India Cautions USA: Over-Interference In Bangladesh Polls Will Encourage Islamists And Push Country Towards China

India Cautions USA: Over-Interference In Bangladesh Polls Will Encourage Islamists And Push Country Towards China

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Thursday, August 31, 2023 10:42 PM IST
India Cautions USA: Over-Interference In Bangladesh Polls Will Encourage Islamists And Push Country Towards ChinaBangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left) and BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia
  • India’s cautionary messages to the USA have, say Bangladeshi leaders, begun to take effect.

    There has been some easing of pressure from Washington in recent weeks. 

India has cautioned the US several times over the last few weeks against over-interference in the ensuing parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. 

The US has been pushing Bangladesh hard to accommodate unreasonable demands of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies in order to ensure “free, fair and participative elections”. 

The BNP, and other smaller opposition parties, have been demanding that the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, slated for January 2024, be held under a neutral caretaker government headed by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

The BNP and its allies have threatened to boycott the elections if its demand is not met. The BNP had boycotted the 2014 parliamentary elections and won only seven seats in the 350-member Jatiya Sansad (Bangladesh’s Parliament) in 2018. 

But the 2018 elections were marred by many allegations of rigging, intimidation of opposition voters and malpractices. The BNP contends that the only way to ensure free and fair polls is to hold the elections under a caretaker government with an Election Commission made up of independent persons. 

The USA and other Western nations, have bought into the BNP’s demand. 

The USA had, in May this year, threatened visa sanctions against Bangladeshi politicians, officials and members of its security forces who it perceives are guilty of subverting the poll process and putting opposition parties at a disadvantage. 

Other Western nations have followed in the footsteps of the USA and threatened action, including similar sanctions. The envoys of USA and UK have been meeting the chief election commissioner and other Election Commission officials to enquire about preparations for the polls.

The US ambassador in Dhaka, Peter Haas, has met Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal and discussed steps that need to be taken to ensure “free and fair elections where people of Bangladesh can choose their leaders freely and fearlessly”.

As if on cue, British high commissioner to Bangladesh, Sarah Cook, also met the CEC to discuss poll preparations. 

“The UK promotes free, fair, participatory and peaceful elections in Bangladesh so that the people of this country can exercise their democratic right,” said Cook after her meeting with the CEC. 

US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas meeting Bangladesh Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal
US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas meeting Bangladesh Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal
UK High Commissioner to Bangladesh Sarah Cook after her meeting with Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal
UK High Commissioner to Bangladesh Sarah Cook after her meeting with Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal

The US and western nations have also strongly criticised police action against recent Opposition rallies that have turned violent and crackdown by security forces on Islamists who have resurfaced in the garb of opposition politicians. 

Bangladesh has bristled against this interference and attempts by the USA and other Western countries to dictate how elections will be conducted in the country. 

Leaders of the ruling Awami League, as well as senior diplomats, have reached out to India to help stave off the unwelcome pressure and interference from the US and other Western countries. 

What India has told the US

Indian diplomats and leaders have, over the past couple of months, taken up Bangladesh’s cause during their regular interactions with their US counterparts. 

The US has been cautioned that pressuring Bangladesh too much will push it into China’s arms. Indian leaders and diplomats have also pointed out that the BNP and its Islamist allies have an agenda that could potentially pose a threat to regional and global security. 

In fact, China has already weighed in and assured Bangladesh that it supports Dhaka’s stance in “opposing external interference” and has promised help to Dhaka to resist such interference. 

This issue figured at a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jingping and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the sidelines of the BRICS summit at Johannesburg on August 23. 

China’s foreign ministry released a statement stating that Xi told Sheikh Hasina that China supports Bangladesh in opposing external interference and that Beijing will work with Dhaka to support each other on their core interests. 

Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen, said last weekend that the upcoming elections were an “internal affair” of Bangladesh and that the “future of Bangladesh should be determined by Bangladeshis” and not outside powers. 

This is exactly what New Delhi had cautioned Washington against. 

“It is inevitable that faced with over-interference and a lot of pressure, Bangladesh will turn to China. And China is only too willing to take Dhaka’s side against the US and western countries,” a senior officer in the BM (Bangladesh, Myanmar) division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya over phone from New Delhi. 

India has also pointed out to the US that the BNP has, in its ranks, many Islamists who have close links with Islamic terror organisations. New Delhi views the BNP as a party inimical to India’s interests. 

“It is a fact that the BNP has close links with many individuals and groups who are aligned with fundamentalist and even proscribed organisations which have been largely defanged by the Sheikh Hasina government. Bangladesh will suffer a resurgence of these fundamentalist and terror organisations if the BNP comes to power,” the MEA officer said. 

This has been explained in detail by Indian diplomats to their counterparts in the US State Department. Indian leaders have also voiced these concerns privately during their recent interactions with their American counterparts.

The USA has been told that it is important to recognise the true face of the BNP. “A look at years when the BNP was in power in Bangladesh is enough to prove the point that the party patronises Islamists with links to terror groups. Islamic fundamentalism had surged in Bangladesh whenever the BNP was in power (June 1978 to March 1982, March 1991 to March 1996 and October 2001 to October 2006),” a former deputy high commissioner of India to Bangladesh told Swarajya

“Not only had Islamic fundamentalism gained ground, Bangladesh became a haven for terror groups and witnessed an increase in Pakistan’s footprints in the country when the BNP was in power. Attacks on Hindus and other religious minorities had become the norm and democracy was subverted. Bangladesh also started sheltering leaders and cadres of militant outfits of Northeast India. The BNP’s track record is very poor and justifiably raises red flags,” said the retired diplomat who now lives in Gurugram. 

The US has been made aware of the BNP’s track record. “The Americans have been told that if the BNP returns to power, a grave risk will be posed to security in South Asia and, eventually, the world. No country will be immune to Islamic terror that will gain roots in Bangladesh under a BNP regime,” a senior diplomat of the rank of additional secretary who has been involved in recent interactions with US State department officials told Swarajya

The demand for elections under a caretaker regime

This demand has been outrightly rejected by the Awami League because of the terrible experience with one such regime which overstepped its brief and continued to rule the country for over two years with the backing of the military. 

The system of parliamentary elections being held under the aegis of caretaker regimes started in December 1990 with the support of all political parties who felt that only such a regime can conduct credible, free and fair elections. 

The caretaker regimes, all the parties decided, would be headed by the immediate past chief justice of the Supreme Court. The first caretaker regime conducted parliamentary elections in February 1991.

The 1991 elections brought the BNP to power. The BNP government handed over power to the second caretaker regime headed by former Chief Justice Mohammad Habibur Rahaman in March 1996. 

This regime also conducted the June 1996 elections that brought the Awami League to power. After ruling for its fixed tenure of five years, Sheikh Hasina handed over power to the third caretaker government headed by former Chief Justice Latifur Rahman in July 2001. 

The third caretaker government successfully conducted elections in October, 2001, which saw the BNP returning to power. 

As had become the norm, the Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (of the BNP) stepped down after five years in October 2006 and handed over power to the fourth caretaker government that was supposed to conduct elections within three months and handover power to the elected government within 120 days. 

The immediate past Chief Justice, K M Hasan, refused to head the caretaker regime because of ill health. The major political parties could not reach a consensus on the head of the regime and Iajuddin Ahmed, the president of the country, decided to head the caretaker government. 

But the Awami League objected since Iajuddin Ahmed had been appointed (president of the country) by the BNP government and the Awami League doubted his impartiality. 

The Awami League announced its boycott of the parliamentary elections that were to be held in January 2007. The army then stepped in and forced Ahmed to declare a state of emergency and hand over the reins of the caretaker government to a former High court judge, Mohammad Fazlul Haque, on January 11, 2007. 

The army then replaced Haque with Fakhruddin Ahmed, a reputable civil servant and former governor of the country’s central bank, after just one day on January 12, 2007.

Backed by the army, Ahmed ruled the country for nearly two years during which he launched a crackdown on bureaucrats and politicians on charges of corruption. The arrested included BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia and Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina. 

Ahmed also tried to force the two former prime ministers into exile. But the army was forced to relent under sustained international pressure and hold elections in late December 2008 that brought Sheikh Hasina to power. 

In order to prevent a repeat of the army grabbing power once again through a caretaker regime, the Awami League government abolished the system of elected governments handing over power to caretaker regimes after their five year tenures for the conduct of free and fair elections. This was effected through the 15th amendment to the country’s constitution. 

The BNP wants the caretaker regime system to be reintroduced and has been holding violent demonstrations, often with help from Islamists and the Jamaat-e-Islami and other fundamentalist outfits, over the past couple of months to force the Sheikh Hasina government to step down. 

The crackdown by security forces on such demonstrations and agitations has been portrayed by the BNP to western nations as actions by the Awami League government to throttle democracy. 

“The BNP has been quite successful in giving the impression to western nations that it is being denied a level playing field and that elections under the Awami League government will not be free and fair. Many western nations, including the USA, have bought that false narrative,” said the senior officer of the MEA’s ‘BM Division’. 

Police on the streets of Dhaka to break up a demonstration by Opposition parties
Police on the streets of Dhaka to break up a demonstration by Opposition parties

The BNP, the officer added, has been trying to leverage its threat of boycotting the polls to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down. 

The USA and other Western nations are of the view that if the BNP, the biggest opposition party, boycotts the elections, the polls will not be participative and will lack credibility. 

India has been trying to put things in perspective and telling the US that the BNP, a party with close links to Islamists, should not be allowed to hold the election process in Bangladesh to ransom. 

India’s cautionary messages to the USA have, say Bangladeshi leaders, begun to take effect. There has been some easing of pressure from Washington in recent weeks. 

India is also requesting the US to ask other Western nations, which have a tendency to imitate US actions in other countries, to lay off Bangladesh. 

It now remains to be seen if the US and the Western countries retreat from their stand on Bangladesh elections.

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