The riots that have broken out against the harsh but unsurprising sentences being passed down by Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal are a reminder of the continuing struggle between the country’s Islamicist elements and its more secular Bengali instincts.
Attitudes towards the 1971 liberation war remain a crucial index of this divide. Much of the leadership of the main Islami-cist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, had supported Pakistani rule and opposed the independence struggle that was backed by India.
Last month, the tribunal sentenced a former Jamaat member, Abul Kalam Azad, to death for his role in the war. The latest protests have followed the life sentence awarded to another Jamaat collaborator, Abdul Quader Mollah.
The personal interest of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the tribunal’s actions are well-known. The soldiers who killed her father and much of her family were linked to the other ideological side of the civil war.
The civil war divide colours Bangladeshi politics to this day. The Jamaat are electoral allies of Ms Hasina’s main political rival, Khaleda Zia, and her policies have traditionally reflected their worldview.
Ms Zia has been a long-standing opponent of India and has flirted with Pakistan. She has also taken a soft line on the spread of Islamicism in Bangladesh, home to the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world.
She has denounced the tribunal as a farce. She will presumably incorporate the questions about its functioning into her campaign as Bangladesh moves closer and closer to elections near the end of the year.
The endless street battles and riots that characterised its politics for decades, the steady stream of migrants into India and elsewhere, and the threat of Islamicist influence have been a reflection of the country’s poverty.
This poverty is no longer deemed inevitable, any more than is India’s. India’s policy towards Bang-ladesh is to help it along the path of transition to modernity.
Unfortunately, a perfect opportunity to do so was lost when the parochial mind of Mamata Banerjee shot down what would have been a path-breaking settlement of almost every outstanding issue between the two countries.
The present trial, whose credibility has already been undermined by incidents that included the disappearance of a defence witness at the court’s gates, underlines how fragile Bangladesh’s progress continues to be and how much more proactive India needs to be.