Currently on a visit to India, Syed Badrul Ahsan spoke to Aditi Bhaduri on India-Bangladesh ties, the personal chemistry between PM Modi and PM Hasina, Bangladesh’s fight with religious radicalism, and the upcoming elections
Syed Badrul Ahsan is one of Bangladesh’s foremost public intellectuals and the author of several books. He is no stranger to India. He has been visiting India regularly since at least 1987, both in official and personal capacity. He was a Fellow at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and his upcoming volume is a comparative study of the nationalisms of Deshbandju Chittaranjan Bose, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
Currently visiting India on an invitation by India Narrative, Ahsan spoke to Aditi Bhaduri on India-Bangladesh ties, the personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s journey towards a democratic, secular state, its fight with religious radicalism, and the upcoming Bangladesh elections. Excerpts:
When the Narendra Modi-led BJP government first came to power there were apprehensions in some quarters that ties with Bangladesh may face a setback. How would you characterise bilateral relations over almost a decade now with the Modi government in power in India?
SBA: The ties between our two countries progressed rather well, contrary to our apprehensions. When the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power, many amongst our intellectuals and in general Bangladeshi society felt ties would deteriorate. Because throughout generations, the Awami League and the Indian National Congress had built-up and pursued close ties as secular parties. Happily, that did not happen.
Modi and Hasina quickly established good ties and there was much movement forward. For instance, the Land Boundary Agreement, which had been signed by both Bangladesh and India many years ago but successive Indian governments could not ratify it, was sorted.
Modi, however, had the strength in Parliament to get the agreement ratified. Next, Modi’s encouraging statements about the sharing of the Teesta River waters. Of course, we know there are sensitivities involved. Hasina also has good ties with [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee, so it may take a while but things look positive. Eight agreements have been signed between the two sides in different areas of cooperation, including defence. Prime Minister Modi has visited Bangladesh and Hasina has visited India, so bilateral ties have been very good and look promising.
The Ukraine war has impacted the Bangladeshi economy negatively. For instance, the Rooppur nuclear power plant needs supplies from Russia which were to be delivered at the Chittagong Port. But because of the US sanctions and fear of these sanctions the Bangladesh government had to approach India… which has played a pro-active role. India got the Russian ships to come to Haldia port and then shipped the supplies from there to Bangladesh.
What do the youth of Bangladesh think of India?
SBA: Fifteen years ago, I would have said negatively, but that was an impression created by governments of the day. Today the youth see India differently and positively. India is a rising global power and we benefit from cooperation with India. Moreover, we are also seeing a tendency of viewing South Asia as a common home.
Our people watch Indian serials and Indian films. The government of India gives scholarships to at least 2,000 Bangladeshi students to study in India each year. Trips are organised which take Bangladeshi youth to different parts of India, and so many of our people come to India for medical treatment. All this has created a very positive image of India amongst our people.
When Prime Minister Modi visited Bangladesh, we saw many protests by groups like Hefazat-e-Islam. We have also seen many attacks on the Hindu minority community in Bangladesh over the recent past. Just a few days ago a delegation of minority groups submitted a petition to Sheikh Hasina to ramp up security for minorities and ensure their rights. Are religious minorities not safe in Bangladesh?
SBA: This violence against minorities is the handiwork of fringe elements, not of the majority of the Bangladeshi people. In Durga Puja season we see a lot of such vandalism taking place against Hindus. We intellectuals, journalists, the press, we all condemned the violence.
The government of Sheikh Hasina has condemned it, the violence has been condemned at the level of local governments too. The government has made attempts to stop such violence and we have to all reassure that the Hindu community, all minorities, can live in peace and without fear. Bangladesh is their country and they are citizens of Bangladesh. We can see that this last Durga Puja was much more peaceful.
Definitely a lot more needs to be done, and it is important for authorities to crack down on the Islamists, the fanatics to ensure this. Because our struggle was a Bengali struggle, our war was fought on the basis of the Bengali language, on the basis on Bengali nationalism and we need to restore this ethos. We need to enshrine “secularism” in the constitution. Although our people are 90 per cent Muslim, most of us have a secular outlook and we are always sad when we see such violence against minorities happening.
There is, however, a background to this violence. It dates back to Bangladesh’s history in the 1970s. After the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and during two military dictatorships – one led by Gen. Zia ur Rehman and the other by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ershad – there was a tendency to treat non-Muslim minorities in the manner that Pakistan did. This meant putting religion at the top; Islam was made the State religion, and was a throwback to the two-nation theory. This is something that we have tried to reverse. The Awami League came to power first in 1996 and in 2001 the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) came to power and their supporters went on a rampage harassing minorities. We are trying to reverse the trend. After liberation our 1972 constitution had “secularism” enshrined in it and we are trying to restore that constitution.
Why is it taking so long?
SBA: There are sensitivities involved. Many of us would like secularism to be restored but with groups like Hefazat–e-Islam around, though they are small groups, this government has to be careful. It has already taken some commendable steps in bringing the war criminals to justice, in trying the genocide participants.
The Jamaat-i-Islami has been deregistered, it cannot contest elections. So, we are hoping that the Awami League will win the next elections and will be able to restore secularism to the constitution. Nevertheless, most of us in Bangladesh are secular in our outlook, although Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country. We need to consolidate our country on the basis of Bengali identity. Unfortunately, our journey which began in 1971 to full-fledged democracy and securalism was hijacked by the generals. Efforts were made to drag the country to another path.
However, we do not believe in Bangladeshi nationalism. We are citizens of Bangladesh, which is a piece of territory and has always existed. But as a race or a nation we are Bengalis and the majority of our people believe in Bengali nationalism because we remember 1971—a war fought on the basis of the Bengali language and identity.
So, groups like Hefazat though small, would seem to exert significant pressure on Bangladeshi society then?
SBA: We have pockets of fanatics and Islamists in the country. After Friday prayers they often come out and start protests on some issue. Since 2016, after the attack on the Artisan Cafe, the government has been cracking down on these pockets of fanatics. Since then they have not made any headway.
What are the main issues for the upcoming general elections in Bangladesh?
SBA: Well, it would be to see no violence, every political party should exercise tolerance. The government needs to come down hard on corruption. Our GDP has had a setback due to the Ukraine crisis, but while the country has overall been progressing economically, we have a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The middle class took a bad hit during the COvid-19 pandemic. Urban development has progressed fast but such development should also percolate to the poorer and rural areas too. Education also needs to be developed in a way so as to offer employment opportunities to the people.
The US recently indicated that it might lift sanctions imposed on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and six Bangladeshi officials because of alleged human rights violation. Has India played any role in this?
SBA: I think yes. I would not be surprised if India has approached the US government and this would be regarded as a degree of cooperation between India and Bangladesh. US Assistant Secretary of State David Lu was in Delhi recently and then in Dhaka where he has indicated that the sanctions will soon be lifted.
How is Bangladesh balancing its relations with China?
SBA: Bangladesh has good relations with China but it has to be very careful. It knows it needs to develop relations with countries like China, Russia, but in a careful diplomatic way. We need to balance our relations with China and with India. It is also out of consideration of Bangladesh’s needs to be friendly with India.
And with Pakistan?
SBA: While we would want to have good relations with Pakistan too, we have not made any headway because of its refusal to recognise and apologise for the 1971 genocide. Textbooks in Pakistan still teach that the 1971 uprising was a conspiracy by India and that we committed atrocities on them.
Finally, what are the areas for further cooperation between India and Bangladesh?
SBA: We need greater space for exports to India. Bangladesh suffers from a huge trade deficit with India. Indian exports to Bangladesh amount to $14 billion, while Bangladeshi exports to India amount to only $1.26 billion. We are India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. Then the India Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline should be taking off next month hopefully.
I would personally like to see more intellectual exchanges between our two countries. Teachers from Bangladesh should be able to come and teach in institutions in India. We should have more people to people exchange, more cultural exchanges.
A frequent Bangladeshi complaint is about the Indian visa process. It is very long and arduous. Also, Indian TV channels are freely accessible in Bangladesh but not vice versa. These gaps need to be eliminated.