| A rally in Dhaka against the US move. (AFP)
Dhaka, Jan. 24: The Americans have done it, but the fault, in Dhaka’s eyes, lies with India and its “agents” at home.
The US decision earlier this month to include Bangladesh in the list of terror-risk nations and, therefore, put stricter restrictions on Bangladeshis in America has come as the biggest blow so far to the 15-month-old government of Khaleda Zia. But the villain of the piece is not so much America as the “bully” next door.
There are no anti-America protests, no belligerent processions by Islamic groups who popularised the slogan, ‘We’ll be Taliban, Bangla will be Afghan’, when the US attacks on Afghanistan began.
The beleaguered government is now desperately looking for scapegoats as well as damage-control exercises. Foreign minister Morshed Khan rushed to Washington for a meeting with US secretary of state Colin Powell, but without any hope of having the American decision revoked. His visit is clearly aimed at reassuring Bangladeshis at home and in America that the government would stand by them in their time of crisis.
And it could be a serious crisis, not just for Bangladesh’s domestic politics, but also for its economy, in which international development aid and non-resident Bangladeshis’ remittances from the US, West Asia and Malaysia play the most significant role. Officials at the newly-created ministry of expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment are calculating the possible economic damage of the US action.
It is crucial for the ruling coalition government to tell the people that it’s someone else’s — and not its own — fault. The fault-finding is simple and predictable — the American action is actually the result of a conspiracy hatched by India and its local cohorts to malign Bangladesh in the international community and project it as a new haven of Islamic terror.
Bangladesh’s minister of state for foreign affairs Riaz Rahman outlines the relentless campaign against the country ever since the new government took over in October 2001 — on the alleged attacks on minorities, repression of political opponents and, most important, the rise in “Pakistan-sponsored Islamic terrorism” aimed at India.
The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and that outside the American Center in Calcutta in January 2002 and Indian leaders’ open accusations of Bangladesh harbouring “terrorists” have painted a “false but grim” picture of the country.
“But what have we done to India to deserve this propaganda'” Rahman asks.
Dismissing the Indian allegation that the new government has made Bangladesh a launching pad for Pakistani acts of sabotage against India, he challenges Delhi to cite a single step taken by the Zia government that could be interpreted as “hostile or provocative”.
He suspects that even the international media campaign over purported al Qaida hideouts and volunteers in Bangladesh is a fallout of New Delhi-sponsored “conspiracy”. “Where are they - the al Qaida people or the so-called Huji (Harkat-ul Jehad-i-Islami) that our detractors see here' Go and ask the people if they know of them or even heard of them'”
The public face of this conspiracy, Prime Minister Zia and her coalition leaders are daily telling the people, is none other than Sheikh Hasina. The opposition leader had gone around the world, accusing the present regime of not only indulging in political vendetta and human rights abuses but also promoting Islamic fundamentalism.
“Am I so powerful that the Americans would be influenced by what I say'” she retorts. “The fact is that this government’s acts have tarnished the image of Bangladesh as a moderate and democratic Muslim nation.”
Curiously, the US action has dominated the political campaign point on the eve of the countrywide local government elections that begin tomorrow.
Even the government knows that it is naive to say that the Americans have put Bangladesh on the terror list because of the propaganda by India or the Bangladeshi opposition. Most independent observers agree that it has more to do with the US perception of the Muslim world since the September 11 strikes on America.
Bangladesh, the third largest Muslim country, could not escape it for long. Next time, it could be India, which has a Muslim population double the size of Bangladesh’s entire population.
There is a growing consensus that this government’s handling of domestic problems and repression of political opponents and human rights activists have given it a bad name. The presence of the religious fundamentalist party, Jamat-e-Islami, in the ruling coalition and increasing signs of intolerance have put the Zia regime increasingly under the scanner.