PRIME Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India was a success of sorts. It was success because she was able to get 22 agreements signed. One of them relates to nuclear facilities. However, the popular response to her visit was lacking. One reason which comes straight to my mind is that the visit was focused more on her and not on Bangladesh’s independent struggle. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s name is on everybody’s lip in India because he reminded the people of the struggle they had waged against the British in the 30s and the 40s to make the British quit.
True, the reception the Bangladesh High Commission held in her honour ran a power-point presentation of the Bangladesh movement for liberation with the focus on the Sheikh for the invited guests. It seemed more a cursory affair than anything else. However, Sheikh Hasina lost a good opportunity to narrate the 1971 struggle. Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the credit for saving the life of Sheikh. General Yahya Khan was the commander of the Pakistani forces and he was about to execute the Sheikh. The general wanted to eliminate him but he was stopped by Bhutto. Even today, Pakistan blames India for the birth of Bangladesh. There is no doubt that it could not have become independent without the help of the Indian forces. But the people living in the then East Pakistan were so hostile to the rulers at Rawalpindi that they would have become free one day or the other. I was amazed to find a near complete opposition except for a pro-Pakistani group which was very small. There was not a single Bangladeshi in favour of Pakistan ruling them.
During those days I had the opportunity of visiting Rawalpindi. Walls were painted with one slogan: Crush India. For them, it was a fight against New Delhi. The Bangladesh struggle was considered a by-product. Pakistan fought with Indian forces since it believed that they were part of the Mukti Vahini and such other organizations that wanted independence. It is a pity that Sheikh Hasina has become authoritarian and brooks no dissent. She even manipulates elections to stay in power. Khalida Zia, her opponent, says openly that if India had not been behind the Prime Minister, she would have been ousted long ago. I recall during one of my visits to Dhaka attending a tea party to celebrate the National Day where people from all political parties were present. Opposition leader Moudud Ahmed was arrested once he came out of the party. He had to spend a long period in jail. Understandably, the remark by opposition leader Khalida Zia of a total sell-out to India points to the Prime Minister’s “dream of staying in power for life.” The Bangladesh National Party has termed the signing of defence deal by Sheikh Hasina with India an “extreme betrayal to people and the country.” It fears that the development will expose Bangladesh’s security system to New Delhi. This was apparently done after the Chinese have offered so much on a platter to Bangladesh.
The Teesta water treaty could not be signed because West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s opposition. The chief minister feels that there was very little water in the Teesta River, which can be shared with Bangladesh at the cost of North Bengal, where there is a water scarcity. Since the Teesta runs through West Bengal and Bangladesh and if a treaty is signed it would allow for equal share of water. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured his Bangladesh counterpart of finding an early solution to the problem. “We can solve, we will solve,” were the words of Modi.
New Delhi should be generous and accommodate the demands of Bangladesh. This is the only friendly neighbouring country. We have already alienated Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. And China is taking advantage of this and trying to come closer to these very countries, including offering long-term soft loans. The Chinese have already provided military assistance to these countries, singling out India for hostility. The recent visit of Dalai Lama to Arunchal Pradesh has further fumed China. It has said that India would have to pay for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang. Dalai Lama has said that Tibet was willing to self-rule under the tutelage of China. He has also reiterated that his visit to Arunachal was purely religious and had nothing to do with politics.
Sheikh Hasina should tolerate dissent in Bangladesh because democracy includes the right to differ. At present her dictatorial ways of functioning has disfigured the rule which should embrace all people and allow them their say. Bangladesh has unfortunately a rule where most people feel suffocated. New Delhi has put all its eggs in her basket and turns the other way when criticized for not putting enough pressure on the Bangladesh Prime Minister to allow democracy to prevail in the real sense. Prime Minister Modi’s own rule is, no doubt, democratic but it is a one-man show in senses than one. People in Bangladesh should not cow down as people in India have before Modi.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.