist voters voted for communist and socialist parties and the right-wing ones voted for Islamists like Jamaat and other Kawmi Madrasa-based parties.

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From the 1990s to the early 2000s, this equation of vote banks ensured a balance in Bangladesh’s politics. This balance, however, seems to be shifting.

To win the vote bank of the right-wing Jamaat, AL and Sheikh Hasina not only allied themselves with more Islamist parties but also allowed some radical Islamist reformists to spread their tentacles within the ranks of AL to come out as a pro-Islam party.

One such group is the Ahle-Hadith, a Salafi group. According to one AL MP’s public speech in the parliament, 10 per cent of the parliament members are Ahle-Hadith. Indeed, Hasina’s most trusted advisors were found attending the events of this Salafi group. 

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Glimpses of this nexus are gradually becoming visible over time. Most recently, an influential AL parliament member was found lecturing the Hindus on how to observe Durga Puja and despite criticism, he refused to retract. On the contrary, his followers attacked the local Hindu population when they protested his remarks. The parliament member in question, AKM Bahauddin, won the nomination of AL again in November, despite warnings from Hindu leaders.

As it appears, Hasina, who is suffering from the classic paranoia of the despot, has opted for a “whatever works” strategy, taking India’s support for granted. This is eventually fanning the flame of more radical ideas in society, creating a more complex situation for the local Hindu community. 

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A despot with a “whatever works” approach is a bigger threat to India and Bangladeshi Hindus than anything else. The only way out for India is to revisit its Bangladesh strategy and promote democratic reforms that can ensure a peaceful transition of power. This will not only ensure regional security for India but also make India popular in Bangladesh. 

(Views expressed are personal )

The author is the Information and Technology affairs secretary of Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP.

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