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‘Manmohan Singh has given Jama’at a certificate it never got from the people of Bangladesh’

Anam speaks about Indo-Bangladesh ties and why a peaceful and friendly Bangladesh is important for India.

Written by Shubhajit Roy |
July 17, 2011 12:02:55 am

Mahfuz Anam is editor and publisher of Daily Star,the largest circulated English daily in Bangladesh. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Special Correspondent Shubhajit Roy,Anam speaks about Indo-Bangladesh ties and why a peaceful and friendly Bangladesh is important for India

Shubhajit Roy: How would you describe the Indo-Bangladesh relationship now?

Mahfuz Anam: I feel the India-Bangladesh relationship is at a historic juncture. We must seize it and establish a sustainable win-win path. I am afraid we are not doing it. Indiafs relationship with Bangladesh is so special. If you look at the map of Bangladesh,we just have Myanmar as our neighbour in one corner. The rest of it is with India.

Shubhajit Roy: We have been watching the progress towards secularism in Bangladesh in the last two years. Is this making lasting changes in society?

Mahfuz Anam: Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country. So there is an overwhelming presence of the majority Muslim culture. But in our social interaction,religious tolerance among communities living together have been a historic phenomenon. The birth of Bangladesh has been based on the principles of democracy,secularism,nationalism. In Bangladesh,the entry of religion into politics,in my view,can be directly linked to the involvement of army in politics. This is the phenomenon in Pakistan too. When you have a coterie that has no base amongst people,they look for possible pockets of support and in Muslim-majority countries,unfortunately,Islam becomes a very easy tool for them to play with. We are practising Muslims as we were before and as tolerant of other religions as before. Form the 70s onwards,you had a global rise of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and other countries. This has had an impact in all Muslim-majority countries,from Indonesia to Malaysia,Bangladesh,and Pakistan. But throughout it all,whenever the people of Bangladesh have had a chance for free expression through elections,they have overwhelmingly voted for secular parties. So the religious party,the Jamafat-e-Islami,never got more than 3 to 8 per cent of the votes. This is not to say that religion hasnft had a rise or a growing impact on politics,but it was not a determining impact. Bangladesh today is veering closer to secular roots through the election of this government led by Sheikh Hasina. Mainstream politics is once again based on nationalism. .

Shekhar Gupta: This dramatic turnaround in Bangladesh is a story that has largely been ignored and unappreciated.

Mahfuz Anam: That provokes me to say what is really a very strong emotion in my heart. I wish the Indian media would give Bangladesh a little more attention. I strongly appeal to the Indian media to take more interest in Bangladesh. We are your neighbour,a very important neighbour and we can also become a troublesome neighbour. You encompass us,except for a little bit of Myanmar. We are almost in your belly; if we are an unstable society,it tells on your security. If the Bangladesh state is unable to respond to the peoplefs needs,the burden will be on this side of the border too. On the positive side,Bangladesh is roughly a six-billion-dollar market for India–formal or informal. Now if with a per capita income of close to four hundred dollars,Bangladesh can be a market to you of close to six billion dollars,then if our per capita income goes up to six hundred dollars,whose market is it going to be? So look at Bangladesh as your prospective market and give us the respect of a market that buys six billion worth of your goods. You are not even looking at it as an issue of self interest. Then there is the issue of security in the North East,and other insurgency issues. With a prosperous Bangladesh,with a secure Bangladesh,your whole security situation changes. India-Bangladesh becomes a model bilateral relationship which you can then flaunt with Nepal,even all over the world.

Dilip Bobb: How much truth is there in PM Manmohan Singh’s statement during his recent interaction with editors–that a quarter of all Bangladeshis are influenced by the Jamafat -e-Islami and are anti-Indian?

Mahfuz Anam: That comment shook us to the core. Dr Manmohan Singh,as an individual,is highly respected,as a PM,he is highly respected. We know him to be a man of few words,very circumspect. Then he says something which is factually incorrect. Where did he get this figure of 25 per cent? He has given Jama’at a certificate which it never got from the people of Bangladesh. And to say that the situation in Bangladesh can change at any moment made us sound like some sort of a Somalia. Is this the opinion of the Prime Minister of India?

Coomi Kapoor: What has been the fallout of his remark in Bangladesh?

Mahfuz Anam: We were shocked and every paper carried it in a big way. We just couldnft believe what we read. I kept thinking it was a mistake but how can such a mistake occur? It has had a very bad impact. However,after PM Manmohan Singhfs telephone call to PM Hasina and then the subsequent visit of your Foreign Minister,Mr Krishna,who was very persuasive and very warm,the damage is somewhat contained. We have some high-profile Indian visits: your foreign minister,then,the Home Minister Chidambaram,Sonia Gandhi is coming,then the Prime Minister.

We are hoping that this puts us on a better trajectory. But I donft think India is seeing the bigger picture and giving Bangladesh the benefits of this win-win relationship that Bangladesh needs and deserves. Bangladesh needs to grow economically and that growth can come,principally from a very cooperative,visionary relationship with India.

Rakesh Sinha: What has changed on the ground in Bangladesh regarding Indian insurgency outfits with safe havens in Bangladesh?

Mahfuz Anam: There is a fundamental change in political focus. There are political groups in Bangladesh that think one way of dealing with India is to be an irritant. Or in believing that India will not be a friend of Bangladesh,that India does not want Bangladeshfs betterment. Then there are groups who want progress,to have a friendly,mutually beneficial bilateral relationship which removes all elements of suspicion and doubt,based on an honest friendship. I would like to be believe that the second viewpoint is now much stronger,it has informed the mainstream political viewpoint,it has elected a government that believes the same–this is the change that has happened. But the doubters still exist. The party that was in power when Indian insurgents were tolerated won 30 per cent of the votes at the elections. The political thrust in Bangladesh now is that of cooperation with India. But that cooperation must show results in jobs,in the improvement of roads,must result in GDP growth,must result in visible investment.

Mihir Sharma: Last week,a former PMfs son was chargesheeted for a grenade attack on a rally being addressed by the current PM in 2004. Is there any chance that Bangladesh’s politics will stop being so polarised and vindictive?

Mahfuz Anam: I donft see any prospect of that. The polarised nature of politics,the personalised nature of politics,unfortunately,is going to stay for a long time. The electorate is tired of it. About 60 per cent of our population was born after the 1971 liberation. So theyfre young people and like young people everywhere,they dream of the 21st century,of Internet,the digital world and global things. This family tussle and the personalised nature of politics doesn’t appeal to young people. But I think it is a lasting one,because there is a lack of alternatives–there arenft any other political parties,and all attempts to establish them have failed. We have the Awami League and its allies or BNP and its allies.

Coomi Kapoor: Has India’s foreign policy been so Pakistan-centric that Bangladesh has lost out and has not got the focus it should have?

Mahfuz Anam: Pakistan-centric it is. In fact,I once wrote that for India,there are only two neighbours: Pakistan and China. The rest of us are just geographic entities. I definitely feel that Bangladesh has not got the attention it deserves which has harmed both India and Bangladesh enormously. India helped us to get independence. It helped us with soldiers,people,money. Later on,when Bangladesh developed anti-India tendencies,India started thinking that we are an ungrateful nation. Instead of understanding what was going on,there was a sweeping negative feeling about us. Anti-Indian sentiments became quite strong after the Farakka dispute. This whole water dispute was mishandled,underestimated and miscalculated on Indiafs part. Another issue is of the export of duty-free goods to India. If you lift all restrictions on goods coming from Bangladesh,what will be the total impact? Less than one per cent,I think. But the impact on Bangladesh would be enormous..

Shubhajit Roy: How did Bangladesh work to improve the social sector,especially infant mortality rates?

Mahfuz Anam: Bangladesh has some of the most effective,well-organised,well-managed NGOs in the world. We have the biggest NGO in the word called BRAC–Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee,formed in 1972. In vital areas like heath,inoculation,nutrition,agriculture. micro-credit,womenfs empowerment,the NGOs have had an enormous impact. It has been actively helped by the government but in most cases,ignored by the government but thankfully not interrupted or stopped by the government. That has collectively helped us change the social indicators. Take,for example,micro-credit: for the first time,poor Bangladeshis are getting loans to do productive work. The Grameen Bank itself has 8 million borrowers and 96-97 per cent of these borrowers are women. So the focus on women by Bangladeshfs NGOs is another key factors leading to improvement in the social indicators.

Dilip Bobb: What happened to Mohammed Yunus,founder of Grameen Bank?

Mahfuz Anam: That is a very intriguing story. Our present PM has taken a personal dislike to him. We are still groping for the basis of this dislike. The public statements by the PM turned out to be all false: she had said that he was a blood-sucker charging huge amounts of interest from people. Her own inquiry committee found that Grameen Bankfs interest rates are much lower than othersf. They found no instance of corruption or wrongdoing. The PMfs attack on him stands falsified. Ultimately,they found one Bangladesh central bank regulation that says all managing directors of banks should retire at 60. So they used it to force him out of the bank. Prof Yunus had earlier tried to form a political party but within two months of its announcement,he withdrew. That he has political ambitions has probably annoyed Sheikh Hasina. I think the government should not have acted against him. A man who is a Nobel Prize winner,who is an icon in the world,should not have been so insulted.

Mini Kapoor: have been some key court verdicts in Bangladesh–about Colonel Taher and Sheikh Mujibur Rehmanfs killers being brought to justice. What is the kind of conversation these are provoking in the country?

Mahfuz Anam: One debate is about how sadly and how quickly we had moved away from the main ethos of our liberation war values. The dream of a democratic Bangladesh was dashed with the murder of Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the military’s entry into politics. East Pakistan,as a part of Pakistan,had always led the anti-martial law movement in Pakistan. Ever since the first martial movement of 1958,we had fought against military dictatorship. And then it returned and stayed with us for 16 years from 1975 to 1991. Another sadness is that we haven’t been able to reach the fruits of our independence to a large number of the poor. While we have made phenomenal progress in the social sector,the challenges are enormous. There are issues like dowry killings and domestic violence–women rights within the family,within the society are far from being well established. These are some of the ongoing debates; at the age 40,we should have done better.

Sudeep Paul: We have been talking about activating border chief ministers to intensify interaction with neighbouring countries. For years,it has worked well for the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan. But there hasnft been any such interaction on the eastern border,between West Bengal and Bangladesh. After 34 years,West Bengal has a new administration. Do you think this would be a useful factor?

Mahfuz Anam: I would like to see it in a broader sense. India should activate the whole gamut of its bilateral relationship with Bangladesh. Of course,West Bengal will have a special place but I think the lack of warmth in the relationship between West Bengal and Bangladesh should be seen in terms of our lack of warmth with India.

Coomi Kapoor. The personal-level contact between Indians and Pakistanis seems to warmer than between between Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Mahfuz Anam: I think there is a flaw in your argument. Since you’re in Delhi,you’re not in a position to judge the warmth between one Bengali and another. When I attend seminars in Delhi,I realise that Delhi is so much closer to Karachi,Lahore and Islamabad than to Dhaka. There are such strong cultural memories. I think the experience between Hindu zamindars and Muslim peasantry was far more bitter in Bengal than perhaps in Punjab. This Hindu zamindar and Bengali peasant relationship lay at the root of the political developments even before Partition. The legacy of that relationship continued. After the creation of Bangladesh,our relationship wouldfve been on a positive trajectory but for the murder of Bangabandhu in 1975 and the military takeover.

N P Singh: From a Bangladesh point-of-view or an East Bengal point-of-view,was the idea of Pakistan flawed? Did it have much support in Bengal?

Mahfuz Anam: If you go back in history,the whole Pakistan movement became a substantial grassroots movement only when the Muslims of Bengal joined it. Before the birth of Pakistan,in 1946,when elections took place,Muslim League won in Bengal whereas it lost in all other places. So in a sense you can say that it is the Bengali Muslim who gave substance to the demand for Pakistan. It is the same Bengali Muslims who broke Pakistan in 1971.

N P Singh: Where did it go wrong?

Mahfuz Anam: The first seed of destruction was sown by the founder of Pakistan,Mr Jinnah,when he came to Dhaka in 1948 and declared Urdu to be the only national language of Pakistan. It was such an irrational,unjustified,unhistorical statement. Bengalis constituted 56 per cent of the population and all of us spoke Bengali so if there was one language that could claim to be the national language,it was Bengali. In West Pakistan,Urdu was spoken by a minority of migrants. The Punjabis spoke Punjabi,the Balochis spoke Baloch,Sindhis spoke Sindhi. It was the migrant Muslim elite,primarily from Lucknow,who spoke Urdu. Mr Jinnah did not speak Urdu either. I think he said this primarily from a sense of ignorance,and thought that if Urdu is not the national language,Pakistan will be weakened. That was the seed he sowed. The disillusionment with Pakistan began with the issue of culture and language and then evolved into economics.

India and Pakistan were born in 1947. India had its Constitution within a few years and you had your first elections in 1952 and continuous elections since then. Pakistan,on the other hand,took nine years to form its Constitution. The first Constitution was put in place in 1956 and it was abrogated by Ayub Khan in 1968. Then Pakistan went under military rule. So it all began with language,expanded to culture and then to politics.

Coomi Kapoor: Why have successive Bangladeshi governments denied the fact of huge migrations of Bangladeshis into India?

Mahfuz Anam: I think it was because the India-Bangladesh relationship was never that good. Bangladesh felt that admitting their migration would give you a handle to say something more. Also,it was not that clearly claimed by the Indian side until the BJP raised it as an issue. So we looked at it more as an Indian domestic political issue rather than bilateral issue.

Shubhajit Roy: Tell us about the current media scene in Bangladesh ?

Mahfuz Anam: Since the restoration of democracy in 1991,we have seen an exponential growth of media. I think there are at least 120 newspapers daily. There are 11 private TV news channels.

Shubhajit Roy: How many of these are owned by politicians?

Mahfuz Anam: Not that many. They are owned mostly by industrial houses. Bangladesh is dominated by two political parties,Awami League and BNP. These are dominated by two personalities. Ultimately,whatever happens in politics emanates from the minds,views and prejudices of these two persons. And everybody either falls in line or falls out of line with those two.

Transcribed by Nandini Thilak

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