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Big Brother Syndrome

Democracy is back in Bangladesh. It’s a great new beginning, but most Bangladeshis are yet to get over their historical mistrust of India. Are we friends or foes? Anirban Choudhury examines...

world Updated: Jan 03, 2009 22:34 IST
Anirban Choudhury

At the Regency Hotel in Dhaka, the celebrations to welcome the new year are in full swing. The roof top on the 14th floor is packed with young men and women swaying to Indipop chart-busters. “Kolkata’s Park Street will be crowded today, won’t it?” asks Sikha Rahman, a college student who has come in with a friend. “We hardly have places here to go to on nights like these,” she rues.

Shikha is typical of the young educated Bangladeshi ready to take the plunge into the world of opportunities opening up around them, even as they grapple to find a balance between Islamic traditions and modernity. This is a world that they now experience only on television — for example, the K-serials from India, which are very popular. For these young men and women, India is the gateway to the good life. Yes, it is sometimes the hated, intimidating big brother; but it is also a free world where a man can choose his way of life and career.

Bangladesh is today at a critical juncture in its history as a democracy. Only a few days back, it voted a new government to power without a single bullet being fired, or even a lathi-charge. But the average Bangladeshi is yet to figure out what India means to him — a friend, a foe or just a neighbour.

“My son does not know India’s contribution in our lives. India is a unique country which let go of a land it conquered in 1971,” says Shoaib Chowdhury, a businessman. His son Anas Mahmood, who’s going to the UK next month for higher studies, counters: “I don’t need to know such details. I think India is a country where I can pursue a career. And it is a place which has produced batsmen like dada [Sourav Ganguly] and Viru [Virendra Sehwag].”

Sahidul Islam, 65, sells caps outside Baitul Mukarram, one of the biggest mosques in Bangladesh. It gets him not more than 70 taka a day. “I have seen the liberation war. I have seen what sacrifices Indian soldiers made to liberate our country. But it has not played a positive role after that. Our land is drying up because India refuses to release our share of water from the Farakka Barrage.”

Muhammed Ismail, who owns a mobile shop at the Kawran Market business district of Dhaka, has his own take on what ails India-Bangladesh relations. “The leaders tell us good things but trade and commerce is almost non-existent. Better trade not only brings money but also helps develop a healthy relationship,” he says, referring to the growing market for Chinese products in Bangladesh and how the expanding commerce is helping the economies of both countries.

Dr Fozla Rabbi, a neurologist, points to Bangladesh’s wide talent pool and says joint ventures will help both.

No one denies that it was India’s military might that overwhelmed the Pakistani army in December 1971, neither does anyone underestimate India’s potential as the growing economic superpower of the region. For free Bangladesh, its mighty neighbour may be hated, but it cannot be ignored. So no political discussion is complete without either lambasting India or lauding it.

During elections, especially, India casts a long shadow over Bangladeshi politics. In the countryside at any rate, the anti-India plank works wonders. Parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party grew their base because of their anti-India stand. Both parties came a cropper on December 29, but their support has not eroded much. The export of terror may be a big issue for India and infiltration a perennial headache, but mention this to any villager and the standard answer is — “But the BSF kills innocent Bangladeshis.”

On the way to Manikgunge, we met Muhammed Sohrab, a Jamaat activist at a tea stall. The results hadn’t been declared and he was upbeat. “I don’t want to hurt your sentiments but we are angry at the persecution of Muslims in India.” But are not Bangladeshi minorities suffering similarly? “It’s a lie spread by India, which is out to destroy the Islamic fabric of our country. Look at Indian TV serials which show nothing but extra-marital relationships. Once our party comes to power, we will stop all these obscene programmes.”

As Sohrab spoke, we caught snatches of comments from the crowd gathered around — “The people of India are our friends”, “They never take Bangladeshis as their friends”, “We are so poor because of India”. We finished our tea, and started to pay for it, but were stopped. “It’s a privilege to host a mehman from India. Mian, next time you have to accept a dawat”— people waved as we drove off.

“I like the way music is promoted in India. But you should watch the progress theatre has made here,” says Banani, when we ran into her chatting with two friends during a break in classes at the Dhaka university campus. “I have been to Kolkata once, but I would love to visit Goa,” her friend, Nupur, chips in. “India is a huge country and we are small and poor. But we do not always need a big brother to support us,” retorts Binu, the third.

The average Bangladeshi can understand West Bengal, which speaks his language and eats his food. But the rest of India is a mystery.

Despite the return of democracy with these elections, the spectre of the army looms large over Bangladeshi politics, and the army is chary of India’s military prowess. The political leadership too continues to spread paranoia about how India wants to gobble up Bangladesh. Yet, India is a land of opportunities, be it in education or health care, and its people are peace loving and friendly.

More than that, it is the friend who liberated the country. But it is also a big brother who stands imposing nearby.