FOREIGN HANDS IN BANGLADESH POLITICS
On subservient political elite and uncritical intelligentsia
Nurul Kabir | Published: 18:26, Nov 16,2017
Under such a political circumstance, any country’s patriotic intelligentsia is expected to critically intervene in analysing the actions and inactions of the political class as to how the latter’s subjugation to foreign powers compromises the ‘spirit of liberation war’ – national progress with dignity being one, and ‘nationalism’ – preference of national interests to any other things on earth that is, and mount popular pressure by way of guiding public opinions in the right direction. But, alas, Bangladesh’s mainstream intelligentsia is sharply divided on a partisan line and, therefore, they support, and make efforts to justify, whatever approach their respective parties take to foreign powers and whatever foreign policies those parties adopt and pursue, instead of presenting before the public the critical analyses of the approaches and policies from the point of view of the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and ‘nationalism’.
The result is obvious: foreign powers continue to interfere with Bangladesh’s national politics, and at times substantially influence the process of change of guards in power in gross disregards for the country’s liberation war spirit and nationalistic pride of the people at large. The people of Bangladesh, after all, did not fight for national independence to get the state controlled by any foreign country, including India that had helped us achieve independence from Pakistan in 1971.
THE subservience of the ruling class parties of Bangladesh to foreign powers has reached such an ugly state that some foreign countries, India for an example, do no longer feel constrained to hide their interferences with Bangladesh’s internal political process – the recent public disclosure of such interference in 2008 by Pranab Mukharjee (b 1935), a former minister and president of India from the Indian National Congress, being a glaring example. Mukharjee has unambiguously stated in the recently released third volume of his biography as to how he had decided the course of Bangladesh’s internal politics in 2008, which, understandably, led to the process of Awami League’s return to power and a smooth exit of General Moeen U Ahmed who had illegally grabbed power in 2007.
General Moeen U Ahmed, former chief of the Bangladesh army, who had illegally grabbed power in January 2007 and misruled the country until the Awami League was voted to power in December 2008, escaped a trial for sedition despite pervasive popular demand. The general and his civil and military cohorts illegally ran the affairs of the state through a proxy cabinet, headed by Fakhruddun Ahmed, for two years. Those two years, they had humiliated the entire political class, harassed many a member of the dissenting section of the intelligentsia, disrupted national economy by arresting almost all the big industrialists, jeopardised livelihoods of thousands of small traders and their families by way of demolishing their makeshift establishments in the name of cleanliness drive, so on and so forth.
However, a new parliament was eventually elected under the supervision of the military-driven government in late December 2008 and the Awami League-led political alliance formed government in early January 2009 with a command over the two-thirds of members in the parliament. Then, the House repeatedly witnessed a bi-partisan demand for trying General Moyeen U Ahmed and his military and civilian associates for their seditious activities. But the government of Sheikh Hasina refused to meet the justified demand, without providing any explanation in or outside the parliament. Meanwhile, the general left the country.
The government’s silence about the proposed trial gave birth to many ‘speculations’ in the country’s political arena. Some of the League’s political opponents attributed the general’s safe exit to his juntas behind-the-scenes contributions to the Awami League’s electoral victory while others attributed it to the League’s long history of overt and covert cooperation with the military coup leaders. There was hardly any reason to take seriously the allegation of the army assistance for the League’s victory for, given the fresh memory of the BNP’s misgovernance and Hawa Bhaban excesses, the League was sure to win the national elections in 2008, without any military cooperation although the victory by more than two-thirds majority had genuinely raised some eyebrows. The second allegation that it was the League’s post-independence tendency to cooperate with military juntas, barring only that of General Ziaur Rahman, dissuaded the party leadership from taking the guilty generals to justice found some grounds. The League, after all, had first appreciated General HM Ershad’s illegal takeover of power in 1982 through its party’s now-defunct Bangla daily newspaper, Banglar Bani, the next day and later cooperated with Ershad in legalising its martial law regime by participating in general elections in 1986 when most opposition parties refused to do so. Then the party sympathised with General ASM Nasim’s abortive coup d’état in 1996, and finally Sheikh Hasina publicly announced in 2007 that her party would give retrospective endorsement to General Moyeen’s illegal regime, if, in the end, the Awami League goes to power. Even earlier, following the gruesome murder of Bangladesh’s founding president and the Awami League supremo Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with most of his family members, in August 1975, a large section of the League leaders had joined hands with the commanders of the brutal military putsch and joined the government installed by the coup leaders on the Sheikh’s unattended body. Then, some League leaders, such as Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, admittedly, aspired to work with General Ziaur Rahman. (Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, Rajnitir Tin Kal, Hafez Mahmud Foundation, Dhaka, 2001, p 179) Given the history, it was not unusual for many to believe that the government of the Awami League, despite its bitter rhetorical criticism of the political parties born out of cantonments, must have politically reconciled with another military regime, and this time that of General Moeen U Ahmed.
Now that Pranab Mukharjee has publicly stated the role that he had played in shaping the Bangladesh’s politics those days, it is crystal clear that Moyeen’s job security and impunity from seditious crime were directly related to Sheikh Hasina’s release and return to power, and that too through Indian mediation. Mukharjee writes: “In February 2008, Bangladesh Army Chief Moeen Ahmed came to India on a six-day visit. He called on me too. During the informal interaction, I impressed upon him the importance of releasing political prisoners. He was apprehensive about his dismissal by Sheikh Hasina after her release. But I took personal responsibility and assured the General of his survival after Hasina’s return to power.” (Pranab Mukharjee, The Coalition Years: 1996–2012, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2017, p 114) The sequence of events, after all, took place exactly in the order that Mukharjee had suggested to Moyeen: Sheikh Hasina was released, her party returned to power through an election supervised by the military-driven government, General Moyeen’s job was saved and he left the country after his regular retirement safely, without being tried for the seditious crime that he had committed. The general, then, reportedly received his Indian mentor’s assistance for his medical treatment in the United States. Mukharjee writes, “I also facilitated General Moeen’s treatment in the US when he was suffering from cancer.” (Pranab Mukharjee, The Coalition Years: 1996–2012, p 115)
Be that as it may, this is indeed very difficult for a people, who had created Bangladesh by fighting a bloodied liberation war, to reconcile with the fact that a foreign state plays a role in shaping the politics of their independent country. Moreover, it is equally difficult to accept that the chief of Bangladesh’s national army, which is a prime symbol of the independent republic’s national sovereignty, sought his job security from the politician of a foreign state – India in the present case. The general should have been court-martialled for the offence against the country’s sovereignty. It is, on the other hand, a matter of serious disappointment that the Awami League, the country’s oldest political party, which had presided over Bangladesh’s liberation war and is still having a substantive amount of popular support, allowed an errant general and his partners in crimes to go unpunished at the advice of a foreign power. On top of these all, it is strange that a section of the country’s mainstream intelligentsia has indulged in appreciating the Indian politician in question, Pranab Mukharjee, for doing a ‘great service’ by helping Bangladesh come out of a grave political crisis in 2008. Some of the members of the intelligentsia in question have even gone to the extent of claiming that by doing the ‘service’, Mukharjee has rather proved once again that India remains ever-ready to help Bangladesh since in 1971! The self-defeating strange observations might, who knows, further inspire India to continue poking its hegemonic nose into the Bangladesh’s internal affairs.
THE sections of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia that tend to consider Indian political and intelligence establishments, or those of any other countries for that matter, philanthropic forces dedicated to Bangladesh’s interests, one is forced believe, suffer from certain dangerous intellectual inadequacies — ranging from the lacking in the sense of history to the inability of grasping the importance of geopolitics in determining international relations.
That Bangladesh has all the reasons to remain thankful to India for the latter’s multi-dimensional assistance during Bangladesh’s liberation war is unquestionable, but it is very important for the Bangladeshi intelligentsia to understand that the Indian friendship in 1971 was neither altruistic nor philanthropic in nature. They need to note that when India was arming the patriotic youths who were from East Bengal to fight for liberating Bangladesh from Pakistan, the Indian army and special police were brutally repressing the patriotic Mijo and Naga youths making similar efforts for their respective national liberation from India.
On top of that all, the Indian military, as well as diplomatic and political establishments, did hardly hide their self-seeking objectives behind helping Bangladesh get liberated from Pakistan. K Subrahmanyam, director of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, publicly persuaded the political establishments in Delhi to get involved, even intervene, in the East Bengal crisis for the sake of India’s ‘national interest’. Subrahmanyam argued at a meeting of the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi on March 31, 1971, as was reported by the Hindustan Times the next day: “What India must realise is the fact that the break up of Pakistan is in our own interest, an opportunity, the like of which will never come again.” (The Hindustan Times is cited in Zaglul Haider, The Changing Pattern of Bangladesh Foreign Policy: A Comparative Study of the Mujib and Zia Regimes, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2006, p 31. Also Mizanur Rahman Shelley, Emergence of a New Nation in a Multi-polar World: Bangladesh, Fourth revised and enlarged edition, Academic Press and Publisher’s Library, Dhaka, 2007, p 60) Subrahmanyam would also defend his position in a post-independence interview to a Bangladeshi researcher, saying that ‘it was the chance of a century for India to divide Pakistan’. (K Subrahmanyam’s interview in Afsan Chodhury, Bangladesh: 1971, Vol 4, Mowla Brothers, Dhaka, 2007, p 663.)
JN Dixit, an Indian foreign ministry official who headed a ‘special unit to deal with East Pakistan crisis’ in 1971 and later became the first Indian deputy high commissioner in Dhaka, also admits that it is ‘correct’ that ‘India’s primary motivation for supporting the Bangladesh liberation war was its own strategic interests’. (JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999, p 175)
Dr Triguna Sen (1905–1998), a leader of the Indian National Congress and former education minister, unequivocally admitted to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra-famed Belal Muhammad in the last week of April 1971 that he had been working for dismembering Pakistan since 1949. Dr Sen said, “We had set up a ‘Bangladesh Cell’ in 1949. I have been heading the Cell since then. After so many years, the two rivers have met in the same confluence.” (Belal Muhammad, Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, 2nd reprint, 4th edition, Anupam Prokashni, Dhaka, 2012, p 84)
Finally, Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, unambiguously told her cabinet on December 10, 1971 that Indian objectives were ‘to emerge from the [Bangladesh] war as the dominant power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean’, following which ‘China would respect India and might even decide to improve relations with New Delhi’. (BZ Khasru, Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. Shaped the Outcome, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2010, p 376) After all this confessions by the eminent Indians, one cannot have any justified reason to find Indian assistance for the Bangladesh cause in 1971 to be a selfless political and military exercise.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that India’s strategic interests to dismantle Pakistan and Bangladesh’s legitimate aspiration for independence converged at that point of the sub-continental history. Evidently, it was in the mutual interests that Bangladesh and India helped each other to achieve their respective objectives in 1971, which does not bind either of the parties to sacrifice their ‘national interests’ for the other in the post-1971 realities.
Indian political elite and its nationalist intelligentsia hardly appear to be confused about the national interests in international relations, which is being reflected in their changing foreign policies towards different countries on many occasions, the latest being Delhi’s present support for Myanmar vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The government of Myanmar has been conducting, what the United Nations has said ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ against the poverty-stricken Rohingya population of the country’s Rakhaine state since the early 1980s, forcing as many as 10,00,000 people so far, of them more than 6,00,000 since the end of August this year, into bordering Bangladesh while the Indian establishment has unequivocally been supporting the Rohingya genocide for its own geostrategic interests in the region. For the same reason, India helped Myanmar in more than one ways in the latter’s dispute with Bangladesh over maritime boundary. Bangladesh or its intelligentsia should not blame India for pursuing its national interests with Myanmar, or any other country for that matter, but at the same time they also should not preach that Bangladesh’s interest lies in the eternal unilateral friendship with India, even if Indian political, economic, cultural and diplomatic manoeuvres continue to hurt Bangladesh’s interests. Bangladesh’s political force/s and their partisan intelligentsia tolerating, let alone making efforts to justify, Pranab Mukharjee’s meddling with the country’s internal political process serves, wittingly or unwittingly, Indian interests at the cost of Bangladesh’s. It is now common knowledge that India has reaped many a unilateral benefit from Bangladesh particularly since 2008.
That such subservience to foreign powers in national politics inspires the foreigners to continue with the interference rather more zealously became evident in Delhi’s direct intervention in Bangladesh’s electoral process and political polarisation in late 2013. While visiting Dhaka on December 4, 2013, Sujata Singh, then foreign affairs secretary of India when Pranab Mukharjee was the foreign minister, bluntly asked Jatiya Party chairman HM Ershad, as the latter told the national media which reported the event the next day, to participate in the ensuing elections, although his party had decided earlier not to on grounds that there was no environment for inclusive elections scheduled for January 5, 2014. Following Ershad’s disclosure about Singh’s persuasion, he was forcibly taken to the Dhaka cantonment and admitted to the military hospital and then Ershad gave in, for reasons any citizen with average level of intelligence can understand. While the Awami League and Indian establishments of the day succeeded to coerce Ershad’s Jatiya Party into the ‘elections’, with all the opposition parties boycotting the polls, the farcical event has actually produced poisonous consequences for both the Awami League and Bangladesh.
The disastrous episode began with the entire opposition’s refusal to participate in polls under the ruling Awami League’s crude partisan control of the electioneering process — a situation that the country had witnessed in 2006 when the Awami League took the same stance as the erstwhile government of the BNP tried to conduct polls the same way. However, even after Ershad’s Jatiya Party was coerced into the similar polls by the Awami League in 2014, no other political party, not even any non-party individual, outside the League’s ruling coalition set any candidate in 153 of 300 seats of the parliament while there were some apolitical or non-political ‘independent’ individuals contested in the rest 147 parliamentary constituencies where, again, less than 10 per cent of voters visited the polling stations. But at the end of the process, a subjugated Election Commission declared the Awami League and its partners to have own the polls by more than two-thirds majority, with 153 candidates elected uncontested, and thus the Awami League retained its power. Naturally, it was considered illegitimate by all at home and abroad, excepting India. It was unquestionably a duplicitous stance on part of the Indian political establishment for Mukharjee and the likes of India would not have reconciled with such an elections in their own country. Be that as it may, the installation by and the continuation of Sheikh Hasina’s government through such a sham election has not only further shattered the people’s aspiration for inclusive elections, but also damaged almost irreparably the Awami League’s political credibility. Besides, nobody knows how many years Bangladesh would need to overcome the political and constitutional crises that the disastrous political event has pushed the country into.
While the politically conscious sections of the Bangladeshis primarily blame the political class of their own for the present political impasse, they also hold responsible for the crisis the foreign politicians interfering with Bangladesh’s political process — the reason the patriotic Bangladeshis dislike Pranab Mukharjee, no matter what his wishful thoughts about it are. (Mukharjee believes that, as reflected in a recent interview published in a Dhaka-based Bangla daily, Prothom Alo, in November 7-8, ‘every Bangladeshi loves’ him and that ‘none in Bangladesh is ready to accept’ his criticism!!) Mukharjee and the like are only expected to realise that a people who laid down their lives in hundreds of thousands for achieving national independence cannot appreciate foreigners irrationally poking noses in the internal affairs of their independent country. The people of Bangladesh, after all, are completely aware of the facts that taking away voting rights of the citizens by fraudulent electoral practices amounts to denying ‘people’s sovereignty’ in making and unmaking laws of the republic through the elected representatives while committing the political offence in question collaboration with any foreign power/s is tantamount to compromising ‘sovereignty of the republic’ in the community of states.
WHILE the ruling class political forces of Bangladesh have visibly deviated from the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and ‘nationalism’ in the true sense of the terms, the country’s intelligentsia committed to the ideals is expected to remain critical of the policies and performances of the political parties and their foreign ‘friends’ in question.
The people of Bangladesh fought the liberation war with the unambiguous objective of creating a democratic republic based on the professed principles of ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’, but the successive governments of the ruling class have pursued policies that generate pervasive inequalities, strip the citizens of human dignity and breed injustice across society. The freedom fighters laid down lives for creating a state that would shape its own destiny based on the consent of the people at large, but the political forces of the ruling classes have developed the habit of retaining or returning to power with the help of their ‘foreign friends’, ignoring the people’s consent. Under such circumstances, it is time that the country’s intelligentsia presented before the public multidimensional critical analyses of the shameful phenomenon and provided the citizens with a clear sense of direction towards a democratic future, imbibed with liberation war spirit and, thus, did justice to those who sacrificed their lives for the country’s independence.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
The article appeared in the New Age on 16/11/2017