Published:  12:26 AM, 13 June 2018

BNP, India and our politics: A closer look

The foreign policy of Bangladesh Awami League has always been 'friendship to all and malice towards none'. The policy, which was envisaged by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a world divided by the realities of the cold-war, has been given a new momentum in the three terms of Sheikh Hasina's premiership between 1996-2001 and 2008-2018.

In particular, in the last 9 years, Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has demonstrated her statesmanship by maintaining excellent relations with both India and China, striking landmark diplomatic deals such as the Land Boundary Agreement with India, securing the country's maritime interests by using international law vis-à-vis India and Myanmar, playing a major role in enhancing Bangladesh's regional connectivity via such mechanisms as the BBIN and BIMSTEC initiatives, being a strong voice and player on global issues affecting the country including terrorism and climate change, and overall enhancing the international profile of the country, which itself is manifested in the fact that the Premier has now been invited thrice to the G7 Summits.

From the highest levels of success in development cooperation with countries such as China,European Union, Russia, Japan and India, to effective counter terrorism cooperation with USA, to robust defense cooperation with Russia, China and India, to working with all major international organizations on the Rohingya forced displacement crisis, to immense UN peacekeeping contributions in all major conflict-ridden parts of the world, Bangladesh has indeed truly put its non-aligned and cooperation-based foreign policy into action in in recent years in every sphere of international relations under HPM Sheikh Hasina.

As for Bangladesh's relations with its closest and largest neighbor India, Awami League and HPM Sheikh Hasina has shown a style of leadership which not only fosters greater cooperation but also advances the country's national interests.

This is notable in such successes as the securing of Bangladesh's maritime boundary with India via international arbitration, the solution to one of the most complex border issues in the world through the signing of the Land Boundary Agreement with India and the exchange of enclaves, importing 600 MW of electricity from India, securing zero-duty benefit on all exports to India (except 26 items), signing of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, resisting India's plan for the Tipaimukh Dam, drastically bringing down the number of shootings in the Bangladesh-India border compared to number of such deaths during BNP-Jamaat regime, ridding Bangladesh's soil of separatists and militants opposed to Indian sovereignty, and incessantly pursuing diplomatic efforts to successfully conclude the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement.   

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on the other hand, as with most of their political positions, has based its foreign policy in opposition to whatever Awami League has traditionally stood for. This is most starkly demonstrated in their position on India.

That position has been quite simple and clear; get the support of right wing voters and fundamentalists in Bangladesh by portraying their opponent Awami League as a 'pro-India' political party.

This has an even more sinister undertone lest someone mistakes it for a legitimate position of opposition to large neighbor. BNP is made up of people who traditionally did bidding for the Pakistan-era Muslim League, whose entire political viewpoint was seeing India as their anathema.

At its simplest, that position has at its center, a Hindu-Muslim issue, draped in the façade of a national perspective. Bangladesh Awami League, with its policy of secularism, and relations with India going back to the country's liberation struggle, has always stood up for people of all religions of the country. Thus, to BNP, it served well to portray Awami League as the 'pro-India, pro-Hindu' party in Bangladesh, and conversely themselves as the 'anti-India' party.  

Professor Rounaq Jahan in her work titled: 'Political Parties in Bangladesh' calls this rabid anti-India stance of BNP, which is admittedly a cornerstone of the party as founded by General Ziaur Rahman, a principal characteristic which differentiates Awami League from BNP.

From their initiation, BNP claimed the landmark Mujib-Indira deal as a 'treaty of slavery', opposed the important Ganges Water Treaty, always claimed before all elections since 1991 that India would take over Bangladesh if Awami League comes to power, unreasonably opposed the CHT Peace Agreement signed by HPM Sheikh Hasina, with Khaleda Zia going so far as to say that upto Feni will be annexed by India if the deal is signed, and so on.

The fact that BNP had opposed the Mujib-Indira Treaty for its own petty political gains as opposed to the national interests of Bangladesh is demonstrated in the work of political scientist Chowdhury M Shamim, of California State University, Fullerton.

In his article "The Bangladesh-India Friendship Treaty", M Shamim examined the importance of the treaty, which he opines helped the withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladeshi soil and thereby helped secured the recognition of the newly born state of Bangladesh.

BNP has not only acted on this anti-India policy through toxic rhetoric, but also dangerous and violent actions such as giving a safe haven to separatist groups from India, such as the ULFA of Assam, to operate against India's sovereignty by using Bangladeshi soil.

The 2004 ten-truck arms haul is one such example which shows the extent to which the then BNP-Jamaat Government helped such forces to destabilize Bangladesh's neighboring areas.

One the other hand, under HPM Sheikh Hasina, Indian separatist groups such as ULFA, TNV, NLFT etc. have seen their safe havens dismantled, their leaders arrested, and handed over to India.

No wonder one of India's top politician and diplomat Shashi Tharoor wrote in December 2014: "Under less friendly regimes, Bangladesh had been a haven for terrorist and militant groups that wreaked havoc in India.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government has not just denied these groups shelter; it has actively intercepted them, arrested some of their leaders, and even handed wanted terrorists over to the Indian government. If terrorist bombs are no longer going off in the Indian state of Assam, it is thanks to the government in Dhaka".

BNP's closest ideological, strategic and electoral ally Jamaat-E-Islami must also be accounted for this in this regard. While their positions on India are identical, Jamaat propagates its anti-Hindu angle in opposition to India less apologetically.

Jamaat leaders are accustomed to calling India 'Hindustan' in their speeches and writings, as opposed to 'Bharat', quite deliberately to highlight the religion of the majority of Indians, although India was founded and remains a secular country and has more Muslim citizens than Bangladesh even.

When BNP says a vote for Awami League is a vote for India, Jamaat goes further to say a vote for Awami League is a vote for India and Hindus. Although one cannot disregard BNP's famous electoral slogan 'If Awami League comes to power, there will be Hindu prayer chants from every mosque in Bangladesh'.

Jamaat is also known to harbor close relations with violent extremist and terrorist groups in South Asia, including the major ones in India. This anti-Hindu position too, is not only limited to rhetoric only as evidenced by the attacks on religious minorities in Bangladesh by BNP-Jamaat workers and supporters in 2001 and 2013-14.

Now, it appears that BNP is trying to change its tune as regards India, as demonstrated by their recent visits to India and some statements from a few of their leaders and known apologists like Professor Emajuddin Ahmed.

The question that naturally arises is whether this is a genuine shift in BNP's position or just a tactic ahead of the upcoming elections. It is very likely that this is the latter and not the former.

Even in March 2013, Khaleda Zia had refused to pay a courtesy call on the then Indian President Pranab Mukherjee when he was visiting Dhaka. This was after her own apparent conciliatory tone during her visit to India at the end of 2012.

Whatever their current statements may indicate, it is difficult for BNP to conceal their innate dislike for India, which is often exposed by comments of their top leaders following any visits to India by Bangladesh's Premier Sheikh Hasina.

The latest such example is the comments from BNP leaders Ruhul Kabir Rizvi and Khandakar Mosharrof Hossain following the visit to West Bengal, India by HPM Sheikh Hasina in May 2018.

Awami League and Sheikh Hasina believe in a genuinely friendly relation and partnership with India, a country with which Bangladesh shares more than just borders. But it is also mindful of advancing and securing Bangladesh's interests in all aspects of bilateral and multilateral engagements were India is involved.

On the other hand, BNP has an inherent opposition to India, often never backed by any legitimate justifications, but would say and promise anything to anyone for what it believes would help them come to power again. The difference between these parties, as with everything else they do and say, is clear for all to see.

The writer is a lawyer, lecturer,
blogger, activist and campaigner for 1971 war crimes trials

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