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Eastward Ho!

Hasina’s ascension to power is perhaps a good time for New Delhi to address the threat from outside the eastern border, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2009 22:59 IST
Lalita Panicker

The recently-concluded Bangladesh polls have been quite a turn-up for the books. Though the odds were in favour of Awami League (AL) chief Sheikh Hasina, no one really thought she would notch up a staggering 230 against the 27 of Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Many may think that irrespective of which Begum wins, we’ll just see more of the same. Well, we might be in for a surprise.

Unlike Khaleda Zia, Hasina has made it clear that she will have no truck with the fundamentalist Islamist parties. In fact, militant Islamic organisations have been used by the BNP to counter the League. The elections have shown that the Islamist parties do not have popular support. But this does not mean that the threat to democracy from them is any less. And this is the greatest challenge that Hasina will face.

Today, Hasina with her strong mandate can rewrite the Constitution and initiate the reforms she wants. But here we are speaking of democratic processes. The real threat to Bangladesh and to India is from those who operate outside democratic norms, and who will feel ever more threatened by a Hasina regime. On the threat from across the Bangladesh border, India has been tardy due to vote-bank politics: illegal immigrants get hold of identification papers thanks to political patronage. But, the truth is that India has been far more preoccupied with Pakistan and has not focused enough on Bangladesh. Economic immigrants is one issue but many intelligence sources say that along with them, Pakistan-trained jihadis also find their way here.

It is no secret that with the US prowling around Taliban country and Pakistan’s restive tribal belts, many ISI-sponsored militant camps have shifted to Bangladesh. With, of course, the blessings of those in power, notably the army. Organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba are known to preserve its own top-notch fighters and send in Bangladeshi jihadis to do its dirty work for it in India. Clearly, the latter are considered more expendable and the trail runs cold past the Chittagong hill tracts.

Hasina’s ascension to power is perhaps a good time for New Delhi to address the threat from outside the eastern border. Bangladesh has 64,000 madrassas and 900 kindergarten madrassas. Many of them have been subverted by vested interests into becoming recruiting grounds for jihad, mainly against India. The ISI’s collusion with many of the Islamist parties in Bangladesh is well known as well as its unholy interest in the madrassas that are close to the Indian border. But unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh can still get its act together. For one, the ordinary Bangladeshi is not so much driven by religious fundamentalism as by linguistic nationalism. In essence, they are of the same stock as Indian Bengalis whose love for argument and dissent is the stuff of legends. They naturally resist any cookie cutter model of religion. It is perhaps the fear of violence that has subdued their voices all these years.

Now with Hasina in the saddle, we can only hope that these irrepressible sentiments come to the fore. It is in India’s interest to give Hasina a hand. No sooner is she sworn in, attacks on her will begin from all sides. Apart from fundamentalism, her greatest challenge will be that of the development of the desperately poor country. It is here that New Delhi can really be of assistance. It would be a wise investment in securing a 4,096-km border. It would also ensure that those bent on the destruction of India will have fewer places to operate from. The chances of success have never been better. A progressive government in Bangladesh and Pakistan facing international heat. If India plays its cards right, the region might just become a safer place.