Can Bangladesh Do Better?
(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, author and noted columnist.)
Even after 46 years, the liberation of Bangladesh is very vivid in my memory. I was the first Indian journalist who landed at Dhaka after liberation. My first visit was to the Press Club where I heard anti-India remarks. When I ordered smoked Hilsa, a delicacy, one of the scribes remarked: Hilsa is now available at Kolkata, not Dhaka. This hurt me really.
I complained to Bangabandhu Sheik Mujibur Rahman about the remarks made at the Press Club. He appreciated my feelings and when I pointed out that some 6,000 Indian soldiers died along with Mukti Bahini supporters, the Sheikh laughed away at my disappointment. He said: A Bengali does not forget even a glass of water you give. How can he forget the lives lost by the Indian army?
This was the time when Syed Mohammad Ali, who later founded The Daily Star, called me and complained that India was writing on the defeat of Pakistan but not a word on the courage and sacrifices made by the Bangladeshis to liberate their country. On my return, I called a meeting of journalists at the Delhi Press Club and told the members how disappointed Bangladesh felt.
Why did this omission take place? The Bengali journalists, who were in the agitation, gave up the cause as soon as the Bangladesh flag flew at Dhaka. Many years later, I found that the Indian government saw to it that there was no follow-up to the liberation. It was afraid of the renewal of sentiments that the two Bengals should unite. That was the reason why even the mention of Bangladesh was discouraged. True, for the Bengali journalists, the mission of seeing Bangladesh liberated was over. They should have followed the agitation with stories on how the Bangladeshis had sacrificed their all and the Indian army fought by the side of Mukti Bahini.
During the liberation war, D.P. Dhar who was in charge of Bangladesh in the Indian cabinet gave me the impression that India would dovetail its five-year plan with the development of Bangladesh. But this did not happen and Dhaka was understandably disappointed. All that Dhar was interested in was that another coup should not take place to oust the Awami League’s regime. Dhar saw to it that the Indian army would quit soon. The army withdrew.
When the coup took place and the tanks were used, New Delhi regretted that it did not follow up its resolve. These were the tanks given by Egypt. They were used to overthrow and eliminate the entire family of Mujibur Rahman. Only Sheikh Hasina escaped because she was in Germany at that time. The rest is too well known.
Once Bangladesh became free, New Delhi tried to distance itself from Dhaka because it wanted to mend its fences with Pakistan. Rawalpindi did not forget or forgive India for the division of East Pakistan from West Pakistan. This may not be mentioned at the dialogue table between India and Pakistan, but this occupied the minds of rulers at Islamabad very much.
For a long time, Pakistan did not recognize Bangladesh. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said at a UN meeting that they would fight a 100-year war with India and not normalize relations until the original Mountbatten plan, with a weak centre but a united country. was implemented. The Mountbatten plan wanted East Pakistan to be a part of Pakistan.
When I met Mountbatten at Broadlands, where he was living after retirement, he said he had warned Bhutto that East Pakistan would not be part of Pakistan some 25 years hence. This is precisely what happened and his prediction came true. Lord Radcliffe who drew the boundary told me that he had no problem with settling the affairs in the east but he faced the intractable situation in the west.
It goes to the credit of successive governments at Dhaka that they have maintained a six-per cent growth in the last 30 years. The garment industry is respected all over the world. Yet, the problem of poverty is exploited by the anti-Hasina forces, which comprise both pro-Pakistan elements and fundamentalists. Islamabad is said to have given currency to another idea. Although it is not in good shape economically, Pakistan is telling Bangladeshis that they were better off when they were part of East Pakistan. Some people have been taken in by the propaganda. This has only added to the anti-India feelings because Delhi is seen as an ‘exploiter’.
For the Bangladeshis, the dream becoming economically viable has not come true even partially. With 40 per cent unemployment among the educated, the disappointment in the country about not making good is deep. But there is vicarious satisfaction that Pakistan is in more economic trouble than Bangladesh. To my dismay, I discovered that Delhi only wanted to escape the fallout of the enmity between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khalida Zia.
The ongoing battle between the two begums, Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia, is also affecting the progress of Bangladesh. Fortunately for Prime Minister Hasina, her bête noire does not count much these days, particularly after Khalida Zia had started boycotting elections in recent times. Now there is a split in her party, too, and the BNP has fallen to No. 3 position in the country.
Khaleda is known to have exploited religion for her electoral gains though she has refuted the charges. Yet both fundamentalist organisations, the Jamiat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote, are her electoral allies. “I have more freedom fighters in our party than the Awami League,” Hasina told me once. But there is no doubt that the anti-liberation forces are proliferating on her side.
It is generally taken for granted that if Khaleda returns to power, the extremists and pro-Pakistan forces would come to the fore. This prospect is not good for India which is bound to be hurt, particularly when Pakistan’s ISI uses Bangladesh as a conduit to foment trouble in the India’s northeast. Liberal forces in Bangladesh will also be hurt because they do not want the anti-liberation elements and fundamentalists to be strengthened. In a way, the liberals and India sail in the same boat.