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Dhaka's being dragged down

india Updated: Mar 03, 2013 23:38 IST

Hindustan Times
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The death sentence for the vice-president of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, has triggered another wave of violent protests across India's most important eastern neighbour. This is the third sentence and the second death sentence passed down by the special tribunal investigating crimes committed during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Each judgement has sparked a wave of protests by Jamaat's supporters. This round has been the most violent yet and, more importantly, has begun to draw in the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The tribunal, which has been marred by reports of threats against witnesses and lawyers, is a necessary and overdue catharsis for the collaboration by Islamicists with Pakistan in 1971. It is also part of a larger struggle between a more secular Bengali nationalism and an intolerant Islamicist movement over the future path of the fourth largest Muslim country in the world. The killing of an anti-Islamicist blogger and the subsequent protests centred around Shahbagh further underlined this division. It is obvious which side India would prefer to come to the fore. But part of the mainstreaming of Bangladesh is an end to its viciously partisan polity. Violence spikes before almost every general election and the rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, is legendary. But this has not been positive for Bangladesh. The evolution of a political culture that accepts the concept of a "loyal opposition" - that the ruling party and the opposition accept unwritten norms of behaviour irrespective of which one is in power - is a key missing ingredient in Bangladesh's otherwise remarkable success in other fields. Sheikh Hasina had an opportunity to create such a culture after her sweeping electoral victory in 2008. With such an enormous mandate, and an economy buoyed by natural gas discoveries and textile exports, she had an opportunity to change the political culture of the country. But her decision to remove the constitutional clause bringing to an end the use of interim governments and, worse, making further amendments almost impossible was the sort of political gaming that Dhaka needs to move away from.

The ruling Awami League has been a close and constant friend of India. Sheikh Hasina's willingness to settle almost all the outstanding issues between India and Bangladesh would revolutionise not only bilateral ties, but even the northeastern states. It is a matter of shame that New Delhi failed to come through on this and it is welcome that the government will try pushing to finalise these agreements once again. Nonetheless, the Bangladesh that would be best for India would be one where all the main political players see India as a friend and partner. Unfortunately, the return of pre-election violence and bloody partisanship points to this possibility still being some way in the future.