The chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party in Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, recently visited India (October 28-November 3). She last visited India as prime minister of Bangladesh in 2006. This was her first visit to India as a member of the opposition since the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in 1990. Begum Zia was prime minister during the periods 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.
Khaleda Zia’s visit has been the subject of much comment in India as also in her home country, where it continues to evoke discussion. The levels of hospitality accorded to her went beyond what is normal on such occasions. She made a call on the president, and she was hosted by the prime minister and the minister of external affairs, with both of whom she had significant discussions. Khaleda Zia also called on the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Her most noted and commented upon statement was her undertaking to the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that Bangladesh territory would not be permitted to be used for anti-Indian activities. With regard to transit, she welcomed overall connectivity through Bangladesh to East Asia. Apparently responding to a query from the national security adviser, Khaleda Zia said that her party would support a consortium comprising India, China and possibly other countries in constructing a deep sea port at Sonadia, a suggestion favourably received by the Chinese during her recent visit. She took up the question of the sharing of the Teesta flows and a conclusion to the land boundary agreement (decision/action on both of which remain on the in tray of the government of India). She took up strongly the question of the killings at the border by the Border Security Force. (This is likely to be a perennial problem. Its roots are in cattle smuggling in the process of which many Indian smugglers are also killed and to which the Bangladesh government prefers to turn a blind eye, to the extent of having a schedule of taxes payable on cattle smuggled in from India.)
The tone and tenor of the BNP leader’s approach to India during her present visit were a welcome change from the past. As doubts were raised as to whether it reflected a genuine change of course, her delegation suggested that the past should not cast a shadow while the Indian spokesman spoke against “looking at the rear view mirror”. This could, of course, lead to careless driving.
Begum Zia’s visit and pronouncements have to be seen together with her message to the people of India in a signed article in a prestigious Indian strategic affairs journal a few weeks before her visit. She commented there, “The challenges that confront policy makers, as well as the general public, are mostly due to negative legacies that may have their roots in our colonial past, where both our people were victims of the divide and rule policies of the Colonialists. This has created a sense of fear and distrust. There are forces in both of our societies who have played, and continue to play, on this fear psychosis to perpetuate mutual suspicion and thereby keep us apart.” This is consistent with several interpretations and can certainly be seen as positive in content. Her suggestion with regard to economic migration, that “we should both endeavour to simplify cross-border movement of people when they have an economic purpose”, could be carried forward. An acknowledgment of migration by Bangladesh could lead to a system of work permits with benefit to all. The article has, however, repeated references to mutual respect for sovereignty and essentially underlines a wary approach, rather than a vision of partnership, so ardently expressed in recent Manmohan Singh-Sheikh Hasina statements.
Reactions within Bangladesh to the visit have been mixed. That the BNP was willing to take a fresh look at relations with India has been welcomed across the board. I had suggested to the BBC that Begum Zia’s welcome assurances to Singh would have greater credibility if her supporters in her country were advised that a foundation of positive relations with India was good for Bangladesh. A senior BNP leader has said that there is no change in relations with India and that she had strongly taken up issues of interest to Bangladesh. He has clarified that not transit but connectivity to the rest of Asia has been agreed upon. Lower-level party functionaries have been reported as being concerned that the removal of the subliminal anti-Indian plank would hurt the party’s political prospects.
The Awami League foreign minister has described the visit as of no importance while junior members have accused Khaleda Zia of taking orders from her masters and selling out to India. These may only be aberrations and not policy, but they underscore the fact that the Indian bogey casts its shadow across party lines. A Bangladesh commentator has aptly commented that the Awami League would have been better served by welcoming Zia’s visit and her comments as reflecting acknowledgment that the present government’s positive policy towards India is beneficial to Bangladesh.
One can only speculate on the reasons behind the BNP’s shift in attitude. While the BNP always claimed the high ground in the defence of the nation’s sovereignty and integrity, India did not figure prominently at the hustings in the elections of 2001 and 2009. Bangladeshi Hindus were subjected to brutal well-documented pogroms by the Jamaat and the BNP after the 2001 elections as Indian agents and supporters of the Awami League. This was more in the nature of revenge after its defeat in 1996. With a great deal of connectivity among people and beneficial trade relations, it is possible that the BNP leadership has calculated that there is no further mileage in projecting an anti-Indian image. The global scene and India’s emergence as a nation of some consequence may have had a persuasive effect. While there is no evidence as yet, it is possible that Beijing, which the BNP chairperson visited on the eve of her visit to India, may have advised a course correction. Most significantly, Pakistan, which has been a philosophical mentor to and a staunch supporter of the BNP, is now self-destructing and clearly too weak to lean on.
It was good that India reached out to Khaleda Zia with a display of extraordinary courtesies, even as trials are under way in Bangladesh of senior members of her previous government for facilitating gun-running for extremist outfits in India’s Northeast and for bomb attacks to decimate the Awami League leadership. Assurances of good neighbourliness held out by Khaleda Zia have also been received in 2000 from the BNP, although not so publicly. But a decade is a long time in politics. Zia gave commitments with the confidence of a prime minister-in-waiting. She is also now proceeding West to carry her message of reasonableness. She will have to be very persuasive with chancelleries which are not overwhelmed by post-dated cheques. Last time around the BNP had a forgettable record, from promoting fundamentalism to trying to assure election victory by the most dubious manipulations. The BNP itself has many honourable men and women of progressive values, but they have usually been overshadowed by the influence of the Jamaat and like-minded individuals.
For the sake of credibility, Begum Khaleda Zia will have to take a call on her party’s association with the Jamaat and on issues like the war crimes trial, about which there is strong public feeling but on which the BNP maintains ambivalence, if not opposition. External relations, including Indo-Bangladesh relations, are only a footnote in the internal political dynamics of the country where the people will have to decide on their future. For India, possibly, the evolution of a progressive polity in Bangladesh is of greater importance in the long run than the ephemera of transactional bilateral relations.