A 'New Beginning' in India-Bangladesh Ties?

At a time when Pakistan shows no signs of relinquishing its role as the "springboard" of terror, to quote Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bangladesh has demonstrated its determination to fight it by executing six terrorists, including two who had acquired fearsome reputation for their depredations.

The two were Siddiqul Islam, aka Bangla bhai, head of the Jagrata Muslim Janata (Awakened Muslim Masses), and Abdur Rahman, head of the Jamaat-e-Mujahideen, one of the signatories of Al Qaeda's fatwa establishing an International Islamic Front. 

Unlike Pakistan, where sections of the army and the intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are believed to be in league with the terrorists, the crackdown against the Islamists in Bangladesh has been the handiwork of the army-backed regime, which has replaced the elected government.

It is a measure that will undoubtedly be welcomed by India, which had begun to fear the conversion of Bangladesh into a second Afghanistan. It was suspected that after the American offensive against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of the terrorists had fled to Bangladesh, where they felt that they had a friendly administration.

Now, suddenly, all that has changed, with Dhaka recognizing the threat the Islamists pose to the country's social, political and economic stability. It is not impossible that the new rulers have drawn the appropriate lessons from Pakistan's travails, where not only are the groups modeled on the Taliban becoming stronger, but the fundamentalists have been able to spread their tentacles even to Islamabad where they are threatening music shops.

If Bangladesh's own homegrown terrorists had earlier gained prominence, the reason was the alliance between the government of Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat-e-Islami. To be fair, it wasn't Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alone that found it politically convenient to have the fundamentalists on its side.

Noticing the clout the BNP had acquired because of its opportunistic tie-ups with bigots and extremists, the previously secular Awami League, too, entered into an alliance with the fundamentalist Khelafat-e-Majhlis, much to the distress of the Indian government, which tended to regard the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina as someone who was more concerned about secular values than Khaleda Zia.

It was the endless squabbles between the two begums that led to the postponement of the elections, which were scheduled for January, and the installment of the present regime. While the first task of the new administration was to begin cleansing the Aegean stable of corruption by arresting a number of prominent individuals, including Khaleda Zia's son, Tareq Rahman, its real achievement would be to root out Islamic terrorism.

There is little doubt that the present regime's non-political base has helped it to act against the perpetrators of terror. Since it doesn't have to face elections, it can afford to eliminate those elements who were earlier used by self-serving politicians to whip up religious fervor. The minorities, both Hindus and Christians, were targeted in the process evidently because the politicians felt that such actions will fetch them political dividends.

However, the fact that the execution of the Islamic terrorists has had no discernible effect on routine life in Bangladesh is an indication that ordinary people are not really interested in such cynical politics. All that they are interested in is to be allowed to live their lives in peace. If they earlier came out occasionally in support of extremist policies, it was because they were terrorized into doing so by the bigoted mullahs.

After the action against the terrorists, New Delhi will obviously expect the new rulers in Dhaka to act against the fugitives from India belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), who are believed to have found shelter in Bangladesh. Among the prominent ULFA rebels, who are said to be living a life of comfort in Dhaka, are Arabinda Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua and Anup Chetia.

When Bangladesh was East Pakistan before 1971, it provided similar bases to the insurgents from India's northeast. The Mizo leader Laldenga (who later abandoned his rebellion to become the chief minister of Mizoram) was one of them. After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, India had expected that the new country would not pursue the earlier Pakistani policy of fomenting trouble in India by sheltering Indian militants.

But these hopes were frustrated by the help given by the previous Bangladeshi government to the ULFA and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization, whose leader Jeevan Singh is believed to be in Bangladesh. Nothing will be more gratifying for India than a change of stance in Dhaka. It remains to be seen, though, whether the promise of a "new beginning" in mutual ties made by Bangladesh's chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, during his recent visit to New Delhi on the occasion of the SAARC summit is fulfilled.

The other Indian expectation will be that Bangladesh will try to stop the influx of illegal immigrants from that country into India or at least help in evolving an arrangement under which the immigrants will be given work permits.

But more than the problems posed by the ULFA or the immigrants, it is the crackdown on the terrorists that will be appreciated by New Delhi as it will deny them a base - which they have been using (apparently with the covert assistance of the ISI) to attack civilian targets in India.

Notwithstanding the help that India gave to the Mukti Bahini (liberation fighters) during the Bangladesh war, relations between the two countries never really became as warm as it was expected. The main reason was the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the coming to power of military rulers, who turned Bangladesh away from secularism and helped in the growth of fundamentalist elements.

Now, at last, the tide seems to have turned. The only unfortunate aspect is that it has taken an authoritarian regime to take these corrective measures. So, along with Pakistan and Myanmar, India has another country run by the army as its neighbor.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at


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