Abandoning Dhaka

India has contributed to Bangladesh’s political turmoil

The three-day strike called by the Nationalist Party (BNP) predictably triggered violence across that country. The proximate issue is the composition of a caretaker government, which will conduct elections in January 2014. The ruling wants an all-party caretaker government; the opposition BNP wants an apolitical “neutral” formation. Given deep personal antipathies between former Prime Minister of the BNP and current Prime Minister of the Awami League, there is little hope of a compromise. The army casts a long shadow and if violence escalates, the men in uniform could intervene. If the army does seize power again, there will be no guarantee about a return to the barracks in January.

Popular support for the Awami League has eroded partly due to the party’s own missteps. The war crimes trials sparked massive demonstrations and unified the Opposition. Human rights activists and observers say the trials had many procedural irregularities, while the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami allege that the trials were nothing more than selective witch hunts. Multiple death sentences have been handed out to BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami members, and the Jamaat-e-Islami has been banned. Economic growth, which underpinned rapid improvements in the quality of life indicators, has also slowed. A series of horrible accidents have focused attention on poor working conditions in the $22-billion textiles industry, which contributes 80 per cent of the country’s exports. Strikes have since crippled the industry and export orders have fallen. polls favour the BNP, which may be inimical to India’s interests if the party, allied as it is to fundamentalist anti-India elements, returns to power. Under the Awami League, the past five years have seen growth in trade and Bangladesh has shut down safe havens for separatist groups operating in India’s north-eastern states. Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in the subcontinent; bilateral trade hit $5 billion in 2012-13. The past five years have seen the opening of border markets, smoother currency exchange facilities and better transport links. Trade and transit could be improved – which would also create jobs in India’s north-eastern states.

Unfortunately, India may have contributed to weakening the Awami League’s support by failing to address sensitive bilateral issues. The sharing of river water remains a matter of dispute. Straightening out the border by an exchange of enclaves, as outlined in the Land Boundary Agreement of 2011, has also been stalled owing to objections by state parties. Over the years, disputes along the convoluted border have caused multiple clashes between the Bangladesh Rifles and India’s Border Security Force (BSF). There is anger in Bangladesh about the BSF’s shoot-at-sight doctrine, which has led to many Bangladeshi deaths on the fence. One BSF soldier, accused of shooting a 15-year-old girl whose clothes got stuck in the barbed wire while crossing the border, was recently acquitted by a BSF tribunal of murder – the acquittal caused even greater outrage in Bangladesh. If such sentiment causes a return of Ms Zia to power, then the hardliners whose support she depends on may force a return of anti-India policy in Dhaka. It would have strengthened India’s hand if settlements had been reached and implemented during Ms Hasina’s regime.

Source: Business Standard