By the the time this column appears, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh and a former Prime Minister of that country, would be close to the end of her week-long visit. She should be pleased with the outcome. She has had a half-an-hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh where, what might be called in ‘diplomatese’ as “matters of mutual interest”, were discussed. Mr Singh reportedly assured her that India will take Bangladesh along the path of economic growth it pursued and will not undermine Dhaka’s interests.
Things seem to have gone pleasantly. While Begum Zia sought greater transparency in India’s construction of dams on rivers common to both countries, Mr Singh assured her that his Government was trying to achieve political consensus on the Teesta waters treaty blocked by West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee, and on the exchange of border enclaves. Begum Zia was reportedly appreciative of the steps taken by India to liberalise trade with Bangladesh, increasing garment imports from the latter, providing it with power and strengthening its economic infrastructure. She is said to have been positive and forthcoming on terrorism and the activities of cross-border insurgent groups which are important to New Delhi.
The question is: What does India want from the visit? The basic objective apparently is to ensure that the good relations it enjoys with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Government continues with the successor regime — whoever heads it — after the general election due in the country latest by early 2014. An invitation to Lt-Gen HM Ershad, a former President of Bangladesh and head of the Bangladesh Jatiya Party, who visited India recently, is said to have been a part of the same exercise.
The approach, eminently sensible on paper, will recoil. Like her late husband President Ziaur Rahman, Begum Zia is intensely anti-Indian and instinctively pro-Pakistan. In November 1977, President Rahman converted the Directorate of Forces Intelligence, set up in 1972, into the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence. An organisational clone of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and linked almost umbilically to it, the DGFI was established shortly after a visit to Dhaka by the then ISI chief, Lt-Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan. Many of its officers have been trained at the ISI’s training centre at Islamabad.
Moloy Krishna Dhar, a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, points out in Fulcrum of Evil: ISI-CIA-Al Qaeda Nexus, that the ISI and the DFI began collaborating from 1976 in “imparting training and supplying arms” to the militant groups of north-eastern India. The process, which ran into difficulties after Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister for the first time in 1996, picked up sharply after Begum Zia began her second innings in 2001. Dhar’s book, published in 2006, states that the number of camps of North-Eastern rebels in Bangladesh “have increased by about 40 in the last few months touching the figure of 180-200.”
Begum Zia’s own deeply anti-India approach was intensified by that of her coalition partner, Jama’at-e-Islami Bangladesh, which, in its policy on national defence, identified India as Bangladesh’s only enemy and called for the inculcation of the spirit of jihad in the country’s military against India’s Armed Forces. Given the close links which the Jama’at has with Pakistan and fundamentalist Islamist organisations like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, Jama’at-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Hizbut Tawhid, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh became a hub of ISI's anti-India terror operations during 2001-2006.
The Jama’at called the shots in Begum Zia’s Government and savagely persecuted the minorities. Ahmadiyyas were targeted relentlessly. Hindus came under vicious attack even before Begum Zia returned to power following the general election on October 1, 2001. Terrorised by murders, rapes, looting of property, burning of houses, and large-scale assaults, over 15,000 Hindus fled to the border areas of West Bengal. About 100,000 more were reportedly trying to follow suit but were being hindered by the police and the paramilitary personnel.
The Government of Bangladesh, of course, sought to play down the scale of the atrocities. In a statement in the country’s Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament), Home Minister Altaf Hussain Choudhury, put the number of those killed and raped over a period of 25 days at 266 and 213 respectively. While these figures are high enough, the actual incidence of the crimes appears to have been much higher. According to a report in the widely-circulated Bangla daily Janakantha (The Voice of the People), the atrocities on Hindus exceeded in places even those that were inflicted on them during the 1971 liberation war.
In a piece in the same daily of October 16, one of Bangladesh’s greatest poets ever, Samsur Rahman, wrote, “It is a matter of regret that atrocities by terrorists on the minorities have been continuously increasing in many parts of Bangladesh, particularly in the muffosils, over several days. There have been repeated attacks; the homes of the minorities have become deserted. Women have been victims of rape. To save their lives and honour, many have been compelled to leave their homes and hearths with heavy hearts and embrace endless agonies with tear-laden eyes in the hope of finding refuge in India.” (Translated from Bengali by this writer.)
Besides Begum Zia’s background and record in office, there is the experience of 2001, when her son Tareq Zia was brought to India, taken around, introduced to industrialists and generally given the red-carpet treatment. The sustained contempt and hostility with which she treated India after her return to power, is public knowledge. There is no indication that it will be any different if she again becomes Prime Minister. Meanwhile, nothing prevents Begum Zia from projecting her visit as an indication of India’s recognition of the inevitability of her return to power and an indication of its endorsement of the prospect. Recall the subtle manner in which she portrayed the outcome of her recent visit to China, announcing several promises made by Beijing in a manner which suggested that it was negotiating with a
Prime Minister elect.
This may well persuade a section of undecided voters to swing to her support for the rewards that await those on the winning side. Sheikh Hasina can hardly be blamed if she is not amused. And India will only have itself to blame if it loses a genuine friend. And what happens if she and the Awami League retain power, something which can by no means be ruled out?