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Even as Bangladesh completed thirty glorious years of independence on 26 March this year, the issue of the erstwhile East Pakistan’s relationship with its biggest neighbour remains complex. To that end, the single most pertinent question pertaining to Indo-Bangla relations that continues to be raised is as to how a country whose liberation was ably aided by India, and in the military campaign for which many Indian lives were lost, acquired a “turn around” and had become a hostile nation within a matter of years. While, a mature democracy like India appreciated the imperatives of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation, and consequently did not either “billet” its armed forces in independent Bangladesh for longer than it was necessary or engineer aggressive diplomacy to dominate Dhaka, the fact of the matter is that New Delhi—for some reason or the other—preferred to turn a blind eye to some of the aspects that were threatening Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League government. Indeed, it cannot be countenanced that Indian observers of the then Bangladesh and the traditional minders of such business could not have known that active subterfuges were afoot inside Savar (the military garrison near Dhaka) to overthrow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government. But such monitoring notwithstanding the worst took place and India lost considerable ground in the aftermath of the putsch. The coup d'état not only overthrew the government, and witnessed the assassination of almost the entire family of the Bangabandhu, but in one fell swoop negated the advantages that India had sought to garner after the dismemberment of Pakistan. After all, the primary consideration that had led to the Indian intervention in East Pakistan was to get rid of a two-front enemy. The Liberation War of 1971 ensured that. But, as aforesaid, the gains were frittered away, possibly because the dispensation in New Delhi—in 1975—was more occupied with internal strife. In the absence of any intervening force, the radicalisation of Bangladesh started. The country’s garrison politics—without the legitimacy of a mass based political party like Awami League—had to lean on Islam for political sustenance. Furthermore, pro-Pakistani elements that had collaborated with the Pakistan army in carrying out pogroms in the pre-liberation days and had fled the country after it was liberated were rehabilitated. Despite the fact that a large constituency in Bangladesh remained steadfast to the spirit of 1971 and linguistic Bengali nationalism, the military rulers and later the Islamists defined almost every institution in the country on anti-Indian sentiments and consequently Islam, the latter with a strategy to further the India-Bangladesh divide.

 

War criminals like Ghulam Azam returned to Bangladesh and the Jamaat-e-Islami, of which Azam was the Emir, became a powerful factor in the country’s politics. The growing radicalisation of the country also began linking it with the global Salafi movement and home-grown Islamist groups were soon making their way to places such as Tora Bora in Afghanistan to fight alongside the al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, the nexus between a group such as HUJI (B) and other al-Qaeda led Islamist outfits was cemented when Fazlur Rahman, leader of the “Jihad Movement in Bangladesh” of which HUJI (B) is a constituent, signed the official declaration of jihad against the United States on 23 February 1998. Thereafter, Islamist groups such HUJI (B), JMB and JMJB were on the fast track towards converting Bangladesh into another Talibanised Afghanistan, recruiting youths from Assam and thereabouts and sending them to places such as Batrasi in Pak-occupied Kashmir for urban and rural guerrilla training. Links were also engendered with ethnic insurgent organisations of the North East, and it was only with both training, safe haven and provision of arms that a group such as NDFB (Ranjan) was able to trigger off serial blasts in Assam on 30 October 2008.

 

The existence of a radical Bangladesh in India’s eastern flank—aided and abetted by the ISI—is, therefore, fraught with grave danger for India’s national security. The illegal migration to Assam and rest of India is continuing, and with the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh, fundamentalists are entering India to perpetrate terror alongside their counterparts from Pakistan. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Islamists inside Assam are not engaging the security forces is because it wants to utilise the demographic jungles of lower Assam as a gateway to the rest of India, as also as after action pull-back area.

 

It is in the context of the above that the question about Bangladesh’s “turn around” gains significance. 1971, which was expected to serve India’s security interests, became instead the doorway for another predicament. The problem got compounded as Bangladesh—acting as a strategic mid-point between the hot-spots of West Asia and South East Asia—began to house not only al-Qaeda operatives (with the partial de-talibanisation of Afghanistan in the wake of Op Enduring Freedom), but also South East Asian Islamists belonging to Hizbut Tehrir, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. The presence of such groups in a country that abuts India so closely is a threat that cannot be underscored. Sooner or later—the lull of the present (read: 2021) must not let the Indian variables to think that the threat from the east has disappeared. The erstwhile East Pakistan with its ever changing delta has enough warrens and marshes to house more than a handful of Islamists-in-waiting.  Complacence cannot be allowed to override close watch over the situation in Bangladesh. Indeed, it must be more alert. This is despite the fact that there has been a change in the atmospherics in the country—especially after the return to power of the Awami League. Therefore, the question that the article began by asking continues to be relevant not only for historians, but also practitioners of statecraft in India who may once again be confronted with a similar situation in the future, à la 1975.

 

Before the article examines the reasons that necessitate caution, vis-a-vis a repeat of 1975, an analysis of the primal question about Bangladesh’s “turn around” and the coup of 1975 is warranted.

 

The reasons for the coup and the “turn around” (interchangeably examined below) could, therefore, (not necessarily in order of importance) be the following:

  • Internal problems inside India that led to the Emergency prevented New Delhi from intervening.
  • Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and particularly the National Security Intelligence were unaware of the magnitude of the problem despite the fact that the “Majors” who led the coup were regularly meeting both Zia-ur-Rahman and Khandakar Mushtaq Ahmed. While Zia wanted to “wait-and-watch,” Ahmed was amenable to takeover once the Bangabandhu was dethroned, as indeed he did.
  • The Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini raised to guard Mujib against a coup that may be staged by the army was not able to prevent the inevitable, and the uprising took place. One aspect that needs to be factored in is the analysis of certain important observers of Bangladesh. According to former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was slowly “distancing” himself from India. The reasoning seems to be, in Dixit’s own words: “A metamorphosis in the social and political scene of Bangladesh had occurred, first because Mujib’s own lack of confidence about transforming his country into a genuine secular-democracy and, second, because he had consciously (emphasis: Author’s) allowed re-induction of pro-Pakistani and anti-liberationist elements into Bangladesh’s politics, civil services and armed forces. He adopted such a strategy in order to reduce the influence of political leaders and armed forces personnel who were actively involved in the freedom struggle.” It seems, therefore, if Dixit’s analysis is to be believed, that Mujib-ur-Rahman, incarcerated in West Pakistan throughout the period of the Liberation War, felt “left out” and was not exactly in awe of people like the pro-India, first prime minister of Bangladesh, Tazzuddin Ahmed, who he felt had fought and won the war. Dixit made another very interesting point. He said, “Whosoever came to power in Bangladesh has to fulfil two stipulations for surviving in power: first, that he or she should maintain a certain amount of distance from India and second, the person should confirm the Islamic identity of Bangladesh.” Now, Dixit’s analysis may not altogether be correct, especially as the present Awami League regime has taken steps in certain directions, for instance, the restoration of Article 12 of the 1972 Constitution, which prohibited religion-based politics and communalism of all hue. Such actions, as also the ones relating to the annulling of the controversial 5th and 7th Amendments are being viewed as bold steps and ones that might endanger Sheikh Hasina.

 

The other reasons that can be proffered for the coup of 1975 and the “turn around” may include:

 

  • The Americans—according to researched literature—had advance knowledge of the coup, but did nothing to warn the Sheikh. In all probability it was expected that with the “dethroning” of Mujib, the reunification of Pakistan could take place.
  • Anti-Indianism was growing in the military and polity, not in the least because of New Delhi’s decision to not hand over the arms that were captured from the Pakistani army after its surrender in Dhaka. Although the rationale was that the newfound Bangladesh would then have to perforce depend on Indian weaponry for its military, and not on American-Chinese procured Pakistani arms, the fact of the matter is that the delineation did not go down very well with the Bangladeshis. Also, the author was informed by a senior retired Lt General of the Indian army (who was a Major during the war) that the Mukti Bahini did not take kindly to the liberating India forces show of great affability towards their Pakistani counterparts after the liberators entered Dhaka and thereabouts. Of course, the reason for the bonhomie might have been the fact that Indian and Pakistani officers were trained together before partition in the same institutions such as the Royal Indian Military College, Dehra Dun, Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, or at places such as Sandhurst and Camberley, United Kingdom.

 

But, history holds its own, and the forces of secularism have returned to power in Dhaka. Relations between India and Bangladesh are once again on the path of detente or as an observer wrote in a celebratory piece that marked the 50th anniversary Independence Day celebration of 25 March 2021. He wrote, the relationship between the two countries is going to become even more intense and rewarding. Indeed, action against Indian Insurgent Groups billeted in Bangladesh was swift and Dhaka handed over important Indian insurgent leaders, including the chairmen of the ULFA and the NDFB to India. It has also signed deals with New Delhi on a variety of security, cultural and economic fronts as also undertaking of joint military exercises such as Op Sampriti. But, all may not be well with the Awami League. Indeed, despite the landslide victories in the general elections, the party seems to be floundering. The reason is quite simple and it was proffered to the author by no less a person than Sheikh Hasina’s International Affairs Adviser, Gowher Rizvi on 26 March 2016. He said, we have to create an opposition if we are to survive. Unable to comprehend the import of the one-time Oxford don, I pressed for an answer. Suddenly the penny dropped. Rizvi was—notwithstanding his unwavering loyalty to his prime minister—concerned about the non-existence of an opposition in a democratic set-up: the reason why he spoke about the need for an opposition party inside the Jatiya Sangsad. The apprehension probably stemmed from a number of aspects, the most important being the fact that the manner in which Bangladesh was being governed and some of the bold initiatives that Sheikh Hasina was taking may not exactly endear her to a certain section in Bangladesh, or even in the Islamic world. Her dispensation is taking a number of steps—reportedly at some odds—to restore the country’s central values that were incorporated after the Liberation War of 1971. The Bangladesh Supreme Court’s declaration of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution enacted in 1977 as null and void has already been referred to above. In its judgment, the apex court decreed that it is setting down on record its “total disapproval of martial law and suspension of the Constitution or any part thereof in any form.”  The events that may emerge as a result of the quashing of the 5th Amendment may have to await time, but notwithstanding the wisdom with which the ruling was made, it has to be understood that the verdict has both censured and served restraint on the country’s military, a bold step given the adventurism that characterises certain countries in the sub-continent and have time and again witnessed military-over-legislature-judiciary assertiveness. There is another dimension as well. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which spearheaded the 1971 Liberation War, has been in power in Bangladesh for over two decades out of the 50 years since the country came into being. Several years were in the hands of the 5th Amendment scriveners and their surrogates.

 

Moreover, it is also no secret that Sheikh Hasina has not quite been able to rein in recalcitrant members of the DGFI and the armed forces. Despite the thumping majority with which she romped home on 29 December 2008, the two years that followed had reportedly not quite witnessed her control over these two influential organisations. Even in the good-will “round-up” that she was able to engineer against Indian insurgents hiding in Bangladesh, the country’s prime minister did not utilised the services of the DGFI or the army, relying instead on the Detective Branch and the Rapid Action Battalion that is loyal to her, ostensibly because certain key personnel in the Detective Branch hail from her political constituency of Gopalganj 3. Therefore, even as Sheikh Hasina is aiding India in a number of ways for which New Delhi should be grateful, it must also be understood that she neither has complete control or great faith in the largely Pakistanised DGFI and army.

 

Another opposition that faces Sheikh Hasina is the opening of the War Criminal Trial Tribunal after several years. Over 1200 cadres and supporters belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir have been detained since February 2010. This has led to an outcry in the Jamaat-e-Islami and even Pakistan. Such initiatives—while endearing her to a majority of the Bangladeshis—do not auger well for her personal safety.

 

In conclusion it seems that even as Sheikh Hasina could face problems within her own party, the most important threat would probably come from sections of the DGFI, Bangladesh army, ISI, Jamaat-e-Islami and neo-Islamists such as Hefazat-e-Islam. The latter wants the enactment of it submitted to of a blasphemy law. The reasons—as examined above—range from the steps she is taking to rein in the Islamists within Bangladesh, her pro-India stance, the 5th Amendment annulment, and the opening of the War Crimes Tribunal. It is in the interest of India to take stock of the situation and recalibrate its Dhaka policy. Action by Hasina loyalists within the law enforcement agencies primarily the Counter Terrorism & Transnational Crime, the head of the organisation being Md. Monirul Islam (who this author is acquainted with) should be utilised with care. This is an imperative were anti-India agenda in the east to be frustrated and another 15 August 1975 to be avoided.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.