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Why Dhaka must be circumspect

Shantanu Mukharji |

Agitations and protest-inspired politics have always been at the forefront of the area now called Bangladesh ever since Bangla politics started occupying space in the national political landscape.

In what was East Bengal and later in East Pakistan, there was a flurry of activity commencing from the period before 1947, including protests in Calcutta mostly spearheaded by the Muslim League and its affiliates when Bangla leaders like HS Suhrawardy and AK Fazlul Haq dominated the political scene.

Barely five years after Pakistan’s creation, it’s eastern arm organised the language movement in 1952 in Dacca (now Dhaka) leading to indiscriminate firing by Pakistani authorities killing many who are now the most venerated martyrs of the country for having opposed imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan.

This violent attempt to quell the agitators also saw the steady emergence of Bangla nationalism which was later responsible for attaining freedom and Bangladesh becoming a reality, rejecting the two-nation theory propounded by Jinnah.

That Bangla spirit of agitation in the positive and constructive sense of the term still resonates and was amply demonstrated last Sunday (July 29) when two young students were crushed under the wheels of a speeding vehicle in Dhaka leading to mass protests, albeit peaceful, by the younger generation. And protests continue even today.

With general elections hardly a few months away, the fresh course of agitational happenings seems to be stirring the youth and the general populace to take to the streets and intensify protests for better safety from traffic hazards.

Social media is full of appeals to the youth to continue their agitation. The government seems to be really at a loss as to how to deal with this new challenge. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself seems rattled and is often seen in a huddle with her close advisors to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is struggling to find space in mainstream politics due to the incarceration of its leader Begum Khaleda Zia on corruption charges, is clearly in a mood to exploit this agitation to remain in the spotlight keeping in view the electoral challenges.

BNP leaders have already started pledging support to the agitating students and describe the development as a mass movement. Party senior leader Moudud Ahmed, while addressing a labour-related conclave in Dhaka on August 3, lambasted the ruling Awami League for its abject failure to contain this students’ uprising. Clearly, agitational activities are being actively politicised to score brownie points.

This assumes significance because of the upcoming elections. BNP has claimed an issue served up to it on a platter very conveniently. The party seems to have bounced back or is in the process of doing so to enter the fray for contesting elections in the not so distant future.

Several important members of the party leadership have started warming up to India and to the BJP senior-level leadership seeking to elicit support in some measure. Political activities are as hectic in Bangladesh as in a segment of India’s ruling party dispensation.

Also, in a proposed major shift in the party’s poll strategy, many BNP activists are now calling for a severance of ties with the fundamentalist Jamaat e Islami (JeI) as any proximity to this fanatic party will be irksome for India because of its consistent anti-India and pro-Pakistan stance. If this divorce fructifies, India may not be forthrightly dismissive of BNP overtures.

This said, the developments arising out of the National Register of Citizens ( NRC) in Assam have given enough food for thought and ammunition to BNP and to Hasina’s detractors as well to up the ante.

Closer to the election dates, BNP in likelihood will raise these issues and seek to show the Awami League in poor light for its alleged surrender to Indian diktat in rendering 400,000 people stateless on the ground they had come from Bangladesh. Wisely though, India has been doing the balancing act rather deftly.

Meanwhile, fresh reports indicate that there is a tacit understanding between the Indian Home Minister and his Bangladesh counterpart that these 400,000 ‘stateless‘ will not be deported to Bangladesh.

Such acts of diplomacy and understanding must continue, to preempt any Bangladesh angst against India and adding to the irritants including Teesta. Any miscalculation may let Bangladesh slip out of India’s ambit of friendship and possibly fall into hostile quarters.

In the meantime, Bangladesh politicians continue to flock to India cutting across party lines and this trend is likely to be maintained till the completion of elections. After the successive visits of the BNP and AL teams, a senior ally of the ruling party from the Left bloc was here this week meeting a wide range of people and parties. Such political visitors not only meet MEA officials but also interact with various Delhi-based think tanks ostensibly to prove their credibility. Yet, their principal focus is to woo the ruling BJP.

Coming back to the continued protests, it would appear advisable for the Awami League not to give any breathing space to its rival BNP which has several issues already lined up to capitalise on.

These include stepping up of protest rallies demanding release of Khaleda Zia, withdrawal of cases against her, pressurising India for fair sharing of Teesta waters, review of the NRC and impeding any move to deport people from India. Thus, there are sufficient issues for the BNP to exploit.

Here, it would be pertinent to mention that the media is also upbeat about the students’ protests possibly trying to draw sympathy, and looks to support any party or individual that is supportive of or active in the protests.

Hasina, therefore, must tread with caution in dealing with all the emerging issues. At this point of time, police and other administrative authorities seem to be moving gingerly as Hasina’s directive to them is to handle the agitation with care.

She should also alert the intelligence arms, both the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security and Intelligence (NSI) to pick up all actionable scents. Government orders must not go unheeded to keep things well under control.

The writer is a security analyst, Bangladesh watcher and former National Security “Adviser in Mauritius. The views are personal.