Shahbag uprising: India should stand by ‘true friend’ Sheikh Hasina

Biplob Ghosal

Bangladesh - India’s immediate neighbour - has been witnessing a lot of protests for the past few weeks, and people from all walks of life including youth, children, musicians, artists, writers and professionals have been protesting at Shahbag, demanding justice for the war crimes of 1971.

The outrage began after one of Bangladesh’s two war crimes tribunals set up by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2010, on February 05 ordered sentencing of Jamaat-e-Islami assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison. However, the popular opinion was against the verdict and of the view that Mollah should get death penalty instead. The leader of the largest Islamic party, also popularly known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, was given capital punishment by the special tribunal, which found him guilty of war crimes committed during 1971 independence war. Notably, the Islamist party was opposed to Bangladesh`s independence and had sided with Pakistani troops during the Liberation War.

What added fuel to the fire was the murder of renowned blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. Ahmed, who was one of the major proponents demanding death for the war criminal, was stabbed to death on February 15. He was a self-professed atheist who had written blogs against Islamic conservatives and helped organise protests against the leaders of the largest Islamic party. Ahmed’s father has alleged that Jamaat-e-Islami is responsible for the murder of his son.

Following Ahmed’s death, the number of protesters is swelling significantly and what’s more important is that the GenX has turned out in huge numbers to express solidarity with the demand of the hanging of the 1971 accused war criminals. Social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter have proved to be helpful in garnering more support and drawing attention to the Shahbag movement internationally. Thousands of people have come forward and Shahbag Square in Dhaka has been renamed as ‘Projonmo chottor’, which means the “Square of the Generation”.

Hasina’s government saw the protest as a window of opportunity to alienate the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat. During her visit to Rajib Haider`s home, Sheikh Hasina described him as the first ‘martyr’ of the uprising at Shahbagh. She said: “I was apprehensive that something like this might happen, and it actually happened.” The Prime Minister further indicated that she would back a ban on Jamaat as it had "no right to be in politics in free Bangladesh".

The Bangladesh Parliament on February 17 amended the war crimes law to allow the prosecution to try and punish any organisation, including the Jamaat-e-Islami - a significant move that could pave the way for banning the country’s largest Islamic party. The amendment was brought during the passage of the much-talked-about bill which also brought some other changes to International Crimes Tribunals Act, 1973 to allow the government and complainants to appeal against any verdict of the war crimes tribunals.

If Hasina’s government is successful in banning Jamaat, it will be good news for New Delhi, as it is a well known fact that the Islamist party supports anti-India sentiments and is pro-Pakistan. A ban on Jamaat in Bangladesh would be a serious blow to people like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a member of separatist Hurriyat Conference party in India, who is always on the verge of spewing venom against the country he lives in and tries to do everything possible to destabilise Jammu & Kashmir so that he can make it an Islamic state, under the rule of Pakistan.

Jamaat and the BNP-led by Khaleda Zia have termed the trial as politically motivated. It may be noted that eight of the 11 accused are Jamaat party leaders, while two are members of the BNP and one a former minister.

Only time will tell whether this revolution will be a success or not, but between all this New Delhi has a golden opportunity to project itself as a true friend of Bangladeshis. India should continue its high level of engagement with Sheikh Hasina government. Both the countries have significantly moved forward in improving bilateral relations after Hasina came to power. In the recent years, the Awami League government has taken positive steps and acted against anti-India elements emanating and operating from its region. India and Bangladesh also signed a USD 1 billion credit agreement — this was the highest loan that New Delhi ever committed to any country.

A stable and friendly Bangladesh is a necessity for India, thus the emerging ‘superpower’ should stand by the incumbent government and grab this opportunity to cement its friendly relations with its neighbour. Though both countries have moved forward on visa, trade, infrastructure, yet Manmohan Singh-led government has a lot to do and that too at a faster pace.

The Indian government needs to resolve the issue of water sharing in common Teesta River and land boundary agreement with Bangladesh by September when Sheikh Hasina is set to visit India. If an agreement is reached to quickly resolve the pending issues, the Awami League and the Congress can use these aspects as poll planks in their respective countries. New Delhi should understand that the Awami League is the only party which would ensure warm relations between the two countries. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s recent visit to Dhaka is an indication that India is determined to walk the extra mile to maintain the growing relationship.

Hope India, which has a history of diplomatic failures, delaying and not taking a tough stand on international relations, rises to the occasion and secures its eastern sector as the western sector is already vulnerable with Pakistan and the war-torn Afghanistan. And not to forget China, which is fast emerging as the worldwide giant both militarily and economically. With Beijing building hundreds of dams on the Brahmaputra River and embroiled in the already long pending territorial disputes, New Delhi would certainly need the support of Bangladesh in future if any day the issues go to the international court.