Victory Of Taliban Reduced India’s Space To Manoeuvre In Bangladesh
A strong India-Bangladesh collaboration had many positives, but the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will pose a threat to this balance.
Barring a few Western commentators, everyone knows the impact of US pullout (or meltdown?) from Afghanistan, and the takeover by the Taliban will not be restricted in Afghanistan. While threats on India’s western border are known, there is uncertainty on the eastern border with Bangladesh, where India’s stakes are disproportionately high.
The fear is multi-faceted. On the one hand, the Taliban will surely ignite popular sentiments in a 90 per cent Muslim majority nation. The fire is stoked by the Islamic hardliners, who now arguably dominate body politics in Bangladesh and have taken over the opposition space.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League retained power in 2018, but through a highly compromised election. League and partners got 75 per cent vote. The principal opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), managed only six out of 300 elected members of Parliament (MPs). The results were beyond India’s expectations. A fair election, scheduled in early 2024, might see the League's fall.
Add to this the China factor and India may have little space to manoeuvre. China has the dual advantage, as a friend of Pakistan and now the Taliban. On the contrary, an attempt by India during 2001-06, to build bridges with the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition, failed miserably.
All these don’t augur well for either India or the region.
After coming to power in 2009, Hasina launched a massive offensive against hardline Islamic groups led by Jamaat-e-Islami and all sorts of cross-border terror activities run from Bangladeshi soil. Ultras from the northeast lost shelter in Bangladesh (and later in Myanmar).
A strong India-Bangladesh collaboration had many positives. North East India, which shares one-third of its 5,100 km border with Bangladesh, experienced peace and development. Bilateral trade increased three times to $9.4 billion between 2010 and 2019 (calendar). India’s imports from Bangladesh increased by 3.5 times to $1.2 billion.
The bigger development came through regional peace and harmony, which triggered widespread economic cooperation. During the army rule till 1990 and the BNP rule (1991-1996 and 2001-2006) Dhaka operated like a proxy of Pakistan blocking every attempt for regional cooperation.
It is told that wrong interests took precedence behind Dhaka’s support to create the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. Hasina’s efforts to bring Bangladesh back to the path, set by her father and the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, brought winds back to cooperative growth.
Irritated by Pakistan’s veto in SAARC; Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal — referred as BBIN nations — decided to implement a motor-vehicles agreement (MVA) on sub-regional basis in 2015.
The MVA was too revolutionary an idea vis-a-vis the ground realities in vast parts of south and south-east Asia. A similar initiative in the Greater Mekong sub-region couldn’t be implemented either.
The MVA was not implemented, but the initiative paved the way for development in many other areas. From energy to goods trade; the sub-region is now more integrated than it was. Bangladesh can now trade with Nepal and Bhutan — through India — far more easily. And the options are increasing.
For a region that practised mindless rivalry and non-cooperation, even at its own cost, for the greater part of its existence since 1947, is today talking about trade and commerce. That’s a major change to take place in a decade and is riding on a delicate balance.
The huge cooperation on the security front, which goes unnoticed, saw a drastic decline in terror activities. And, whenever the terror struck, whether in Dhaka (Holey Artisan Bakery, 2016) or West Bengal (Khagragarh, 2014), security agencies of either country worked together to nab the culprits in record time.
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a threat to this balance.
Concern For Terror
Pakistan once took an official agenda to make more Muslims out of Bengali Muslims in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Fifty years from Liberation War, the agenda is nurtured by the hardliners on either side and both live a dream to establish the rule of the caliphate in India.
Jamaat-e-Islami has all across been the face of hardline Islamic propaganda in Bangladesh. With the support of army rulers, particularly late Ziaur Rahman (husband of former prime minister and party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia), they grew in prominence. However, in electoral politics, they always rode on the moderate Islamic face of the BNP.
The aggressive politics of Hasina and political failures on the part of BNP disturbed this balance.
Hasina caused sufficient damage to Jamaat, including its disqualification as a recognised political party, during the first term. Later, she wooed Hefazat-e-Islam, a violent non-political force that controls madrasas and maintains close ranks with Jamaat.
Hefazat took its pound of flesh. What started with a change in school textbooks and removal of some (third-class) statues, ended up in opposition to the installation of a statue of Mujibur Rahman and torching the central library in Dhaka; during the golden jubilee year of independence in 2020-2021.
Meanwhile, BNP was under pressure. They made the mistake of boycotting the 2014 poll, in solidarity with Jamaat, and allowing Hasina to win unopposed.
By the time Hasina went for re-election in December 2018, Begum Zia and other top leaders of BNP were jailed. Bangladeshi observers believe in a fair election opposition could win up to 100 seats in 2018, but that opportunity was robbed.
BNP has now undergone a complete change. With the political establishment of Jamaat dismantled the dividing line between the two has gone. Staunch Islamists regrouped and filled every vacant space. The presence of such elements is reported even in League.
Only time will tell how far these observations are true. But there is no denying that the political class of Bangladesh is undergoing a rapid change. Part of this change will be forced by time. Hasina will turn 74 in September. Her rival Zia is 76.
Time will tell what will unfold in Bangladesh. How geopolitics will shape up post-US pullout from Afghanistan or what role will America and Europe play and how India fits into it.
The developments in the last few weeks have all the potential to create a Chinese hegemony from South East Asia to West Asia. However, realities often differ from what they appear to be. One has to wait and see how China handles this exposure.
We are at the beginning of another worrying phase and a lot will depend on a strong, confident government at the Centre that can put up the toughest resistance to terror and pursue growth as well. Not an easy task when you take into consideration political affairs in two key states on either flank.
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