|A police van passes a car set on fire by BNP supporters in Dhaka on Saturday. (Reuters)
Dhaka, March 2: The noose is in the news and the news is in the noose when President Pranab Mukherjee lands in the Bangladesh capital tomorrow afternoon on his maiden foreign visit after occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan.
For New Delhi, Mukherjee’s visit is occasion both for:
Reinforcing its relationship with Bangladesh’s Awami League government which can be strengthened despite Mamata Banerjee’s Teesta spanner, and
Gauging what tone the mood in the streets, where the demand for hanging war criminals has snowballed, will set in an election year. Bangladesh is scheduled to vote in a general election by January 2014, while India is to do so a few months later.
When Mukherjee lands here, students, intellectuals, cultural activists and academics who have been in central Dhaka’s Shahbag Square for nearly a month now have sworn to be out in the streets to foil a bandh that the Jamaat-e-Islami has threatened to enforce in protest at the verdicts to hang two of its leaders.
The Jamaat has also alleged that the Shahbag demonstrations are inspired by “Indian agents”.
An official Jamaat statement earlier in the week cited Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon’s remarks in Pune — that it was inspiring to see the youth in Bangladesh engaged dynamically in a democratic show of strength — to allege that Shahbag was an Indian orchestration.
“It is what we have come to expect,” said Tassafy Madani Hossain, a women’s rights activist and development worker who has participated in the demonstrations in Shahbag. “First they call us atheists and blasphemers so that they can divide us on religious lines; then they call us Indian agents.”
The Jamaat had condemned the two hangings in India (of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru) but is now too preoccupied defending itself as the demand to execute 1971 war criminals, who are its leaders and who had opposed the liberation of Bangladesh, gathers momentum even after 42 years.
“This is exactly the danger,” say officials and observers about the Jamaat. “It is behaving like a cornered cat.”
Since the verdict to hang its Nayeb-e-Ameer on Thursday, the Bangladesh administration has reported violence by activists of the Jamaat and its student’s front, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, on minorities and police in almost every district.
“There is a lot more to the Shahbag movement — though the danger that it can be politically hijacked lurks — than the demand for the hangings. That demand is there because we the people are fed up with the impunity with which successive governments have buried or shrugged off calls for justice,” said Trimita Chakma, also a women’s rights activist and a researcher on minority issues.
Mukherjee’s rejection of the mercy petitions of 26/11 attacker Kasab and Parliament attack convict Guru led to their hangings in November and February.
In Bangladesh, the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) has so far handed out death sentences to two Jamaat leaders — one of them in absentia — and a life term to a third, which has provoked a mass of people to occupy the central Dhaka square because they find the justice system too weak and politically motivated to punish crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 war. At least six more Jamaat leaders will have their fate decided by the ICT.
On all the three days Mukherjee is scheduled to be in Bangladesh, accepting an honorary doctorate from Dhaka University, visiting his in-laws in Bhadrabila-Narail, looking up Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral palace in Shilaidaha and sampling the choicest out-of-season hilsa, the country will be on the boil politically.
The Jamaat has called for a two-day bandh and the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), it’s ally, whose leader Begum Khaleda Zia is scheduled to meet Mukherjee tomorrow, has called for a bandh on Tuesday, the day the Indian President is to return to New Delhi.
Mukherjee will also be awarded the Friend of the Liberation War, which is a notch below the Friend of Bangladesh that Sonia Gandhi accepted on behalf of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Mukherjee is expected to be accompanied by Mukul Roy (Trinamul Congress), Sitaram Yechury (CPM), Adhir Chowdhury (junior railway minister from the Congress), Bhubaneswar Kalita (Assam Congress president) and Chandan Mitra (BJP).
For Dhaka, Mukherjee’s visit provides the biggest opportunity — after the trips by foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai and foreign minister Salman Khurshid in the past three weeks — to push its case for the land boundary agreement and the sharing of the Teesta waters.
These would be the two major gifts New Delhi can arrange for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed — who had promised the trial of the war criminals during the previous election campaign — in the fractious months leading to the polls.
“It isn’t that the Awami League government was enjoying the best of times,” said Trimita. “It was battered by scam after scam — in the stock market, over Hallmark (a company) and Sonali Bank and Destiny (another firm).”
In the wake of the Shahbag protests, issues raised by the Opposition have receded to the background though they have not quite been forgotten.
Shyamal Dutta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj, says he can visualise a situation in which the demonstrators at Shahbag take up issues such as corruption in later months. That would make the Awami League very uncomfortable.
For now, though, Hasina’s government will be tested in its ability to police the country after the Jamaat’s and BNP’s calls for bandhs when Mukherjee is in town.
“I can imagine India playing a role here by lending a helping hand if the Jamaatis and the Islamic fundamentalists run rampant,” said Tassafy. “That would be the logical thing for India to do.”
But after the comments by Menon and Khurshid — who too was enthusiastic about the energy displayed by the Bangladeshi youth demanding the execution of war criminals — a visible Indian role could be damaging for Shahbag. India, anyway, looms large in Bangladesh because of 1971.