The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India should let Bangladesh build its own heaven or hell

The reason Nepal has, of late, received more attention in the Indian media than Bangladesh is perhaps because of an assumption: Bangladesh, our politicians and, along with them, our commentators believe, is, as far as we are concerned, a burnt-out case. In contrast, we are in a position to influence events in Nepal. The land-locked country too may soon disappoint us, but a certain aura of illusion with regard to it continues to hang in the air.

If Bangladesh has been given up as a lost cause by New Delhi, it is, candidly speaking, an excellent development as much for the Bangladeshis as for ourselves. Intrusion in the affairs of that country by the Indian authorities — as well as by ordinary Indian citizens — immediately following the 1971 liberation was largely responsible for the rapid erosion over there of goodwill towards India. The ghost of Hindu overlordship, howsoever a fiction, is not easily laid to rest. One of the factors underlying the reality of Sheikh Hasina’s 14-party alliance being on the backfoot on the eve of the scheduled national elections has been the Awami League’s inability to rub off, from itself, the stigma of being Indophile. By striking a loose electoral arrangement with the Jatiya Party of the former president, H.M. Ershad, the alliance had hoped to overcome the problem and beat Begum Khaleda Zia at the post.

When the president, Iazuddin Ahmed, a known Begum Zia loyalist, assumed charge as head of the provisional government for conducting the election, the decks got heavily loaded against Sheikh Hasina. Her announcement not to participate in the polls was, at best, making a virtue of the compulsion of events. The programme chalked up by her 14-party alliance to lay a country-wide siege on the eve of the scheduled election date, however, changed matters dramatically. Strong pressure from external sources — in all probability, particularly from the United States of America — has now forced the president to vacate the position of head of the caretaker regime. Under the cloak of the proclamation of an emergency, the army has taken charge of the country, all civic rights have been suspended and the elections have been postponed, though temporarily. But one never knows.

Either the different political elements will now agree on a new schedule and a new modality for conducting the national elections and the Emergency be lifted, or conditions will remain full of uncertainty and confusion in Bangladesh. Irrespective of which begum emerges triumphant in the polls once these are held, the country is likely to continue to be ravaged by violence. Clashes between opposing political groups will be the order of the day, riots and killings will be on the rise, with frequent shutdown of economic and commercial activities. The probable outcome is a near-permanent state of civil war. It is not altogether farfetched to hypothesize that taking advantage of the on-going chaos, yet another military coup will take place, thus drawing the curtain, at least for a while, on the drama of democratic pretensions.

That, cynics will remark, would hardly make a difference to life and living in that hapless country. Anarchy or no anarchy, military dictatorship or rule of law by a regime installed through elections based on adult suffrage, Bangladesh, these cynics claim, will remain firmly in the clutches of a wide array of non-governmental organizations, which have spread into every nook and corner of the country. These NGOs are, in effect, the real rulers of Bangladesh. Each year they spend at least twice as much money as is funnelled through the national budget. They have their networks reaching to the furthest zillas and upazillas.

Many political leaders moonlight as office-bearers of this or that NGO and thereby scale to newer heights of affluence. The reach of the NGOs now extends even to the domain of literary and cultural activities. Matters have come to such a pass that it is the NGO-mindset which largely determines the Bangladeshi mindset. In their turn, the NGOs are heavily funded by foreign governments and entities, particularly the US, who have their own agenda. Money talks, and the NGOs have all the money. Not surprisingly, their agenda, by and large, constitutes Bangladesh’s national agenda.

The influence of the NGOs is so pervasive that it extends to university faculties, military personnel, bank officials, newspaper editors, businessmen, village moneylenders and suchlike. Even the Grameen Bank, recently much in the news, is allegedly in the control of a concordat of NGOs which guides its affairs from behind the scene. The tale of little people making good on their own is pure fiction.

In the circumstances, India can do very little to influence the situation in Bangladesh: it has yet to develop its own NGO network. Besides, even if it does nothing, the scope of being misunderstood is high. Any kind of complaint posted by Indian authorities in regard to cross-border infiltrations will, for instance, further exacerbate the relations between the two countries, and it will be fatuous for Indian spokesmen to persist with this line of talk. Similarly, allegations of infiltration, including by supposed agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, are now passé. Even if these allegations have an objective basis, persistent repetition of them does not help the cause. The India-Bangladesh border, after all, is by no means a natural demarcation; it is a politically imposed phenomenon, often flying in the face of economic realities.

Local-level economic and commercial transactions between territories abutting on the border have gone on for centuries and will be difficult to stop. Starving job-seekers will keep crossing into India, and some rickety cattle will continue to be smuggled from India into Bangladesh. These are activities with a hoary tradition which recent political history is unable to obliterate. It is only to be expected that some espionage agents, too, will continue to infiltrate from Bangladesh into India, just as there will be a regular reverse flow.

Quite a number of these issues can be sorted out through quiet bilateral negotiations. Some others may indeed prove intractable. By raising Cain over them, India may seek to derive a propaganda advantage on the home front. It will, however, have a negative impact in Bangladesh. Interminable expression of unhappiness over border intrusions could actually strengthen the conviction amongst Bangladeshi citizens of the bloody mindedness of hoity-toity Indians. India, it will perhaps be suggested, is indescribably cruel towards poor landless cultivators who occasionally transgress the border in search of an honest living.

India obviously is in no position to help out the people of Bangladesh in their quest for a healthy and stable democratic order. Any taking of sides in the internal affairs — even a suspicion of taking sides — can only further worsen India-Bangladesh relations, and not just at the official level.

The policy to follow should be one of benign indifference — plenty of goodwill, but nothing beyond — and meanwhile allow the NGOs to stew in their own juice. Who knows, the final battle for democracy in Bangladesh could be between two opposing juntas of NGOs' Conceivably, on both sides, there would be heavy funding from the US, some of the fund-suppliers having their affiliation back home with the Democrats, some others with the Republicans. The NGOs from other countries would witness the proceedings, listlessly or otherwise, from the sidelines. India should join this last group, and let Bangladesh continue to build its hell or heaven in the manner it likes.

The only worry is, of course, of a possible extra eagerness on the part of the US administration to take direct charge of the affairs of the faction-ridden country. Till as long as the US attempts to further its long-range interests through the intermediary of the NGOs, things may stay in control. American over-zealousness could, however, draw in others too. That would turn Bangladesh into a grimier mess.

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