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Our foreign policy actions on Bangladesh are too weak

By Srinath Raghavan

Close on the heels of the recent visit to Dhaka by the Indian home minister, the Bangladesh government has announced that it will deport the ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia to India. The quick response to India’s request for handing over Chetia reflects the present Bangladesh government’s desire for a major transformation in its relations with India.

In January 2010, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, undertook a successful visit to New Delhi, which signalled the eagerness of her government to reset ties with India. The Indian government has responded positively to these overtures. Last summer, the Indian finance minister travelled to Dhaka and formally inked an agreement extending a $1 billion credit line to Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, there remains an unmistakeable feeling in Bangladesh that the relationship is hamstrung by New Delhi’s limited attention span and its tendency to engage fitfully. This perception may be a tad exaggerated, but there is a kernel of truth to it.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Reuters

Much of the problem stems from India’s inability to translate its good intentions into real outcomes. For instance, the extension of such a large credit line was unprecedented. But much of it remains unutilised to date.

Part of the problem has been the difficulties faced by the Bangladeshis in drawing up proposals that meet the standards set by the Indian government. Then again, India could easily step up and assist the Bangladesh government in pulling together the requisite expertise. Similarly, India has been unable to provide timely assistance to Bangladesh in its requests for food aid and purchases.

The inability of our government machinery to deliver on foreign policy initiatives could well undermine our relations with Bangladesh. This is unfortunate; for Sheikh Hasina’s desire to engage closely with India is related to wider changes that she aims to bring about domestically.

Two developments, in particular, need to be understood.  The first is the trial for crimes against humanity in 1971, and the second the annulment of the previous amendments to the Bangladesh constitution.

The trials seek to bring to justice those individuals who actively collaborated with the Pakistan army in its brutal campaign to suppress the movement for an independent Bangladesh in 1971. The list of individuals allegedly involved in crimes against humanity runs to over a thousand.

Back in 1971, many of them had been associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami - a party that strongly opposed independence - and its affiliated student body and paramilitary organisations.

The Jamaat-e-Islami is now in the political mainstream of Bangladesh. In 2001 it was part of the coalition government led by Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Supporters of the Jamaat and the BNP have claimed that the trials are nothing but an exercise in political vendetta.

But Prime Minister Hasina has remained unperturbed by such criticism and is determined to proceed with the trials. Earlier in her current term, she had overseen the execution of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both the executions and the trials are regarded by her party, the Awami League, as part of the unfinished agenda of the liberation struggle initiated by Sheikh Mujib.

The amendment of the constitution is an integral part of this agenda. The original constitution of Bangladesh, which came into existence in 1972, proclaimed four guiding principles for the new state: democracy, nationalism, socialism, and secularism.

The notion that the state should be secular met with approval of various sections of the newly created Bangladesh. The small Islamist minority that thought otherwise had been discredited by its role in opposing independence. Unsurprisingly, its views did not inform the process of constitution making.

Srinath Raghavan

The assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975 and the ensuing period of military rule dealt a blow to the original constitution. The 5th amendment to the constitution was moved in 1979, during the reign of General Ziaur Rahman. It sought to give constitutional legitimacy to the military dictatorships that followed Mujib’s assassination.

Among other things, General Zia removed secularism from the principles of state policy enumerated in the constitution, and deleted Article 12 which banned religious parties. The removal of this article paved the way for the entry of the Jamaat into the political arena.

It is not surprising that it was Zia’s party - the BNP - now led by his wife that embraced the Jamaat in 2001. Subsequently General HM Ershad introduced the 8th amendment in 1988, which made Islam the state religion.

In August 2005, the Bangladesh High Court ruled that the 5th amendment was unconstitutional. The BNP and the Jamaat challenged this verdict. In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh dismissed their petitions and upheld the high court’s ruling. The court also upheld Article 12 of the constitution, much to the chagrin of the Jamaat and its patrons.

The following month, the Supreme Court struck down the 8th amendment, which legitimised Ershad’s coup and his martial law decrees. Soon after, the Bangladesh government constituted a parliamentary committee to draft a new amendment that would give effect to the court’s rulings.

On 30 June 2011, the Bangladesh Parliament passed the 15th amendment bill. This restored the four principles of the original constitution. Nevertheless, the bill leaves untouched Islam’s status as the state religion and retains the ‘Bismillah’ introduced into the preamble of the constitution by the 5th amendment.

Nor has the political ban on the religious parties been imposed again. Sheikh Hasina has drawn considerable flak for this from various secular civil society outfits and some political figures as well. But it is easy to see why she has been cautious.

For one thing, she does not want to give her opponents an opportunity to brand the Awami League as anti-Islamic. For another, banning religious parties might have serious political implications—especially when the trials for war crimes are in the offing.

Sheikh Hasina knows that the window of opportunity for her to bring about some desirable changes is limited both in scope and in time. New Delhi should realise this too. Internal developments in Bangladesh are closely linked to Sheikh Hasina’s desire for a rejuvenated relationship with India. After all, the Jamaat not only opposed independence for Bangladesh but close ties with India all along.

In any event, a progressive, pluralist Bangladesh is certainly a more attractive regional partner for India. New Delhi should seize the moment and ensure that the relationship acquires both breadth and solidity. The Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka next month could be the turning point.

Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.