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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2703

When Bangladesh is on fire, Indian silence is prudent

By P R Kumaraswamy - Exclusive to Asian Tribune

One step away from military rule. Or a step closer to anarchy! This is perhaps the apt description of the unfolding drama in Bangladesh. The decision of President Iajuddin Ahmed to concurrently head the Caretaker government that would supervise the forthcoming elections has opened a Pandora’s Box.

Undoubtedly, this unusual move had temporarily filed the political vacuum created when the tenure of the government headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia completed its five-year tenure. Under the Bangladeshi constitution, a caretaker government was to have been sworn in Friday to organize, conduct and supervise the Jatiya Sangsad elections slated for early 2007.

This however, did not happen because both the government and the opposition could not agree on a consensus candidate. Ideally, former judge K M Hasan should have headed the government because he was the immediate retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. However, citing his bias in favor of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Awami League and its allied opposed his candidature.

Literally, citing opposition to his candidature at the very last moment Hasan expressed his inability to shoulder the responsibility. As a retaliatory tactics, the BNP was not ready to accept other names floated by the opposition. With the result, on Sunday President Ahmed broke the impasse by taking over the head of the Caretaker government. As a former member of the BNP, he would have to work harder to earn the trust of the opposition.

This unprecedented step has raised a number of questions about the propriety of the President to hold two constitutional positions simultaneously. Some have argued that the president has not followed the alternatives suggested by the Constitution regarding Caretaker government and has usurped the powers. It is possible that he would relinquish one of the two positions.

The opposition was not ready to accept the President as the head of the interim arrangement. At the same time however, they are not ready to precipitate the situation further and thereby plunge the country into a virtual anarchy. Hence, they settled for a wait-and-watch approach.

This would however, only be temporary. During the run up to the transition arrangement, streets of Bangladesh, especially of the capital has witnessed large-scale violence. The targeting of political leaders and activists has been on the raise. Without exception, all political forces have been actively engaging in street violence.

The current crisis is not an aberration but merely a new chapter in the ongoing saga ever since the multiparty elections were introduced in 1991. Since then the losing side always cried foul and questioned the impartiality of the neutral caretaker government that conducted the elections. Regular and periodic elections have not created a suitable democratic climate in the country. As one seasoned observer aptly summed up, Bangladesh continues to be a ‘fragile democracy.’

Where does this unfolding drama leave India?

Indian dilemma

This time around, the Indian government was rather swift to react. A Foreign Ministry statement issued on Sunday declared: “Government of India is closely watching developments in Bangladesh. As a friendly neighbour, we are naturally interested in Bangladesh remaining peaceful, democratic and stable. It is our hope that the people of Bangladesh will be allowed to exercise their right to choose their own government in a free and fair manner in the forthcoming elections in accordance with their Constitution.”

This carefully worded general pronouncement should not hide the real dilemmas facing New Delhi. As a neighbour with whom it shares history, culture, language and border, domestic developments in Bangladesh have a strong bearing on India. Bangladesh is not only country that is facing serious internal challenges. Only now, the Maoist-led violence is gradually receded in Nepal while the ethnic violence is on the raise in Sri Lanka.

The situation in Bangladesh is far more complicated. The political uncertainty and possible break down of constitutional order come against the background of growing terrorism and violence emanating from militant extremism. In recent years, New Delhi has additional concerns vis-à-vis Bangladesh. As National Security Adviser M K Narayanan publicly warned, Bangladesh has of late become the ‘platform’ for many anti-Indian forces. The current political crisis could only heighten the situation.

Already there are media reports that a large number of political activists are fleeing into India because of possible threats to their lives. Should the pre-poll violence escalates this could only intensify. Will it provide refugee to all those who are fleeing or will it be selective in granting entry? Either way India would be sucked into the unfolding political crisis.

India has one advantage. Pranab Kumar Mukherjee has just taken over as the new Foreign Minister. Some of India’s principal foreign policy concerns did not suffer from the prolonged absence of a full-fledged Minister. Given his ethnic background, he might consider personally handling the Bangladeshi policy. He would the necessary expertise, background and above all time to do.

It is worthwhile remembering that Mukherjee played up India’s differences with Bangladesh during the Assembly elections in West Bengal in the summer. In his previous position as India’s Defence Minister, he hosted a private lunch when Awami leader Sheikh Hasina visited India last June. Thus, it would be safe to assume that Mukherjee would be more than active in shaping India’s Bangladeshi policy.

There are however, some procedural problems. Protesting over the elevation of Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary, Indian High Commission in Dhaka Veena Sikri has put in her papers. Her successor is yet to assume office. This would mean during this critical time, its deputy High Commissioner would head the Indian mission.

Above all, for years India has been accused of interfering in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh and of siding with Awami League. Part of the Indo-Bangladeshi tensions since the spectacular victory of the Khaleda-led coalition in October 2001 emanate from the perception that India was sympathetic towards the Awami and its leader Hasina.

Silence is golden

A degree of political accommodation between the two principal leaders, namely Khaleda and Hasina is essential if political future of Bangladesh were to be secured. However, given their personal animosity such a modicum of relations accommodation would not be possible without some external involvement or inducement. Despite all its intensions and past bonhomie, India would not be that external mediator.

India would thus be wiser not to do anything that would perpetuate this impression. With growing political uncertainties in Bangladesh, any unnecessary Indian utterance, even if well intended could boomerang. In the past, many political parties hyped their anti-India antics during election to garner the support of the nationalists.

It was no accident that American Ambassador Patricia Butenis was present when President Ahmad took over as the head of the Caretaker government. Should the situation arises, the US or even China would be acceptable to all major parties as a possible mediator or intermediary.

This may not comfort many in the south Block. But it would be prudent for India to maintain a golden silence when Bangladesh is going through one of the difficult moments in its history.

P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

- Asian Tribune -

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