Originally Published 2020-07-29 11:00:00 Published on Jul 29, 2020
Bangladesh, like many countries, is struggling with the challenge of the Chinese-origin Covid-19 as well as corruption charges against health officials.
Bangladesh too on the Chinese radar

Bangladesh, like many countries, is struggling with the challenge of the Chinese-origin COVID-19 as well as corruption charges against health officials. The director-general of its health services was sacked recently. An unauthorised hospital in Dhaka was caught issuing false COVID negative certificates. Its owner has been arrested. Adding to the challenge is the massive flooding this season. Bangladesh and India are no strangers to the annual havoc. In India, flooding has inundated large tracts of land in Assam. The Ganga-Brahmaputra jugalbandi creates one of the largest deltas in Bangladesh and the humungous volume of water these two rivers discharge during the monsoon causes untold death and destruction.

Recent comments made by a Kolkata-based Bengali newspaper on China granting duty-free entry to 97% of Bangladeshi products caused a minor kerfuffle. Bangladesh, as an LDC (least developed country), has been asking Beijing for this facility for several years but avoided any media clamour, which is the preferred tool against India on contentious issues—border killings being one of them. China’s move soon after the bloody Galwan clashes led to speculation about its motives.

The Kolkata newspaper called it Khairati, meaning charity, and Bangladeshis took umbrage to this characterisation, triggering outrage in media and social media. Several social media comments supported China on the Galwan clashes, exposing latent anti-India sentiments. There is no media outrage against China for spreading COVID. China’s role in supporting Pakistan’s attempt to brutally suppress Bangladesh’s freedom struggle is long forgotten, as is the fact that China refused to recognise Bangladesh as an independent country till after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, hailed as father of the nation. Times have changed. China has successfully bought the silence of Bangladeshi media and many others.

The media clamour drew in the Bangladesh foreign minister, who tried to calm things down and refused to make any official protest. The Kolkata newspaper helped by issuing an apology. This issue again highlighted unusual sensitivity about China, which has been wooing Bangladesh with billions of dollars in investments. All of India’s neighbours have joined Beijing’s BRI and China’s penetration in India’s neighbourhood is in top gear. Bangladesh has latched on to the “China Card”, publicly calling India and China development partners. Pakistan is already a client state and Nepal is on a similar track. Bhutan is under pressure with China raising fresh claims on the unmarked border. Bangladesh is now on the Chinese radar as part of its policy of creating turbulence in India’s relations with her neighbours.

Meanwhile, not much attention has been paid by the media to the birth of a new political party in May as COVID spread its tentacles. Established by former members of the pro-Pakistani Islamist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), after almost a year’s preparation, this was a move waiting to happen, though the timing seems somewhat strange. The new political party, first named Jana Akaankhaar (Public Aspiration) Bangladesh, was later renamed Amar Bangladesh Party (ABP). The founding members of this new party are those who were expelled from the JeI.

The JeI, notorious for its radical Islamic views and collaboration with the genocidal Pakistan Army, was accused of war crimes and several of its top leaders were convicted and executed after convictions by the War Crimes Tribunal. Some JeI leaders were expelled for attempting to reform the party, for making it more acceptable to the people of Bangladesh. The stigma of collaboration with Pakistan was the primary factor. The so-called reformers wanted JeI leaders, accused of war crimes, to step aside from leadership positions and formally apologise for their role in the 1971 War of Liberation. This led to an internal struggle culminating in the expulsion of the so-called reformers.

The ABP announced that it had decided not to join the “politics of corruption and looting” and work for the “rights of the people”. The new party hopes to position itself by paying homage to “all the martyrs and patriots, including freedom fighters and those who gave their lives in the language movement” and aims to “turn the country into a welfare state, regardless of race, caste, religion, and forging national unity in the spirit of the War of Liberation”. Declaring that the party “will not be based on religion nor on any ideology”, it has avoided mentioning secularism.

The first salvo against the new party came from the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, which has campaigned relentlessly for trials against war criminals. The Committee called the new party an “act of deception”. It has alleged that the ABP remains committed to Maududi’s ideals and Wahaabi philosophy that contain the seeds of fascism and jihadi radicalism. Pointing out the atrocities committed by the JeI’s student wing Islami Chattra Shibir since it was rehabilitated by the military dictator Gen Zia-ur-Rahman (who usurped power in 1977), it reminded the public that Shibir terrorists all operated with the patronage of the BNP-JeI coalition government. It labelled the ABP as new wine in an old bottle.

The ABP will not have an easy path in Bangladesh’s contested polity. In the eyes of much of the population, it will be regarded as a clone of the JeI. Voters seem to prefer mainstream political parties, underlining thereby their preference for keeping Islamists away from state power. The Islamists understand this and have toiled hard to build their influence in education and social welfare domains. The ABP is likely to fragment the Islamist vote further and, therefore, should not worry the Awami League. The BNP, however, stands to lose as it cannot expect the JeI to obtain enough seats to form an effective coalition when it comes to mustering a majority in Parliament. From India’s perspective, China’s machinations in Bangladesh will need monitoring closely.

This commentary originally appeared in New Indian Express.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty is a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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