It is no secret that India is backing Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the hilt in warding off pressure from the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), and European Union (EU) to agree to the opposition’s demand to step down (read ).
The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has been demanding that the Awami League government make way for a neutral caretaker government so that it can conduct the parliamentary elections in the country.
Only then, they believe, will free and fair elections be possible.
The BNP has told the Western nations that the party won’t participate in the elections if they are conducted with the Awami League government in power. Such a boycott will rob the elections of their credibility, which the Western nations do not want.
And that is why they are leaning heavily on Hasina to step down — for the sake of free, fair, and participatory elections.
But Hasina has not only resisted the pressure, but also rebuffed the powerful Western nations, thanks to strong backing from New Delhi.
There is no denying the fact that it is in New Delhi’s interests that Hasina remains in power. Apart from ensuring the continuity of connectivity projects that are so vital for North East India, the Awami League government has been highly accommodative of India’s security concerns.
After coming to power in January 2009, Hasina initiated a harsh crackdown on militant outfits of the North East who had been provided shelter in Bangladesh by the earlier BNP government.
The tough action extended to the military juntas that ruled the country for most of the period between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination on 15 August 1975 and the return to democracy in 1991.
The 1991 elections brought the BNP to power, and its prime minister Khaleda Zia displayed a marked anti-India stance.
Zia allowed Pakistan’s notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and radical Islamists to expand their footprint in Bangladesh, turning it into a hotbed for anti-India activities.
The Awami League won the 1996 elections and Hasina started undoing a lot of the damage to India-Bangladesh ties inflicted by her predecessor.
But the BNP returned to power in the 2001 elections and once again took the country close to not only Pakistan’s but also China’s embrace.
The past 17 years (since Hasina returned to power in early January 2009) has seen a sharp upswing in Indo-Bangla ties.
Not only has Hasina cleansed the country of anti-India elements and ensured that entities inimical to India’s interests do not sprout in Bangladesh, she has also allowed rail, road, and waterway projects that pass from eastern India through Bangladesh to North East India.
The Awami League government has also limited China’s footprint in Bangladesh, keeping in mind India’s sensitivities.
Pakistan and its egregious agencies have not been allowed entry into the country, and Hasina has facilitated bilateral trade and closer cultural and people-to-people links between Bangladesh and India.
It is, therefore, natural for New Delhi to offer strong support to Hasina and also intervene on her behalf with Western nations, asking them to go easy on her.
But having done that, it is also necessary for New Delhi to get a few crucial commitments out of Hasina, namely:
1. Protection of religious minorities
Though atrocities on, and persecution of, religious minorities — Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians — in Bangladesh have fallen sharply after Hasina came to power nearly 17 years ago, they do still continue.
Attacks on Hindus, their properties, and places of worship continue to be reported quite regularly from various parts of Bangladesh.
The culprits are mostly Islamists and even lower-level functionaries of the Awami League. Very few of these culprits have ever been prosecuted and convicted, which further emboldens attacks on Hindus and other religious minorities.
New Delhi should extract an ironclad commitment from Hasina that from now on she will institute a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ against the persecution of religious minorities.
She should commit to taking exemplary action against those who attack religious minorities, even if it angers the Islamists.
Hasina should be asked to amend the country’s laws to make punishment for attacking, persecuting, or discriminating against religious minorities stringent and severe.
2. Affirmative action for religious minorities
Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians constitute about 8 per cent of the population of Bangladesh. India should ask Hasina to reserve at least 10 per cent seats in elected bodies, from the panchayat to the parliament, for the religious minorities.
Similar reservations should also be unveiled in government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions.
3. Set up a minorities commission
New Delhi should extract an assurance from Hasina that after coming to power next year, she will amend the country’s Constitution to establish a minorities commission.
Such a body should be independent and have wide-ranging powers to oversee concrete welfare measures for minorities.
It should also have powers to take up suo moto cases of attacks, persecution, and discrimination against religious minorities, conduct investigations into such crimes, and recommend action against culprits.
4. Cut ties with Islamists as well as pro-Pakistan and pro-China elements
Though Hasina has curbed anti-India activities in her country, she and her party still have links with Islamists as well as powerful individuals and entities that are known to be Chinese and Pakistani agents in Bangladesh.
Some of these individuals are even senior members of the Awami League and quite close to Hasina.
One such individual is Salman Fazlur Rahman, a prominent businessman and member of parliament who is also the ‘private industry and investment adviser’ to the Prime Minister.
It is an open secret in Bangladesh that Rahman serves the interests of Beijing and Islamabad in Dhaka. He is viscerally anti-India and known to work against India’s interests. He has at times been successful in scuttling some bilateral (Indo-Bangladesh) projects.
India should also lean heavily on Hasina to abandon her policy of flirting with or propping up Islamist groups to counter the Jamaat-e-Islami that has strong links with the BNP.
Hasina went soft on the after it was formed in 2010 and accommodated many of the radical outfit’s demands. Her calculation was that this outfit would emerge as a strong pro-Awami League force to counter the Jamaat.
But the move boomeranged and the Hefazat grew close to the Jamaat. They are now a strong anti-India and radical Islamist force in Bangladesh.
5. Return of properties seized from Hindus
Lakhs of Hindus lost their homes and lands, which were confiscated by successive military regimes and the BNP government under the Vested Property Act.
Though the Awami League government repealed this anti-minority act, the properties that were unjustly seized from Hindus and other religious minorities have not been returned to them.
India should extract a promise from Hasina to expedite the repatriation of all properties seized from Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians.
6. De-radicalise Bangladesh
The Jamaat-e-Islami, Hefazat-e-Bangladesh, and other radical Islamist outfits have grown stronger in Bangladesh over the last 15 years.
The Awami League government has shied away from being tough against these outfits. In fact, some Awami League leaders and functionaries have developed strong ties with these outfits.
These radical Islamist bodies pose a grave threat not only to Bangladesh and its minorities, but also to India.
Hasina should be made to promise that one of her first tasks after coming to power next year will be to launch a harsh crackdown on these outfits and even ban them.
She should also commit to shutting down madrassas, which are the breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism, and bring all children into the regular school education system.
The time for India to extract these promises is now. Hasina is critically dependent on India presently, and though she has done her fair share in safeguarding India’s interests, she can do more, especially for the religious minorities in her country.
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