Sheikh Hasina May Coddle India Now, But She Could Also Be a Handful
India wields more influence in Bangladesh than the Security Council’s five permanent members put together.
Make no mistake: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is no Jacinda Arden — the New Zealand premier who became a global icon of compassion and tolerance by hugging terrified Muslims after the massacre of 51 worshippers in a Christchurch mosque in 2019 and vehemently criticising Islamophobia.
In contrast, Hasina’s crackdown on rampaging Islamist mobs who vandalised temples during Durga Puja and killed two Hindus, is a calculated political response to benefit herself — poles apart from the empathy, morality, and principles, which characterised Arden’s acknowledgment of White Christian terrorists. Arden, 41, bared her heart and soul, while Hasina, 74, works with her cunningness and guile.
How Did the Awami League Govt Respond?
At one level, Hasina’s Awami League government did exactly what any upright, law-abiding administration must do — shoot dead attackers belonging to the majority community to save the minority community from death and destruction.
Five Muslim law-breakers were killed in police firing – a fact obfuscated in media reports in India, which create an impression that all seven killed in the Durga Puja-centred violence are Hindus, whereas the police shot dead five Muslims.
Deploying the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), hundreds of fundamentalists were arrested in a nationwide swoop. Most importantly, the two “foot soldiers”, Iqbal Hussain and Saikat Mandal, who placed the holy Quran at the feet of goddess Durga and telecast it live on Facebook respectively, to whip up religious passions were hunted down using CCTV footage. The duo’s handlers are yet to be caught, though.
Moreover, Hasina condemned the targeting of Hindus and the ruling party organised processions in Dhaka and other cities demonstrating the political and administrative resolve to take on extremists. Civil society too stood by Hindus; writers, poets, singers, cricketers, professors, university students, doctors, and human rights activists; swearing to shield the frightened minority community at any cost.
India's Vice-Like Grip Over Bangladesh & Hasina
The BJP in West Bengal, where by-elections will be held on Saturday, 30 October, is predictably exploiting the communal flare-up in Bangladesh to harvest Hindu votes after the drubbing at the hands of Trinamool Congress in the Legislative Assembly elections.
But the Narendra Modi government quickly complimented Dhaka’s “prompt” handling of the situation. And on Friday, 22 October, Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla, described India-Bangladesh relations as “deeper than any strategic partnership and a model for nations that share borders”.
In today’s “one party-one leader” Bangladesh, Hasina did not do what she did out of administrative compunction or commitment to secularism. Though she is increasingly leaning on Beijing – the landmark 6.15 km long road-rail Padma Bridge nearing completion and the stunning Bangladesh China Friendship Exhibition Centre in Dhaka are prime examples – she is still paranoid about India, which virtually surrounds Bangladesh territorially.
The geographical encirclement is nothing less than a stranglehold and strategic vice-like grip on the small nation.
India wields more influence in Bangladesh than the Security Council’s five permanent members put together. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is the most dreaded outfit in the neighbouring country surpassing even the brutally unforgiving RAB. Hasina lives in mortal fear of RAW. She knows that she will be toppled if she displeases India. So she has adopted the policy of pleasing India to retain power at any cost.
Bangladesh's 2-Pronged Policy to Appease India
Hasina has adopted a two-pronged policy to keep New Delhi happy.
Firstly, protect Bangladeshi Hindus comprising 9-10 percent of the population. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – and the ruthlessness with which anti-CAA protests were suppressed – has made Dhaka realise how important Bangladeshi Hindus are for the Modi government.
Secondly, pay obeisance to Modi. Hasina understands the importance of kowtowing to Modi who likes a head of state bowing to him. And currently, Hasina is the only obsequiously submissive leader left in South Asia who doesn’t miss an opportunity to pay homage to Modi.
Despite his unpopularity, she invited him in March as chief guest for the 50th independence anniversary celebrations. To keep anti-Modi demonstrators at bay, the police killed more than a dozen protestors.
Patronising a Hardline Islamist Group
Hasina’s greed for power also drove her to patronise the Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), or Protectors of Islam, the hardline Islamist group, which went berserk during Durga Puja and opposed Modi’s visit. She was on excellent terms with HeI founder, Shah Ahmed Shafi, who famously said: “Women are like tamarind. They make men’s mouth water."
Hasina was comfortable with his regressive, toxic fundamentalism for weaning away conservative Muslims from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which was aligned with the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia.
In 2017, Hasina fully reposed her faith in Shafi – who headed the largest network of Madarsas [Islamic seminaries] – to win the 2018 elections. He hailed her as the country’s “supreme political leader” and she called him the “nation’s spiritual head”. Hasina gave HeI and Shafi legitimacy by conceding three demands.
Seventeen poems by non-Muslim and secular writers deemed “atheist and un-Islamic” by HeI were removed from textbooks, a statue of Lady Justice [Greek goddess Themis] was pulled out of the Supreme Court premises calling it “immodest and unholy”, and Madarsa graduates became eligible for government service.
The compromise with secularism was criticised but Hasina was hell-bent on playing the Muslim card.
An End to the Cozy Arrangement
Hasina won a landslide victory in December 2018 general elections, bagging 288 out of 300 seats. The outcome was dubbed “rigged” and “farcical” across the board but New Delhi immediately congratulated Hasina for her third successive win.
Hasina did not stop pandering to Shafi. His plus-point was that he was not anti-India, which suited Hasina to the hilt. He was a product of the Deoband seminary in Uttar Pradesh and pampered equally by the governments of India and Bangladesh. When he fell ill during a visit to Deoband, he was flown by a special plane to New Delhi for treatment at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
The situation suddenly spun out of control when Shafi died in September 2020 at the age of 100. His pro-India son, Anas Madni, too was elbowed out. Mamunul Haque and Junayed Babunagari took over HeI signalling an end to the cosy arrangement with Awami League.
Within no time, HeI clashed with the Hasina government over the installation of statues of Hasina’s father and Bangladesh founder, Mujibur Rahman, during his birth centenary celebrations.
It also laid siege to the French embassy in Dhaka and burned effigies of President Emmanuel Macron to protest against his refusal to ban the publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.
As HeI turned into a big liability, Hasina retaliated by unleashing the state machinery – including the armed forces – against the Frankenstein she had fed and watered for years rebuffing all advice not to nurture it.
The HeI hit back by first calling for a boycott of Indian COVID vaccines and then by warning Hasina not to invite Modi, who they called “the butcher of Muslims in India”, to Bangladesh.
I think Hasina resorted to police overkill in dealing with anti-Modi protestors. Similarly, better surveillance of HeI could have easily averted the anti-Hindu violence during Durga Puja and five deaths in police firing. She has more blood on her hands than any other Bangladeshi PM.
Hasina Could Prove to be More Than a Handful
At present, New Delhi has good reasons to be pleased with Hasina. But her subservience should not be taken for granted. She won’t desist from fanning anti-India sentiments and playing the Muslim card before the 2023 general elections, if she is not in a position to rig the elections. She is capable of ditching India for the sake of political survival.
Recent history proves that Hasina can prove to be more than a handful. In 2001, during her prime ministership, 16 Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers were killed by Bangladesh Rifles.
Photographs of their mutilated bodies strung on bamboo like dead animals were released by Dhaka. Naturally, there was a furore in India and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was under immense pressure to invade Bangladesh to avenge the killings.
To placate India and de-escalate tension, Vajpayee sincerely and genuinely requested Hasina to come to New Delhi for talks. But she haughtily refused, forcing Vajpayee to deal single-handedly with the explosive situation, which he managed thanks to his personal stature and statesmanship without any help whatsoever from Hasina.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.