‘Violence Against Hindus Sad But I Have Faith In Hasina Govt’

Banani Mukherjee Das (35), a PR professional from Kolkata, says India can take a lesson or two from its neighbours to make the minority communities feel safe

I have been watching the events unfolding in Bangladesh ever since the controversy erupted during Durga Puja this year beginning from Comilla. Many people have lost their lives and many a Hindu homes and businesses have been attacked. Be it any religion at the receiving end, I feel sad that people continue to fight and even hurt and kill one another over religious beliefs. More so because my family has its roots in Bangladesh. We belonged to Dhaka before my grandfather shifted to India.

It seems we haven’t learnt any lessons from the pandemic? In raging Covid days, people across the world had transcended barriers of caste, creed, religion etc. to help each other in the name of empathy and humanity. All that camaraderie looks frayed now.

There are reports that Hosain Iqbal, the main perpetrator was of an unsound mind and didn’t realise the consequences his actions would carry. But couldn’t the security have been strengthened, given it is such a huge festival, in fact the biggest festival for Bengali Hindus? And even if one person placed the Quran and then spread rumours about it, why were others so quick to believe and get enraged? The undercurrents of discomfort between communities are there in most parts of the world, they come to the surface only occasionally though.

Das says minority communities can contribute a country’s growth only when they feel safe

I must add that the spirit of syncretism is alive and thriving in Kolkata and will continue to be so. According to me, Mamata Banerjee has ensured that the seeds of hatred cannot be sown in Bengal, especially Kolkata. Like Didi, I feel that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina or in other words, most women leaders often try to douse the fire of hatred rather than fan the flames.

People across the world are unequivocally praising Bangladesh’s handling of the whole incident, and condemnation from the civil society as a singular voice. I also like how she handled the whole Rohingya crisis which could have been avoided by another woman leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Recently there was this case in Pakistan also when a Hindu temple was attacked and the Pakistani government also acted swiftly. Perhaps India could learn a lesson or two about how to handle the rights of minorities and that they should not be scared of being who they are. There have been reports that Bangladesh has overtaken India in GDP per capita, and has better employment opportunities, especially for women. India is below Bangladesh in the Hunger Index as well. I believe Bangladesh has learnt its lesson that hatred doesn’t help a country and its people thrive, only a few people benefit from spreading hatred.

When minorities are respected and feel safe, they feel freer to contribute to their maximum potential and it benefits the country at large. I loved how Sheikh Hasina said that Hindus had contributed equally in Bangladesh’s freedom fight and the same goes for India’ s freedom struggle.

I hope we can sustain the lessons we have learnt from the pandemic and not give in to hatred. We should not lend weight to rumours either. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we all survive when we help each other survive. There is always a place for love.

Delhi-Dhaka Ties Stand The Test Of Time

The government of Bangladesh has been enjoying great cooperation from India ever since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009.

The Indian government headed by Narendra Modi has extended wholehearted support for Bangladesh for rebuilding its economy and its infrastructural development. In return, the Sheikh Hasina government has set a unique example of cooperation and reciprocation out of which the people of both countries would reap ample benefit. The transit, trans-shipment and building regional connectivity, including the waterways, would immensely facilitate and promote trade, commerce and tourism.

A number of issues, including the most critical and complex border problem, which had been hanging for about 40 years despite the inking of a treaty by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi, was resolved in a unprecedented bills passed in the Indian Parliament with unanimous support by all members of both the houses.

In response to that genial gesture, the Sheikh Hasina government has set an example of a new reality of cooperation. India-Bangladesh relations are based mainly on the solid historic bond of social, political, economic and cultural tradition. India played a vital role and provided substantial diplomatic, economic and military support to Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971.

India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state and established diplomatic ties with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971.

Bangladesh and India are two countries bound by the inalienable link of history, religion, culture, language and kinship. But the relationship between the two friendly nations is based on sovereignty, equality, trust, understanding and win-win partnership that goes far beyond a strategic partnership.

Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the architect of Bangladesh-India relations. Both Bangabandhu and his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi were firm believers in democracy and secular ideology. Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have further strengthened the relations Mujib and Indira forged between the next-door neighbours.

There are more than 50 bilateral institutional mechanisms between Bangladesh and India in the areas of security, trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defence, riverine and maritime affairs and so on.

Bangladesh and India share 4,097 kilometres of border, which is the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbours. The two countries also share 54 common rivers. Bilateral trade between them has grown steadily over the last decade.

There are lots of common and bilateral issues between these two neighbours. Both countries are promise-bound to maintain these healthy relations without interrelations. Some of the issues, including regional road connectivity, cooperation in power and energy sector, land border agreement, easy visa process, Bangladesh-India rail services, are vital and significantly beneficial to both the countries.

Regional Road Connectivity

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative is a sub-regional entity in Eastern South Asia. It meets through an official representation of member states to formulate, implement and review quadrilateral agreements across areas such as water resources management, connectivity of power, transport, and infrastructure.

In February of this year, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal agreed on the need to finalise the passenger and cargo protocols for implementation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA).

Moreover, according to the transport ministers of the four BBIN members, 30 transport corridors will be transformed into economic corridors. This will potentially increase intraregional trade within South Asia by almost 60 per cent and with the rest of the world by over 30 per cent.

Recently, ECNEC cleared an 846-crore Bangladeshi taka project to widen the Baraiyarhat-Heyanko-Ramgarhroad under Chattogram and Khagrachhari districts, aiming to boost export and import between Bangladesh and India. The approval came from the 5th ECNEC meeting of the current fiscal year chaired by Sheikh Hasina.

According to a report of South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), Bangladesh, India and Nepal conducted a trial bus service run on April 24-25 2018. Two buses left Dhaka for Kathmandu in Nepal, carrying delegates from the three countries and the Asian Development Bank. The bus service will strengthen sub-regional connectivity and help tourists and entrepreneurs, including those who travel to West Bengal for medical tourism.

Land Border Agreement

On June 6, 2015, the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement came into force, following the exchange of instruments of ratification by Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi during the latter’s state visit to Bangladesh. The agreement provides for the exchange of enclaves of Indian and Bangladesh territory, which remained unresolved following the partition in 1947.

Following the agreement, India and Bangladesh exchanged control of 162 enclaves. The move was branded as akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall by politicians.

Until August 1, about 50,000 people were living in 111 Bangladeshi and 51 Indian enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border, cut off from their parent countries. Daily chores such as visiting the market were cumbersome process because they involved crossing national boundaries.

The Land Boundary Agreement played a historic role in advancing the exchange of 111 enclaves (17,160.63 acres) from India to Bangladesh and reciprocatively the latter transferred 51 enclaves (7,110.02 acres) to India. In addition, the choice of citizenship in either country was offered by states to enclave residents.

Easy Visa Process

India-Bangladesh visa rules were being gradually relaxed and five-year visas would be granted to students, senior citizens and patients. Earlier in 2018, an agreement, Revised Travel Arrangement (RTA)-2018, stated that freedom fighters and elderly Bangladeshi nationals will get five-year multiple visas from India. Easy and hassle-free visa services have been ensured for the travellers of the two countries.

Bangladesh-India Rail Services

Transport between India and Bangladesh bears much historical and political significance for both the countries. A direct Kolkata-Agartala link running via Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is being developed by both the countries. The Maitri Express (Friendship Express) was launched to revive a railway link between Kolkata and Dhaka that had been shut 43 years ago.

The first container train arrived from India via Benapole-Petrapole rail link carrying FMCG cargo and fabrics loaded in 50 containers, and those were handed over to Bangladesh on July 26 this year. With this container train service, a huge opportunity has opened up for bilateral trade via rail. Bangladesh Railway’s freight trains, noted for bringing stones and fly ash as raw materials for cement, from India, are now used to bring onion, garlic and ginger and other essentials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In July this year, India handed over 10 broad-gauge diesel-based locomotives to Bangladesh that have a residual life of at least 28 years. These are 3,300 horse-power locomotives that can run at a speed of 120 km/hr. These 10 locomotives are expected to increase the use of the rail sector.

Cooperation in Power and Energy Sector

Cooperation in the power and energy sector has become one of the hallmarks of India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh is currently importing about 660 MW of power from India. In March 2016, the two Prime Ministers inaugurated the export of power from Tripura to Bangladesh as well as the export of internet bandwidth to Tripura from Bangladesh.

Five hundred megawatts of electricity was added to Bangladesh’s national grid from India in 2018 as part of India-Bangladesh cooperation in power and energy sector. Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated the power supply to Bangladesh-India Power Interconnection Grid at Bheramara of Kushtia through a videoconference. In September last year, Bangladesh signed an agreement to buy 718 megawatts of electricity from India’s Reliance Power over the next 22 years.

Earlier, the Bangladesh Prime Minister unveiled her power import plan and said, “We plan to import 9,000 MW of electricity from our neighbours by 2041 under a regional cooperation framework and I hope India will remain by our side in this endeavour.”

There are several other issues where Bangladesh and India have developed the highest level of friendship and bilateral relations. These two friendly neighbours are also great examples of greater understanding, dialogue, diplomacy and regional cooperation.

The author is the editor-in-chief of Bangladesh Post (ANI)

Bangladesh – The Next Asian Tiger

Last December, after witnessing Bangladesh’s ‘Bijoy Divas’, the day in 1971 Pakistani military had surrendered to Indian and Bangladeshi joint command, I experienced a sad, solemn moment at the home of its founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was assassinated along with 20 of his family members on August 15, 1975.

On that fateful night of August 14-15, a group of serving and retired Bangladesh Army officers had, in a planned conspiracy, stormed this house located in Dhanmondi Residential Area. After killing other inmates including his wife, three sons, one of them just ten, and two daughters-in-law, one of them pregnant, they confronted Mujib as he came down from the second floor bedroom.

They demanded he resign. When he refused, he was gunned down. Bullet marks bear testimony and rose petals spread where Mujib fell remind of the mayhem. Then posted at Dhaka, I had reported that coup d’etat. As memories came rushing, the passage of almost 45 years couldn’t steel my senses. I cried while signing the Visitors’ Book.

India had played a key role in 1971. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government hosted ten million refugees. On diplomatic front, she could persuade lawmakers like the US’ Edward Kennedy, sections of the international media, artistes like violinist Yehudi Menuhin and philosophers like France’s Andre Malraux. But she could not shake the Western governments driven by Cold War bias.  

Signing the Friendship and Peace Treaty with the then Soviet Union, India, when attacked, responded with full military fury. Its confidence showed at the massive rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan that Indira addressed, with fighter jets providing air cover.

The two-week war ended with surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers. It was the swiftest and most decisive outcome of a war since the World War II. And precisely three months later, the Indian Army left, its departing columns saluting Mujib. There is no precedence.

Viewed in the backdrop of the Cold War, this was a debacle for the West. Bangladesh was not recognized for long by the West and the Islamic world. An unrepentant Henry Kissinger called Mujib “history’s favourite fool.”

That Mujib’s assassination, like Chile’s Salvadore Allende, was a conspiracy is glossed over today, post-Cold war. American journalist Lawrence Lifschultz, in his book ‘Bangladesh: An Unfinished Revolution’, writes that the “CIA station chief in Dhaka, Philip Cherry, was actively involved in the killing of the Father of the Nation—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” Cherry, of course, denied this. His boss, the US Ambassador, said he was unaware. But, among the many pointers, one is of Cherry’s woman colleague being friendly to Major Shariful Haq Dalim, one of the “killer majors”, who announced on the radio Mujib’s killing and the success of the coup.

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Final touches to the conspiracy were given during Dhaka visit of the first Pakistani trade delegation barely ten days before it unravelled. It included a retired Pakistan Army major general, a former Intelligence chief. As per official itinerary, the delegation met Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed, then Commerce Minister. Within hours of Mujib’s assassination, Moshtaque became the President.

Moshtaque replaced the national slogan “Joy Bangla” with “Bangladesh Zindabad”. He was removed in November 1975 after he had signed the Indemnity Ordinance that blocked any punishment to the “killer majors”. Two decades later, after Hasina Government took office, the National Assembly repealed it.

In office, Mujib left a mixed record. An astute politician and agitator, his experience of and hold over governance were poor. He fought against heavy odds, even natural calamities like drought and flood during his short tenure that witnessed chaos and food shortages. Bangladesh came to be called an “international basket case.”

Daughters Hasina and Rehana escaped the massacre as they were in Germany. They were hosted for six years at a safe house in New Delhi, protected from hostile governments in Dhaka. This has been a less-known chapter of India helping in the well-being of Bangladesh.

This contemporary history, it seems, is poised to take a full circle. Pakistan and Bangladesh are set to normalize relations, almost half-a-century after they were violently snapped. A thaw is building. Imran Khan last month phoned Hasina to invite her to Islamabad.

This will be epochal for the generation of Indians that suffered while hosting ten million refugees in 1971, paying Refugee Relief Tax. Those who fought and families of those who died in the conflict that year, may find this heart-breaking.

But shorn of Indian sentiments, and that of Bangladesh’s own freedom fighters, this is also inevitable when seen from a larger prism. After all, Vietnam, last century’s most violated nation, has normalized ties with the US.

ALSO READ: Pak Bid To Court Bangladesh Will Fall Flat

Times are a-changing. The US is about to hand over Rashed Chowdhury, one of the “killer majors”, to be hanged by Dhaka, so that the latter doesn’t get too close to Beijing!

The regional context explains it better. There is definitely a nudge from China that has crossed the Himalayas. It is wooing all of South Asia, once India’s backyard, with its deep pockets and political determination.

For Pakistan, if the Indian enemy’s enemy (China) has been a long-time friend and now a saviour, then the enemy’s friend (Bangladesh) should be more so. It would be is getting back at India.

Arguably, Pakistan under Khan and his mentors, the Army, is trying to cleanse its image as militancy hotbed. Unable to sell its line to the world since India ended Kashmir’s special status, reaching out to Bangladesh serves multiple purposes: a) it can hope to be seen as a conciliator in the western eye and also please the Muslim ummah, b) it can in the long run hope to drive a wedge between Delhi and Dhaka when the latter is already peeved with the Modi Government’s Hindutva agenda and; c) it can tug at the sentiments of those that once lived as part of Pakistan and enjoyed privileges.

Although Khan renewed invitation to Hasina to visit Pakistan, it seems unlikely for now as she prepares to lead Bangladesh into 50th anniversary celebrations, already underway. She wouldn’t like to answer this query: liberation from whom? Would she invite Khan to the celebrations, the way her father had invited Z A Bhutto to Dhaka in 1974?

A rush is unlikely. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen asked the Pakistani envoy who met him that Pakistan formally apologize for 1971. Khan can’t sell this to the army, forget his people.

Undoubtedly, it is for Bangladesh to decide how to respond to Pakistan’s overtures. Separation from Pakistan was not only due to political and economic discrimination. Bengalis had shed blood to preserve their language and culture. That ethos sustains among emotion-driven Bangladeshis. It was evident while fighting the Islamist extremists.

One thing is clear. Bangladesh is not Pakistan’s neglected kid brother. Pakistani scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy last year extolled Bangladesh’s strides in numerous areas that have eluded his country.

He sees Bangladesh as the next Asian Tiger. Its population graph has reversed in Pakistan’s comparison. The health indicators are positive. “Bangladesh and Pakistan are different countries today because they perceive their national interest very differently. Bangladesh sees its future in human development and economic growth,” says Hoodbhoy.

“For Pakistan, human development comes a distant second. The bulk of national energies remain focused upon check-mating India. Relations with Afghanistan and Iran are therefore troubled; Pakistan accuses both of being excessively close to India. But the most expensive consequence of the security state mindset was the nurturing of extra state actors in the 1990s. Ultimately they had to be crushed after the APS massacre of Dec 16, 2014.” This, Hoodbhoy points out, “coincidentally, was the day Dhaka had fallen 43 years earlier.”

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Bangladesh – A Long And Firm March Towards Prosperity

Preparing to hug the half-century milestone, Bangladesh this month celebrated with aplomb its 49th Bijoy Divas or the Victory Day. On that day in 1971, over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Joint Command of India and Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini forces, permanently altering the world map.

That slice of history may mean many things to many people today. But to succeeding generations of those who went through political turmoil followed by ten months of organised violence, and ending in a decisive military victory, remains and shall remain forever an extraordinary moment.

The parade marking the occasion showed a confident Bangladesh. Military hardware was proudly displayed on the ground and in the sky. That combined with floats and tableaux of projects, programmes and achievements made for an impressive show.

Indian veterans led by Lt. Gen. (rtd.) R S Kadian marched and so did a contingent and band of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). It struck Muhammad Iqbal’s musical note, “Saare Jahan Se Achha,” that harks back to an undivided South Asia.

Bangladesh has assigned itself a two-year tryst by which time it will complete 50 years of independence. It wants the world to notice its rise from being dubbed the “international basket case” in initial years to become, at annual 8.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) rise, one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Putting its cheap work force to good use and with many plus points that have eluded most others among the least-developed countries (LDCs), Bangladesh has all the makings of a developing nation. Out of the food scarcity rut, it is diversifying farm and industrial output and even exporting surplus.

It aims to leap into the cyber-digital era with come-hither calls to anyone who cares to respond.  With its good debt servicing record, Bangladesh is an attractive investor’s destination. Both regional giants, China and India, are wooing and being wooed.

At independence, over 90 percent of its annual budget was foreign-financed. Two decades later, it was 70 percent and was 50 percent a decade back when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to power.

The figure has now reversed. Ninety-two percent of the budget is being funded internally. Booming garment exports, some to marquee global brands and remittances from its 10 million working abroad contribute generously.

Bangladesh has long seen itself as a bridge between South and south-east Asia. With Cox’s Bazaar beach and Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarban, its tourism pitch is rising. People are warm and hospitable. But much needs done to improve infrastructure.

Many of Bangladesh’s human development indicators are better than others in the region. The economy is already the best-performing in South Asia, outdoing in proportional terms larger neighbour India and certainly, Pakistan, from which it violently separated.

Due to this past, Pakistan’s image remains negative in official and much of the popular discourse. India figures high despite the current concerns over two Indian laws with bearing on its east and northeast that encase Bangladesh. If persisted, they could have political fallout.

Sheikh Hasina cherishes India ties and has diligently worked to nurture them. For one, she has ended Indian militants’ run. She appreciates India’s contribution to Liberation and thereafter. She is trying hard to keep the current political and diplomatic discourse triggered by Indian laws, to the bare-minimum, so far. This reflects self-confidence and maturing of a nation of 165 million people.

There are other signs of a young nation with young people having the highest proportion in South Asia of women in every field. Farms and garment factories are ample proof of that. Exuberant crew members want to get photographed with passengers as part of the PR effort as more and more privately run airlines fly passengers in and out.

On political front, Hasina remains firm on punishing killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s foremost leader and her father in a 1975 military-led coup, and most of her family. The West is critical of the process employed and the Islamic world is unhappy. But both can’t ignore Bangladesh.   

Ethos of the Bengali language stir of the 1950s and the freedom movement remains strong in the face of religious extremists. When these forces inflicted violence in 2013, Muslims and Hindus together fought back at Dhaka’s Shahbag Avenue. This conflict remains a constant challenge.

Bangladesh is, uniquely both. An Islamic nation that, thanks to its culture, is also broadly secular. (Secularism as basic principle remains part of its Constitution). The society as a whole remains conservative, respectful of elders and displays overt religiosity.

This complex amalgamation ensures co-existence and diversity. With that comes a high measure of political stability, due principally to Hasina’s continuance in office for a third consecutive term. She looms large over the country’s horizon. Forbes’ ranks her 29th among the world’s most powerful woman.

As investors get attracted, she has forced Western governments to ignore her hard line on political opponents, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami. Her arch rival and two-term former premier, Begun Khaleda Zia, is ailing, ageing and denied bail, currently imprisoned for graft.

There are negative indicators, too, when it comes to transparency, sanitation, ease of doing business and media freedom that, as in the rest of South Asia, should hopefully improve with longer spells of political stability.

Contradictions seemingly persist and are growing with changes in other spheres. The pristine riverine scape of the boatman and his folk songs as one read in Tagore and Nazrul literature is slowly yielding place to increasing urbanization.

A provincial capital at Independence, Dhaka has become unbearably chaotic with 24×7 traffic snarls around high-rise buildings. As bridges and fly-overs struggle to make movement faster, a rapid mass transport system now under construction shall continue to add to the chaos, till it is completed.

These are but brief, broad-brush impressions, of one who has witnessed Bangladesh for over 45 years. Handicapped by inadequate knowledge, of language in particular, they are compensated, hopefully, by best wishes for bright future for its people.

The writer recently visited Bangladesh at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Grand win for Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh

bdnews24.com reported. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who steered the party in the absence of imprisoned former prime minister Khaleda Zia, described the polls as a “cruel farce”. He said the elections proved that free and fair polls were not possible under a partisan government. The EC confirmed the complete result of the constituency in southwestern Gopalganj from where Hasina won, bagging 2,29,539 votes, while her BNP opponent got only 123 votes. The National Unity Front (NUF) is a coalition of parties, including BNP, Gono Forum, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JSD, Nagorik Oikya Front and Krishak Sramik Janata League. Rejecting the polls, Hossain said “we have reports that fraudulence took place in almost all centres”. While Hasina was seeking re-election for the fourth term as the prime minister, her chief rival Zia, who is reportedly partially paralysed, faces an uncertain future in a Dhaka jail. The EC said they have received over a hundred complaints from candidates throughout the country amid reports of violence. At least 18 people, including a member of a security agency, have been killed and more than 200 others injured in poll-related violence, making it one of the deadliest polls in the country, the Daily Star reported. Reports said most of the dead were ruling party activists, while others were workers of the BNP or its allies. Over 600,000 security personnel including several thousand soldiers and paramilitary border guards were deployed across the nation for the election in which 10.41 crore people were eligible to vote. (PTI)]]>

New Delhi Must Address Dhaka's Concerns

For over three decades, since 1981, the political discourse in Bangladesh has been the “Battle of 2 Begums”. Two-term prime minister Khaleda Zia whose official identity is that of  a ‘begum’ fights the three-term current incumbent, Sheikh Hasina who, despite being a devout Muslim, identifies herself with things Bengali. This is crucial in a largely Muslim society that also prides in Bengali language and culture.

Their personal (they rarely talk to each other and never share joy or grief) and political rivalries born out of differing legacies that they have inherited and perpetuated overawe Bangladesh and will continue, at least till one of them is around.

The current mood is one of intense speculation: will Begum Zia, who blundered into boycotting the last parliamentary polls and went into a politically damaging hibernation, contest the elections due this year-end or early next year?

Viewed from New Delhi, chances are that she will. This may be her last chance at political comeback. At 73, she is known to have undergone a heart surgery and has suffered joint pain for long.

Worse, she lost her younger son Arafat, said to be her favourite. He had sought exile in Singapore to escape money-laundering charges back home. Politically worst for her is the self-exile of elder son Tariq who is also wanted in Bangladesh for graft and misuse of power when the mother was the premier (2001-2006). His return would result in instant imprisonment.

An apolitical army-wife pitchforked into politics by the 1981 assassination of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, Zia has a daunting task ahead fighting an intensely political Hasina.

Zia pursued politics, and legacy of her husband, whom India suspected of having benefitted, if not involved in, the 1975 assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve out a separate identity free of India/West Bengal, the Zias have been adversarial towards India, leaned towards Pakistan from which Bangladesh separated and the Islamic world outside.

At home, the Islamist parties have been their natural allies. Their party, named Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has sought to define ‘nationalism’ as different from rival Awami League.

Indeed, while the husband rehabilitated Sheikh Mujib’s  killers and ended the ban on the Muslim League that had sided with Pakistani rulers, the wife aligned with that party, having League’s ministers in her government during 2001-2006. She has engaged in anti-India tirade, whether in power or out of it. Rival Hasina and her party are painted as “Indian agents.”

By a natural political corollary, she subtly leans towards Pakistan whose establishment has always wanted to undo the humiliation it suffered in 1971, of losing Bangladesh and losing militarily to India.

Under Khaleda, Islamist parties and militant bodies spread terror at the turn of this century, targeting religious minorities and the liberals. Denying their presence at for long, Zia finally acted when threatened with sanctions by the US and criticized by the world community. There were at least three recorded attempts on Hasina’s life.

As opposition parties do, the BNP is showing sudden signs of revival. This month, Zia dispatched three former lawmakers to India. The exploratory visit explains the importance of the larger neighbor, but such visits to the US and Britain cannot be ruled out.

Former Commerce Minister Amir Khosru addressed Indian think tanks and gave media interviews to emphasize that India was “mistaken” in thinking that Begum Zia and the BNP are anti-India. Their effort is to keep India out of the polls discourse and build a scenario of lasting relationship, particularly the economic ties (on which Bangladesh heavily depends and gains) whatever the election’s outcome.

How India looks at Zia and her past record to judge the future remains uncertain. In the past, India has been subtly accused, particularly by the Western powers who are vary of India’s domination in South Asia, of siding with Hasina and prompting her to push on with the 2013 elections. When Zia boycotted them, Hasina received a walk-over and five more years in power.

This discourse leads with Zia, and not Hasina, for three reasons. Firstly, the Islamist forces have gained ground in Bangladesh impacting India’s internal security in the east and north-east. This is despite Hasina emasculating Zia’s main ally, the Bangladesh Muslim League, trying and imprisoning its top leadership and hanging some of them, for targeting unarmed civilians and religious minorities while siding with the Pakistani regime during the 1971 freedom movement.

The nationalist sentiment remains strong 47 years after freedom, but pro-Pakistan sentiment, and the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by India, do influence the powerful middle class’ mind. They are also influenced by Islamist resurgence that promotes extremism in some parts of the world and a general rightwing lurch across it.

Targeting of liberals has been serious under  Hasina. Her response has been inadequate – she is caught between a pious Muslim identity needed to govern and the need to defend and protect democratic freedom. She could fall between the two stools.

Secondly, in power for over nine years, Hasina faces serious anti-incumbency challenge from a volatile Bangali populace that does not easily re-elect a party and a government. Many socio-economic indicators have certainly improved in last nine years and the economy is performing better than, say, Pakistan or Nepal. But it is a mixed bag of achievements.

Thirdly, the India factor, since Hasina, by her legacy and record, is perceived as pro-India. She has to ‘gain’ from India without ‘surrender’. Like Zia’s, this is also a daunting task.

The extent to which India can and has helped is open to serious doubt and debate. Hasina closed the camps of militants from the Indian northeast, helping the region’s internal security. She naturally expects a quid pro quo. Even allowing for expectation of a smaller neighbor from the bigger one, she has not felt compensated enough.

The Land Border Agreement settled the population/territorial dispute that was legacy of the 1947 Partition. The maritime boundary has also helped. India has not pursued river projects in the northeast to avoid raising alarming sentiments in Bangladesh.

 But water sharing agreement on Teesta river remains crucial to India-Bangladesh ties, no matter who rules in Dhaka. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee has pursued narrow politics to thwart it, first during the UPA rule and then with NDA. PM Narendra Modi, who has won some support in Dhaka, has failed to convince Kolkata. Looking at Mamata’s political posturing against Delhi and her fear of the BJP, any pact on Teesta seems impossible.

When Teesta pact has not materialized, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh continues to allow India access through its territory to the Indian northeast.  In denying Teesta waters, India is losing much more.

Imagine a situation if and when Zia returns to power. She could well take Teesta, like she did Farakka issue, to the United Nations General Assembly.

Imagine the prospect of Zia, or any future government in Dhaka, approaching the upper riparian China to pressure India to release more water on the Ganga and less water from Brahmaputra. Dhaka is already on the Belt and Roads Inititiative (BRI) bandwagon and China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and arms supplier.

Whatever the political compulsions of Delhi and/or Kolkata, the larger neighbour has failed the smaller one. India can compensate on the trade front. But that would be grossly inadequate.

 At a time when even tiny Maldives and Seychelles thumb the nose at India, in a region where Chinese Dragon is spreading its presence,  New Delhi should work really hard to keep the only neighbor with which it has a genuinely positive relationship.

The author can be reached mahendraved07@gmail.com]]>