Bangladesh: India’s high stakes in *Projonmo Chottor*!!

Statesmanship, that is the art of governing, of shaping public policies, and of conducting business of a nation, is often talked about but rarely seen. Statesmanship in international affairs often ends up in doing the right thing by one’s nation, but not necessarily by the other country or countries involved. Rarely does a nation get an opportunity to do what is good for her but also what is good for others. India has such a rare opportunity to seal friendly relations with one of her eastern neighbours, Bangladesh, but are her politicians up to it?  Internal politics has held hostage our diplomatic options with Bangladesh. Chances appear dim to snatch good sense from the jaws of political parochialism, but a rare opportunity is staring us in the face that not even a fool would miss. Its rarity is made poignant by India’s present sour relations with Maldives [GMR fiasco, Embassy asylum of former president Nasheed], Nepal [political turmoil that may affect adversely ties]; likelihood of ties souring with Sri Lanka [Human rights abuses of Tamil minority]; and continued fractious relations with Pakistan. 
Ever since Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the man who won Bangladesh freedom from the then West Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, became Prime Minister of her country the second time; she has been seeking to build strong ties and trying to address India’s security concerns. She has shown commitment to not allow anti-India outfits of Indian or non-Indian origin to operate from Bangladesh soil and has shown courage in extraditing leaders of such groups. She has also been open to allow India use of Bangladesh’s road infrastructure to transport goods to and fro from India’s remote north-east areas. In the absence of such goodwill transit facility, Indian people and goods have to take an arduous and circuitous route, which is inefficient in terms of both time and money. She has also shown sensitivity to India’s concerns over illegal economic migration from Bangladesh to India that takes place across its long and porous border, which stretches over 4000 kilometres. However, Indian political establishment’s response though positive has been at best knee jerk. When one talks of Indian subcontinent, India’s sheer size and geo-political centrality hits the eye. Yet, its political establishment instead of showing sagacity and maturity continues to belie its promise through selfish, short sighted, and partisan thinking. Irked by interminable delays in implementing agreed upon protocols and agreements [for example boundary settlement and Teesta river water sharing], Bangladesh often reacts adversely as it did recently in disallowing grain movement through its territory. ^^India’s High Commissioner Pankaj Saran has met Bangladeshi foreign minister Dipu Moni seeking urgent permission for the Food Corporation of India to carry foodgrain to the north-eastern regions, particularly Tripura, through Ashuganj in Bangladesh….A frustrated Indian envoy sent an SOS to Delhi stating that the response of the Bangladesh foreign minister was “lukewarm”. He said when he reminded her of Bangladesh’s commitment to allow transportation of foodgrain on humanitarian grounds, she stonewalled the issue citing a lack of infrastructure and saying India had to settle the issue of transit in totality before using Bangladeshi territory^^.
Sheikh Hasina’s government also has to pay heed to the popular sentiment in her country, which may turn hostile if she is seen selling the interests of Bangladesh to accommodate India. India has to take such incidents in her stride and move ahead steadfastly towards the larger goal. Bangladesh led by Sheikh Hasina is at the cusp where it may turn firmly into a secular, progressive State friendly to India or it may fall in the lap of religious extremism that is hostile to India’s interests. What India does would decisively shape that outcome.
Sheikh Hasina knew that section of Bangladesh society [then East Pakistan], which had collaborated in 1971 with the Pakistani army out to violently crush the freedom movement, was never brought to justice. She also correctly judged that there was a large scale anger deep buried in the hearts of ordinary Bangladeshi over this betrayal. In an astute move, she constituted an International War Crimes Tribunal to try the cases of known war criminals. Just last month, former Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abul Kalam Azad [no connection with India’s illustrious freedom fighter of same name] was sentenced to death in absentia. Azad had fled Bangladesh much earlier when he got the wind of his likely detention and trial to take refuse in Pakistan. Early this month another Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, was convicted of crimes including torture, murder and rape during the 1971 independence war. He is in Bangladeshi custody, but was spared capital punishment for his heinous crimes and got away with life in prison. Quite unexpectedly the “light sentencing” of a man nicknamed “Koshai [butcher] of Mirpur” snowballed into a spontaneous mass movement of epic proportions demanding death for him.
^^People from all walks of life, with doctors, professors and even sports personalities taking part in what is described as the biggest protest march in recent years, he says.  Shahbag Square in Dhaka has a festive look, with people holding various cultural events as part of the protest, our correspondent adds. “We will not return home unless we get justice, complete justice,” Shakil Ahmed, a college student, told the Associated Press news agency. “I did not see 1971, but those who killed our people and helped Pakistani troops in their effort to halt the creation of Bangladesh should be hanged.”^^ Bowing to the popular sentiments, Bangladesh’s parliament, met protesters demands, who continued to  throng the capital, by amending a law on Sunday that allowed the state to appeal any verdict in war crimes trials it deems inadequate and out of step with public opinion. The amendment also empowered the tribunals to try and punish any organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, for committing war crimes by siding with the enemy during country’s liberation war in 1971.

The amendment allows prosecutors to seek harsher punishment even in case of convictions, whereas earlier it allowed appeal only in case of acquittals. This move of Hasina’s government did not go down well with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP], who has electoral alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami [JEI] and had chosen to boycott the parliament when tribunal law was amended. JEI has not lost time in going on a violent offensive and has warned of descend into anarchy. JEI gave call for a nationwide strike, which met with resistance from populace in favour of war crime trials and punishments, and individuals were violently attacked by JEI members in several places. ^^Rajib Haidar, 30, an architect and Shahbagh protest activist, was stabbed to death near his house at Pallabi in the capital last night. The protestors at Shahbagh accused fundamentalist Jamaat- e-Islami (JI) of killing Haidar with lethal weapons last evening while he was returning home. The killing prompted the protesters to go back to their 24-hour movement instead of seven-hour programme which they had declared hours before the death. Haidar’s death came hours after violence at southeastern Cox’s Bazar district that left three people dead. The violence broke out after JI activists turned violent following Friday prayers to protest their top leaders’ trial for war crimes^^. Haidar and other bloggers played a crucial role in articulating what an average Bangladeshi felt at the “light sentencing” of Mollah: ^^It was, however, the ICT judgment on Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah that left Bengalis across the spectrum bewildered. Mollah, against whom evidence of war crimes was irrefutable, was only given a life sentence. That and Mollah’s apparent pleasure at the judgmenthe flashed a victory sign outside the court — infuriated a group of young bloggers who quickly went on the offensive, demanding that Mollah be awarded a death sentence^^.
The situation in Bangladesh is very fluid. Very difficult for an outsider to judge what turns it would take. India should be naturally concerned, but should in no way interfere, even by “verbally” taking sides. However, that doesn’t mean it should be just a hapless bystander. In fact, India luckily can influence events in Bangladesh in most profound ways. The influence that it yields would not only do good by Bangladesh, but would be in her self interest too. Indian government would have to move very rapidly, say in matters of days or few weeks in the current budget session, to deliver to Bangladesh on the promises made on the boundary settlement and on the Teesta water sharing. India Bangladesh boundary is not an ordinary construct: only a quarter of it did its job to neatly and linearly separate Muslim majority and Hindu majority areas into Bangladesh and India. Otherwise in many parts, it is a nightmarish hodgepodge that is hopelessly entangled: ^^As many as 162 tiny enclaves(111 Indian and 52 Bangladeshi) dot a section of the frontier: in the extreme an Indian enclave sits within a Bangladeshi enclave, itself situated within a larger Indian enclave, all surrounded by Bangladeshi territoryShifting rivers, mapping errors and ‘adversely possessed lands’ — that is, lands unwittingly encroached upon and (illegally) occupied by both countries — added to the maze of identity, loyalty and insecurity along the Bengal borderland^^. To create an unbroken territorial continuity, which would gain respectability as an international boundary, India would have to cede more territory than it would get in return when enclaves are exchanged. Such gesture though it may fall foul of “itchy notions of sovereignty” would have to be conceded for larger national interests as well as for human rights of hapless beings staying in those impossible enclaves on either side.

Such sagacity shown by India would strengthen the secular forces in Bangladesh and allow Sheikh Hasina to deal sternly against the violent actions and threatening behaviour of JEI, who wouldn’t get any purchase from vilifying “big brother”, “Hindu” India that acts like a bully. This would be possible only if Congress led UPA Government takes everybody into confidence, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and Trinamool Congress [TC]. BJP’s support is crucial for a Constitutional amendment without which the “exchanging and ceding of territories” that settlement of border issue needs would be impossible. The Teesta River water sharing accord would be a pipe-dream without concurrence of TC that rules West Bengal. President Pranab Mukherjee is slated to visit Bangladesh next month. It would turn out to be a substantive goodwill visit if he could carry these two presents with him. It would change the whole dynamics on our eastern border, and would immensely facilitate regional cooperation with South East Asia by opening up logistics routes for commerce. 

But for that to happen, Congress would have to make it a win-win show for all political stakeholders. Congress or its allies cannot run away with all the credit. BJP is highly vocal about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. It should realize that friendly, secular, and prosperous government in Bangladesh is crucial to stem such immigration and also to enhance India’s security. TC should be brought on board by addressing its concerns and by allowing Mamta Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, to share in the glory of a friendly neighbour making a sacrifice for a friendly nation in the larger interest of both. President’s delegation must thus include some prominent members of BJP [Modi, Advani], TC [Banerjee], and other opposition parties [Mayawati, Mulayam, Nitish, Jayalalitha], apart from those of ruling alliance. The hand of friendship must be seen as extended by India as one woman, and not by UPA government. Does our political class have it in them to rise to the occasion and genuinely stand for national interests? Only the next few weeks or months will tell. It is for UPA though to make the first move.

Syed Badrul Ahsan, executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka, wrote for Indian Express, War crimes and punishment, where he said: ^^crowds of young people surged to Shahbagh…., which the young have renamed Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Square), to demand that the secular spirit of the country be restored…. For all the patriotic fervour generated in Bangladesh by the Shahbagh protests, there remain uncertainties about its outcome^^. India has role to play if the ideal of “Projonmo Chottor” has to survive.

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