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Ashis Chakrabarti Looks At Why Anti-India Protests In Bangladesh Are Becoming More And More Shrill With Every Passing Day   |   Published 09.12.04, 12:00 AM

Is India conspiring to wipe a neighbour called Bangladesh out of the face of the earth through ?desertification? of the country or, before it can do so, to project it to the international community as a ?failed state??

Anti-India sentiments are not new in certain quarters in Bangladesh. The intensity of the sentiments and the pitch in which they are articulated in the media in Dhaka usually depend on how close to the general elections the country is. The image of India as the big neighbourhood bully has long been the stuff of political campaigns in Bangladesh and Nepal.

But what one encountered on a recent visit to Dhaka was rather out of the ordinary. The pitch of anti-India rhetoric was unusually high for a time when elections there are still one-and-a-half years away. A visiting Indian is almost put on the dock and asked to defend himself against a host of conspiracy charges. Independent analysts in Dhaka admit that rarely in the past thirty years has the anti-India din been so loud.

What are the charges? From a long and seemingly endless list, some stand out both for their ingenuity and for their appeal to a section of the political opinion in Bangladesh.

Let us look first into the ones that aim to mould public opinion in that country. On top of this list is the charge that India?s attempts to manage the waters from 54 rivers that flow into Bangladesh would reduce large parts of that country into a ?desert?. Buffeted by the regular cyclones that rise in the Bay of Bengal in the south and the India-made ?deserts? in the north, the country would face a real threat to its very existence. India?s riverlinking project would thus conspire with an unkind nature to make Bangladesh a geographical disaster waiting to happen.

It does not quite help to tell the Bangladeshi accusers that the project, conceived by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, has many critics in India or, more important, that it may take decades to implement it even partially.

As if the ecological conspiracy was not enough, India, you are told, is plotting to ruin Bangladesh?s economy by refusing to withdraw the tariff and non-tariff barriers on the latter?s exports.

Then there is the familiar complaint about India?s strongarm tactics to force Dhaka to agree to export its gas to India. All Indian complaints will be silenced, it is said, if Bangladesh submits to this Indian pressure. Since Dhaka has not obliged New Delhi by doing so, the latter has mounted a slander campaign.

But the darkest Indian conspiracy is to tell the world that Bangladesh is on the verge of becoming a failed state that harbours and breeds terrorists, both homegrown and the ones from India?s North-east. If the Far Eastern Economic Review ran a cover story two years ago, describing the country as a ?Cocoon of Terror?, the idea for it must have been scripted in New Delhi. If Time magazine carried a four-page article earlier this year, calling the country a ?State of Disgrace?, you know where the plot for the article was hatched. And, if the Time journalist was of Indian origin, the ?dark suspicion?, as one journalist recently put it, was that it had been written ?at the behest of his paymasters in New Delhi?.

So when Bangladesh?s foreign minister, M. Morshed Khan, made some stunning anti-India remarks at a conference in Dhaka in September ? in the presence of the heads of several foreign missions, including India?s ? he only gave voice to the prevailing mood, at least in the present ruling establishment. What surprised many, however, was the tone of Khan?s remarks that bordered on threatening India that Dhaka too would retaliate to India?s alleged tactics.

In fact, analysts in Dhaka suggest that there are two distinct reasons why the Khaleda Zia government has raised the pitch of India-baiting so high. First, it is indeed a retaliation to what Dhaka sees as Indian attempts to run down the country?s image in the international community. India?s complaints about the shelters and training camps of north-eastern militants inside Bangladesh, about infiltration of Bangladeshis into India and above all, the projection of Bangladesh as a new hub of Islamic terrorists, are all seen as part of the conspiracy to malign ? and destabilize ? the current regime in Dhaka. India does this, the argument goes, because the Zia government has persistently ignored India?s security concerns.

One also hears that the Indian propaganda is actually a response to Bangladesh?s domestic politics. Since the Awami League is believed to be India?s favourite, the present coalition government, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, bears the brunt of the Indian propaganda against the country. This is an old argument which, however, does not fully explain the stiffening of stances between the two countries.

But both analysts and some sections of the common people talk of a second reason for the recent anti-India campaign in Bangladesh. It is argued that this is actually an attempt of the current regime to defend itself against sharpening criticism both at home and abroad. From this point of view, this rhetoric has more to do with the country?s internal situation than with anything that India does or does not.

The reasoning follows like this. The worsening law and order situation, the rise of religious fundamentalism and even attacks on ? and persistent threats to ? the media and religious minorities have increasingly made things difficult for the Zia government. The ruling alliance and the government are desperate to divert people?s attention from the domestic problems. Whipping up anti-India passions is an old ploy that the rulers are trying to use once again.

That there is some substance in this reasoning is borne out by the events following the August 21 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina Wajed and other Awami League leaders at a rally in Dhaka. The tragic incident, which killed 20 people, including the veteran women?s leader, Ivy Rehman, and injured several hundred League supporters, shook the government badly.

Although there had been many deadly attacks on political personalities and parties even during the previous League regime, the August 21 tragedy had altogether different dimensions. For Bangladeshis themselves, this was the ultimate example of the mounting threats to political pluralism and democracy in the country.

For the international community, too, the incident came as incontrovertible proof of what it had been suspecting for quite some time ? that the country was dangerously sliding into anarchy, and that the government is either unwilling or unable to check the slide or, worse still, is conniving with certain elements responsible for this situation.

Not just the international press but several high-profile international organizations have been sounding alarm bells for the past two years. Organizations like the Amnesty International, Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Committee to Protect Journalists have repeatedly complained against growing threats to the media and the civil society in Bangladesh. Foreign investments in the country too dropped dramatically over the past two years.

It is common to hear in Dhaka the argument that the government?s shrill protests are actually a nervous and even panicky reaction to a situation getting out of its control. Laying the blame for the mess at India?s door is thus a desperate refusal to own responsibility for it and make amends. Such is the atmosphere of mistrust that even the Tatas? proposal to make an investment of $2 billion in Bangladesh ? the biggest in the country?s history ? has raised more suspicion than enthusiasm.

On balance, the argument of domestic politics seems stronger. For the average Bangladeshis, the so-called Indian conspiracy is the stuff of politics. It is the lengthening shadow of the criminal, the extortionist and religious bigot that they are scared of. And, they blame their government, not India, for it.

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