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34th Anniversary of Bangladesh Liberation - Cause for Concern

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 14, 2005

    The 34th anniversary of the liberation of Dhaka and the creation of Bangladesh on December 16 is an occasion for concern and deep introspection about the nature of the internal turbulence in that country and the related implications for India.

    It may be recalled that prior to December 16, 1971, what is now known as Bangladesh was East Pakistan and for almost 24 years from August 1947, the military leadership of Pakistan treated the eastern part of the country as a poor relative.

    Years of neglect and exploitation peaked in 1970 when the late Sheikh Mujibur Rehman emerged as a credible political alternative to the West Pakistan political elite but the then Pakistan Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto stoked the flames of sectarian identity pitting the Bengali Pakistani against his peers in West Pakistan.

    Under normal circumstances, Sheikh Mujib, who had won the national elections, ought to have been nominated as the Prime Minister of Pakistan but the Western part of the country was determined not to let power slip from its fingers and thus began a gory cycle of repression and killing of the citizens of East Pakistan by their own military. Local resistance to such oppression and political intimidation grew under Mujib and the Mukti Bahini and while it was potent, it could not prevent the genocide that followed.

    By the time of the liberation of Dhaka in December 1971, almost three million citizens of East Pakistan were victims of mass killing and rape. The global community, led by the US, alas, chose to be silent spectators and this will remain one of the more shameful chapters of the Cold War decades.

    India was drawn into the developments and had to deal with a challenge of 10 million refugees from East Pakistan seeking shelter in the country. It was a daunting task by any stretch of imagination. And with no help from the global community, India was able to provide succour and moral support that later led to Delhi being drawn into the war that followed.

    The 1971 Indo-Pak war finally led to the surrender ceremony in Dhaka where the Pakistani military leadership accepted defeat, which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh. The political geography of the sub-continent was re-drawn after August 1947 and it was irrevocably established that religion alone could not be the basis for national identity and that in this case, ethnicity, language and a deeper socio-cultural preference had to be acknowledged. Pakistan was dismembered in two and its military had the dubious distinction of the blood of three million of its own citizenry on its hands.

    India may have scored an emphatic military victory in late 1971 but the political gains that should have normally accrued seem to be more elusive now 34 years after the birth of Bangladesh. Friday, December 16, will be suitably commemorated in India as the first Vijay Diwas (the second was Kargil in the summer of 1999) and hopefully the Unknown Soldier who symbolises all those Indian 'faujis' who laid down their lives for country and flag will be remembered. This is also an opportune moment to take stock of the trajectory that the new nation- Bangladesh - has taken in the last four decades.

    Today, Bangladesh stands at a crucial fork. It has a population of almost 140 million and in the last two decades, an assertive and militant constituency in the country has sought to define itself more as an Islamic state with the liberal Bengali identity being relegated to the background. Internecine political rivalry has seen the military and the mullah being co-opted for short-term opportunistic gains and this trend has been further exacerbated by the prevailing post 9/11 international undercurrent which unfortunately pits Islam against the US-led West.

    With its large population base and impoverished socio-economic profile, Bangladesh has become a safe haven for nurturing religious extremism and jihad by groups whose origins lie in Pakistan-Afghanistan and parts of West Asia. The ambivalent attitude of the ruling party-the BNP led by Begum Khalida Zia – appears to be emboldening the local terrorist groups.

    Consequently, the country has been subjected to a series of terrorist-related events this year, the most dramatic being the 434 simultaneous bomb blasts across the entire country on August 17. The months that followed witnessed concerted attempts to attack the judiciary and the symbols of state, such as police stations and courts, and the most recent was the suicide attack on December 8 in two towns that resulted in the death of six people with almost 50 injured including policemen. The banned Jamatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) has claimed responsibility and the group has also distributed literature demanding that the government introduce the Islamic code and has warned women not to be seen without veils.

    In the past, right wing groups have threatened to convert Bangladesh with its liberal, tolerant ethos into a Taliban clone and this has led to considerable internal dissonance. The socio-cultural ethos of Bengal which predates its modern political history beginning with the early 20th century is now being challenged and much of the future course of events will depend on the degree to which the major political parties are able to join hands in strengthening the liberal spectrum in Bangladesh civil society.

    The fork that Bangladesh is poised at and the direction it will take will have significant implications for the internal stability of its own society and for regional stability as well. Currently it has a GDP of US $ 57 billion and a growth rate of 5.5 per cent. It has shown encouraging signs by way of increasing its share of services and manufactured goods towards GDP growth while agriculture has reduced.

    Its work force has shown commendable empathy for trade in areas like textiles and IT and, most importantly, Bangladesh has visibly demonstrated that it can be a tolerant Islamic society in the main. The country's development indicators including family planning and female literacy are impressive by South Asian standards and its NGO sector is robust-though it is ranked among the most corrupt states by way of the governance index.

    In short, despite certain constraints, the country is well positioned to consolidate its advantages against the backdrop of globalisation and its resources such as natural gas could be harnessed in a positive manner. But none of this will fructify if the polity is internally fractured over religion and 'adversary' and what constitutes the abiding national interest. The experience of Pakistan and its own tragic trajectory where the military and the mullahs entered into an unholy alliance to stoke a distorted version of Islam and the interpretation of 'jihad' are case in point.

    It is obvious that a stable, prosperous and moderate Bangladesh would be in India's long-term interest. The anxiety about illegal immigration into India is real but it can only be meaningfully addressed when the internal situation in that country is conducive to the retention of its people. As the 34th anniversary of the Liberation War approaches, both state and civil society in India and Bangladesh would be well advised to ponder over these complex linkages and evolve an appropriate long term strategy that would advance their respective national interest in a complementary and consensual manner.