Event ReportsPublished on Apr 20, 2013
At a roundtable on the situation in Bangladesh, experts underlined the need for ensuring a credible election in Bangladesh for the country's stability and the strengthening of India-Bangladesh relations.
Help Bangladesh to ensure credible elections: Experts

Experts have underlined the need for ensuring a credible election in Bangladesh for the country’s stability and the strengthening of India-Bangladesh relations. At a roundtable on "Current situation in Bangladesh", held on 20 April, 2013, at Observer Research Foundation, the experts also suggested India should help Bangladesh in reaching this goal.

Chaired by ORF Distinguished Fellow HHS Viswanathan, the roundtable had a distinguished list of participants, including former high commissioners of India to Bangladesh, leading academics closely analysing the situation in Bangladesh, leading journalists and policymakers.

Initiating the discussion, Amb. Viswanathan observed that Bangladesh is passing through an internal crisis. He said though the crisis in Bangladesh is nothing new, these are very emotive issues, especially the trials of 1971 war criminals. While most of Bangladesh seems to be for going ahead with the trials, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the religious political party, is against them. The situation in Bangladesh has serious implications for India. Bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh have a cause/effect impact on the domestic politics in both countries.

Amb. Veena Sikri, former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh, pointed out that the trigger for many of the protests was when Abdul Qader Mollah, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami facing war criminal trial, made a ’victory’ sign upon exiting his trial. He received ’only’ a life sentence. The Shahbag protesters and bloggers are quite apolitical, he said. They have been questioning the government and the opposition. They are the post-Liberation War generation, demanding completion of the trials. They also want ban on religion based politics, as it was in the original constitution, Amb. Sikri said.

Expressing concern over the recent activities of religious rights, Amb. Sikri said the religious right is using the tactics of violence, intimidation and attacks on the law and order machinery. She said huge money is going into this response and they are trying to create anarchy.

Talking about the emerging political situation, Amb. Sikri noted that the role of army will be an important factor. Although the army has so far showed no interest and not intervened, opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party is trying to get them involved. However, the army is unlikely to get involved.

Amb. Sikri said the present situation showed the coming together of three strands: past, present and future. This is very crucial for the country. The past is the Liberation War. What is happening is the impact of war criminal tribunal verdict. Credit should be given to the Awami League government for bringing the war crimes trials so far. The youth’s feeling is: Why should those opposed to the birth of Bangladesh then be any part of it now?

The present is the crisis of identity. The clash between the religious and cultural identity. But this is not new. Since the 1905 partition of Bengal, lingo-cultural and religious identities were trying to assert themselves. The religious right is trying to bring the religious identity at the forefront. But it is admirable that in a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh, people are trying to resist this.

Future is the elections. Battle for the forthcoming elections is playing itself out in current actions. The Awami League abolished caretaker governments. The Supreme Court said caretaker governments had no place in democratic government. But the BNP may boycott the elections. Subterranean electoral battles are taking place.

Noted journalist and author, Mr. Hiranmay Karlekar, expressed concern over the situation in Bangladesh. Karlekar, who covered the independence movement and knew top political families, said the response from the religious right is not sudden or unexpected. BNP’s second innings was a ’reign of terror’ on secularism and there was complicity of the government. He said Bangladesh’s religious right is preparing for a violent takeover of the country. He said during the BNP’s second term, Jamaat emerged and spread its tentacles. They planned to sweep the parliamentary elections in 2006, but the army stepped in. They are a fringe force, with around 4% of votes and 2 seats in the present parliament, but they are still able to bring things to a standstill.

Praising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her efforts in realising the spirit of the liberation of Bangladesh, Amb. Rajeet Mitter, former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh, opined that she will not back down. She was hailed for her efforts like initiation of the trial of war criminals, amendment of the Constitution, banning 12 religion based political parties and enhancing security to minority.

Amb. Mitter said India should be concerned about the radical spill over and security issues. Security cooperation has been going well with Bangladesh. The present government has taken proactive steps in addressing India’s concerns. Chaos in Bangladesh would jeopardise this work, he warned. There are economic issues at stake also, which are being politicised. He said the trilateral gas pipeline project was scuttled because of politics. He noted that the Indian market has finally opened to Bangladeshi goods, and exports are increasing. The private sector has also shown an interest in investing in Bangladesh.

Amb. Mitter stressed the need for more involvement of the North eastern states in interactions with Bangladesh. He pointed out that during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh, four Chief Ministers of north eastern states had accompanied him. North eastern states’ hydropower potential can benefit the country only if it comes through Bangladesh. There are also plans to link the railways (Tripura-Bangladesh), he said and added there are lots of private sector investment opportunities.

Expressing concern over the attacks on minorities, Amb. Mitter said that this might mean more influx into India. Talking about a possible change of power in Bangladesh, he observed that if it happens, the role of Pakistan in the country might increase. And, it will not only encourage fundamentalists but will also increase the role of the ISI. He also pointed out that China is also making a footprint in Bangladesh, offering more resources and arms. Increased Chinese presence is also contrary to India’s interest, he noted.

(This report is prepared by Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Associate Fellow, with inputs from Anahita Mathai, Research Assistant, and Darshana Baruah, Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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