India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Reuters, Rafiqur Rahman
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Reuters, Rafiqur Rahman

The political climate in Bangladesh is undoubtedly chaotic, at best. Its 160 million people are accustomed by now to the oppressive Awami League regime under Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina. Since August of 2018, when students protested the death of two colleagues by a reckless hit-and-run bus driver, it has become completely evident that no protests of any kind, for whatever reasons, will be tolerated.

Thus there are the everyday struggles of a very high rate of unemployment particularly among the young, inflation, an exponential rise in rape, sexual assaults, violent crimes, lack of free speech, extremely high levels of corruption, extrajudicial killings and state-sponsored disappearances.

About two months ago, there were tragic incidents of farmers burning their own crops because the price of rice had depreciated so drastically that they could not even recover their investments or pay the farm help. Most recently, there have been similar tragic instances of corruption involving cowhide, a habitually profitable commodity. Traditionally, after the festivities of Eid al-Adha, hide was sold at considerable profits and the money collected given to orphanages, charities and madrassas. The funds collected would consequently finance meals, clothing, education and teachers’ wages in these charitable establishments. Unsurprisingly, there too there has been rampant corruption backed by political leaders to deflate the prices of cowhide and to resell it at a profit. Thus even orphans are not spared.

These and many other violations of a free, democratic nation, which the constitution of Bangladesh guarantees, have always been attributed to the ruling party, notably Sheikh Hasina and her autocratic leadership.

The one – perhaps the only – solace the people of Bangladesh had until now was their faith. With a 90% Muslim population, Bangladesh has been consistent in maintaining a happy medium of preserving a secular form of government, a mostly moderate practice of Sunni Islam and the latitude of freedom to minorities of other faiths to practice their religions without persecution.

However, this happy medium was disrupted last month when a Hindu woman named Priya Saha went to the White House with a delegation to discuss religious persecution. Her complaints to President Donald Trump were that Muslim fundamentalists had taken her property and burned her house. The can of worms that was opened as a result of these unsubstantiated claims initiated what had never existed in Bangladesh before: religious conflicts between Muslims and Hindus. Although these conflicts remain on an ideological and philosophical level, they cannot and should not be ignored.

The larger question lies in the following questions.

Who benefits from religious turmoil between Hindus and Muslims? Who benefits from the age-old British style of governance based on the principles of divide and conquer? Whom has Sheikh Hasina been undividedly loyal to ever since her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in 1975?

Bangladeshis are all too aware that their country is governed by proxy by India. Sheikh Hasina has never hidden the fact that since India had given her shelter after members of her family were assassinated, she would remain eternally grateful to it. However, she failed to comprehend that her personal loyalties are not synonymous with those of more than 160 million Bangladeshis. Perhaps she does understand this but because of the comfort zone to rule as an authoritarian provided to her by Bangladesh’s larger, more powerful neighbor, the needs and desires of Bangladeshis have over the years been placed on the back burner to the point of near extinction.

Unequal water sharing between the two countries causing severe droughts and flooding in Bangladesh, an immense trade deficit in favor of India, border shootings of Bangladeshi citizens, and an inundation of Indian entertainment in terms of films, music, TV and media have been known in Bangladeshi society for many years. However, the Priya Saha incident opened up Pandora’s box in unprecedented ways.

Recently, Bangladeshis have been questioning why their national anthem was composed 66 years before the country became independent, by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian national. They question why Priya Saha was excused by Sheikh Hasina for her unfounded complaints in the White House even though the majority of the country, including members of her own cabinet, demanded an explanation. They question why Bangladesh is always the loser in every Teesta River water-sharing discussion and why there have never been fruitful negotiations to save Bangladeshi lives, homes and crops. They question why India wants land from Bangladesh to build the Agartala Airport and are quite sure that this will be granted.

One of the biggest unanswered questions is why the director general of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary force, recently gave a threatening speech stating that Bangladeshis must refrain from protesting against the recent Indian crackdown in Kashmir. Put simply, they cannot protest grave human-rights abuses inflicted on fellow Muslims as that would not be favorable to India.

Undoubtedly, India needs Bangladesh to secure its eastern and northeastern borders. The military assistance provided to what was then East Pakistan to defeat West Pakistan during the war of liberation in 1971 was not by any means unselfish or unconditional. The mutual cooperation with Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League and India is a win-win situation for both parties. Having completely obliterated the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and imprisoned its chairwoman, Khaleda Zia, a three-time prime minister, the India-Sheikh Hasina alliance has, over the last decade, solidified into the autocracy that Bangladesh has, by all accounts, developed into.

One of the most paramount questions regarding the India-Sheikh Hasina alliance is this: How much more sovereignty must Bangladesh relinquish to honor the prime minister’s personal gratitude?

Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.

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