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NEW TWISTS AND OLD WORRIES

The Bangladesh National Party-led coalition government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia completed its first year in office amidst bitter controversy over the deteriorating law and order situation in the country. But Khaleda Zia claims she has inherited a law and order system in ruins from the preceding Awami League regime. More damaging for the reputation of the Khaleda Zia government was the publication of a Time magazine story which claims that 150 members of the taliban and al Qaida have taken refuge in Bangladesh. The government has predictably denied it, calling the story “totally malicious and a figment of wild imagination”.

The Awami League, the main opposition party in the country, has presented data to show that a total of 24,135 people, including three journalists, were killed, and thousands of women raped during the one year of BNP-led coalition rule. The print and electronic media were also shown a documentary film on the incidents of repression on Awami League leaders and supporters.

Fundamental fears

Independent observers in Dhaka point out that widespread violence and corruption are not new to Bangladesh and the previous Sheikh Hasina Wajed government lost the confidence of the people because of the corrupt and dictatorial ways of its ministers and party leaders. They, however, agree that the new government has also failed to curb lawlessness, and criminals continue to enjoy a free hand in Bangladesh.

More worrisome is that the Islamic fundamentalist forces have now gained a new political respectability after Khaleda Zia included two Islamic parties into her coalition government. These two parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote, are generally held responsible for the large-scale persecution of minority communities following last year’s national elections. The Jamaat-e-Islami has even reported links with terrorist outfits in Pakistan and beyond.

Given this backdrop, the story published in Time assumes extra significance. The Indian government has so far not reacted to the story. Police sources in West Bengal however say that militants trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence are now increasingly using places in Bangladesh as entry-points to India. According to reports, the ISI is also recruiting and training Bangladeshis for espionage in India. It is important to mention here that Bangladesh has a 4,096 kilometre-long border with India, much of which is devoid of any fencing.

Trading antagonism

Political analysts at Dhaka, however, take pains to emphasise that the civil society in Bangladesh is still largely secular despite the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists in some parts of the country. They also argue that the rise of Hindutva forces in India, as in evidence during the Gujarat pogrom, strengthen the hands of Islamic militants in Bangladesh.

These political problems notwithstanding, both India and Bangladesh seem to be more interested in developing bilateral economic ties. But there has been no significant breakthrough in trade relations. While India wants to import gas from Bangladesh, the Khaleda Zia government is not ready for the deal. On the other hand, Bangladesh would like an amendment in the 1980 trade treaty with India, which, it feels, is “against the national interest of Bangladesh”. On the whole, there does not appear to be any immediate possibility of improvement in the economic ties between the two countries.

But in her second year of rule, foreign relations are lesser problems for Khaleda Zia than growing corruption, violence and the communalization of the polity. In April, the Denmark government accused a Bangladeshi minister of corruption and withdrew a $45 million grant to the ministry of shipping. Leading non-governmental organizations have also prepared reports about the surging crime graph. And now the Time story hinting at terrorist links. The true test of the Khaleda Zia government lies in its handling of these problems.

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