A shot in the arm for Hasina


by Kuldip Nayar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka was mistimed. It looked as if he had gone to shore up the sagging image of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He has only heightened anti-India feelings because New Delhi is not seen as neutral.

I do not know why and for how long we have to support the authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Hasina in Bangladesh. True, she is the daughter of Sheikh Mujib-ur Rehman, who liberated East Pakistan from distant and oppressive West Pakistan. But that does not give her the right to flout the Constitution and accepted norms.

Take for example, the recent municipal polls at Dhaka and Chittagong. Ballot papers in favour of candidates of the ruling Awami League were shoved into the ballot boxes to the horror of voters and others. Sheikh Mujib must be turning in his grave. He had restored the people’s right to express themselves against the military junta ruling from Rawalpindi.

No doubt, Modi’s visit has given a shot in the arm to secular forces against the burgeoning influence of fundamentalists, led by the Jammiat-e-Islam. But Hasina would still have had her way. In fact, the cavalier manner in which she has suppressed dissent arouses doubts about her credentials. Did she ever have conviction about a free state and the democratic way of governance?

The most glaring example is the manner in which she has humiliated Bangladesh’s first foreign minister Kamal Hasan. He is a colleague of her father Sheikh Mujib and is a legend in his lifetime for adhering to values. The boycott of elections by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was an unthinking act. True, Hasina made it obvious that she would go to any extent to win at the polls. Yet, if the BNP had participated a few of its candidates would have been returned and would have opposed Hasina’s point of view before the people.

Undoubtedly, general elections decide the fate of rulers. But the municipal vote is important to assess whether the party which won has fulfilled through governance the promises it had made during the national poll campaign.

India is lucky that the path on which the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put the country – democratic and secular – is being followed diligently. His daughter Indira Gandhi derailed democracy and not only gagged the press but suspended fundamental rights. But people did not take things lying down. They ventilated their pent-up anger when elections were announced and It is unimaginable that even the mighty Indira Gandhi could be defeated.

It is another matter that when she returned to power in 1980 she went out of the way to punish even those bureaucrats who carried out their duties. It is a pity that she took revenge against all those whom she suspected were anywhere near the Janata government.

The Congress Party in India, the author of the emergency, has learnt its lesson. The party has regretted its misdoings. I wish the party had apologised to the nation. There is a lot of difference between a regret and an apology.

Unfortunately Bangladesh, a product of the people’s right to a say in governance, has lost the vigour of expression which the nation once had. This is a sad development by itself. But it becomes all the more poignant when the person changing it is from the family which liberated the people from the clutches of West Pakistan.

No one else is to blame except Hasina. She is herself extinguishing the flame of democracy. That it should be done by the daughter of Sheikh Mujib is not only disappointing but also disconcerting. That she can shackle the nation still further is a harrowing thought. But it can happen since she has effaced the lines between right and wrong, moral and immoral.

In this atmosphere of Hasina representing a dictatorial figure, Modi’s visit was all the more unfortunate. He should have said somewhere while in Bangladesh that the country was a product of revolution and it should continue to radiate the same kind of thoughts. But he preferred to placate her even though the people of Bangladesh were disappointed because they expected India to give some sign that it is not happy with the way Hasina is functioning.

True, Modi was able to implement a long-standing agreement on the exchange of enclaves. But this understanding had the support of all parties when the matter was discussed in parliament. Of course, the credit for implementing the accord goes to him. But he should have used the opportunity to thank all the political parties in supporting the accord with a useful and endearing neighbour. For him to take the credit of demolishing the “Berlin Wall” is churlish.

I wish he had refrained from criticising Pakistan. Not that the criticism is uncalled for but on foreign soil when he was talking about amity in South Asia, he should have avoided singling out Islamabad. He should realise, as his predecessors have, that the countries in South Asia someday must have a common market and lend a helping hand to each other in business, trade and development.

The people of Bangladesh were expecting some agreement on the Teesta waters. But foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement was unhelpful because even before undertaking the journey to Dhaka she said that Teesta was not on the agenda during the current visit by Modi. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit along with Prime Minister Modi was an important development. It should indicate to Dhaka that New Delhi is serious about settling the problems on Teesta. That it did not happen during Modi’s visit should not be taken to mean that India was adamant in having its own way. In fact, Mamata’s visit should convince Dhaka that while a settlement may take some time the process has started.

Source: The Statesman