Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bangladesh liberation fighters say a loud thank you to India

For the second time in the almost 40 years since its creation, Bangladesh invited a delegation of Indian war veterans who had fought alongside the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters in the 1971 War of Liberation that comprehensively defeated the Pakistan army. The first invitation was extended by the caretaker government in 2007, while the second, by the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in 2009, could not materialise due to the mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel. That aborted invitation was made good last month.
“Without you, we would not be a country” acknowledged the freedom fighters, some on wheelchairs and some on crutches among the many able-bodied. The outburst of sentiment, generosity and plain thank you was moving. Indian war veterans were feted by the freedom fighters, Awami League politicians, and the three armed services. Equally striking was the absence of the leader of the opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia. She was absent from the official wreath laying ceremony at the national Martyrs’ Memorial, though she did attend after her bĂȘte noire, prime minister Sheikh Hasina had left the victory parade.
The arrest by the government of BNP’s standing committee member from Chittagong, the self-confessed Pakistan sympathiser, Salauddin Qadir Chowdhury, on the same day for war crimes merely added fuel to the fire.
This was part of the government’s drive to bring to book those who collaborated with the Pakistani military crackdown in 1971. After Zia’s eviction, following court orders from Army House and her grievous electoral decline in 2008, she was in need of comfort and found no better place for solace than Beijing where the Chinese accorded her honours reserved for state visitors. Khaleda Zia, along with her husband, the late President Gen Zia-ur Rehman, have ruled Bangladesh for almost half of its existence and systematically distanced the country from India.
Bitter rivals, the two begums have divided the country’s politics between themselves. The army-backed caretaker government of 2007-08 had unsuccessfully sought to keep them out of politics in what was called ‘minus two’. What one is observing today is transition from ‘minus two’ to ‘plus two’ — the nurturing of the sons, Sheikh Hasina’s Sajib Wajid and Khaleda Zia’s Tariq Zia.
Bangladesh has seen army rule twice: first under Zia-ur Rehman and later under Mohammad Ershad. The army has a Chinese bias with the US and UK involved in training and consultancy. Conspicuously, India, along with its military, is peripheral to the Bangladesh military’s overall disposition. Its linkages with the Pakistan army and the ISI, despite the genocide of 1971, have not gone away. All three service chiefs in Dhaka are now from the post-1971 Liberation War vintage. Unlike the Pakistan army that seeks revenge against India for 1971, the Bangladesh military does not seem to want to avenge the genocide of Bangladeshis.
In some quarters, India is portrayed as the enemy to help build the primacy of the military as the ultimate protector of the nation.
The military is under civilian control for the present. Last year, the BDR had revolted and targeted their commanding army officers with immense brutality. The hangover of that mutiny is still in the air as the BDR is being overhauled. An army takeover was averted during the caretaker regime, with the international community threatening to keep the Bangladesh army out of UN peacekeeping operations. At an average, every soldier earns one if not two lucrative tenures abroad, which make UN missions the biggest driver of recruitment.
The military, which shares some traits with its Pakistani counterpart, is a potent factor in keeping the country united and the civilian government mindful of good governance. As a professional force, it knows its red lines. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina is also her own defence minister and has inherited an effective military apparatus carved out by Gen Ershad, notably the Armed Forces Division. The head of the AFD reports directly to the prime minister, bypassing the ministry of defence, making it a dream outfit for any military.
From India’s point of view, prime minister Sheikh Hasina has ensured that Indian insurgent groups and leaders thriving inside Bangladesh in the past have no safe havens now. This has been her biggest gift to India and after Bhutan’s Operation All Clear, it has secured India’s eastern flank internally.
With Sheikh Hasina in office, the exchange of war veterans must be institutionalised to initiate defence cooperation, which is virtually non-existent. This will help erase the India bogey and bolster confidence-building measures. New Delhi must cautiously draw maximum mileage while Sheikh Hasina is in power and help replicate the win-win situation of 1971.