Bangladesh and Dr. Manmohan Singh

Bangladesh and Dr. Manmohan Singh

Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India is an erudite person, having earned degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. He is by nature a taciturn person and generally keeps his speech to the script.

Dr. Singh is respected by world leaders for his prescription on the state of global economy because of his long innings in economical field. There is some predictability in his conduct and especially in his capacity as Prime Minister of India since 2004.

On 29th June, during an interaction with editors of five newspapers, he mentioned his plan to visit Dhaka without announcing any time frame. When his attention was drawn to India’s neighbours, the Prime Minister reportedly said: “Well, neighbourhood worries me a great deal, quite frankly”.

When the subject matter of Bangladesh came up, he said that Bangladesh government has gone out of its way to help his country in apprehending anti-India insurgents operating from inside Bangladesh for a long time and “that is why we have been generous in dealing with Bangladesh.”

Thereafter, he has departed from his predictable measured words when he came up with the statement “ We must reckon that at least 25% per cent of the population swear by the Jamiat-ul-Islami and they are very anti-Indian and there are in the clutches, many times of the ISI… So the political landscape in Bangladesh can change anytime….. So a very uncertain neighbourhood.”

South Asian region is a tension-torn region since the partition of British India in 1947 and no one can deny the fact. Furthermore the Kashmir territorial dispute between India and Pakistan has led to many adverse intended and unintended impacts on the region. In addition to that, the war in Afghanistan and the instable political situation in Nepal make the region volatile and India must be worried. To that extent, Prime Minister Dr. Singh appears to be right.

But what is surprising is the fact of his statement relating to Bangladesh. His statement on popular support of Jamat ul Islami in Bangladesh (JIB) was not only incorrect but also startling. It is assumed he must have been advised of by relevant Indian government agencies on the percentage of popular support of Jamat ul-Islami in Bangladesh.

Let us look at the elections since 1991 because the elections are the best criteria to judge the popular vote of each party in Bangladesh. There had been four parliamentary elections participated by all parties in the country: elections in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008.

The following percentage of votes of each party (Bangladesh Nationalist Party- BNP, Awami League Party-ALP and Jamat-ul Islami Bangladesh-JIB) is revealed from various sources:

1991 Election: BNP: 30. 81% 1996 Election: ALP: 37.54%

ALP: 30.08% BNP: 30. 60%

JIB: 1.22% JIB: 8. 61 %

2001 Election: BNP: 40. 97% Election 2008: ALP: 49%

ALP: 40.13% BNP: 33.2%

JIB: 4.28% JIB: 4.6%

All the above quoted figures show that nowhere the popular support of Jamat ul Islami in Bangladesh is 25% as indicated by Prime Minister of India.

The highest popular vote JIB received was in 8.61% in 1996 and the lowest 1.22% in 1991. Otherwise, on average, the popular support of JIB hovers below 5% (from 4.28% to 4.6%).

The above tiny percentage of support of people for JIB in Bangladesh where 88% are Muslims indicates that majority of people do not support use of religion for political purposes.. This attribute is embedded in Bengali culture and history, although Bangladesh people of various faiths are deeply religious and most devoutly religious people are also the staunchest defenders of religious pluralism.

For Bangladesh people, the question is: who provided the grossly incorrect figure (25% of support to JIB) to the Prime Minister and why? Or did he misquote the figure?

There are other surprising elements about the statement of Prime Minister Dr. Singh on Bangladesh and some of them deserve mention below:

First, ordinarily a Prime Minister does not adversely comment on internal affairs of a neighbouring country, especially when a visit to that country is forthcoming. His statement that political landscape in Bangladesh can change “at any time” is extremely damaging as it contributes to destablising political situation in the country.

Second, it is reported that the External Affairs Minister of India SM Krishna is scheduled to visit Bangladesh on 6th July to prepare the visit of India’s Prime Minister to Dhaka on 6th September and such statement emanating from India’s Prime Minister on Bangladesh does not contribute to the healthy environment of bilateral relations.

Third, the purported link between Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and Jamat ul Islami in Bangladesh as stated by the Prime Minister is at least a diplomatic faux pas. Pakistan will not take it easily and the apparent diplomatic effort to repair relations with Pakistan at the intended Foreign Minister’s level talks in New Delhi some time this month seems to be indented by ventilating air of suspicion of the activities of Pakistan’s spy agencies in a third country.

Obviously the above consequences are not something related to “space-science” and are evident to the Indian side and therefore the question is why did the Indian agencies use their Prime Minister to make these comments on Bangladesh and put it on in the government website until 2nd July?

Speculations are rife in Bangladesh as to their motivations. Some say it is a signal to Bangladesh government that in whatever matters they are engaged in politically with their opponents, they may prove to be counter-productive. Another view is that Prime Minister is not a politically savvy person and his comments were “off the record” for the editors but some how they had been inadvertently made public. Another analysis is that the Prime Minister’s statement demonstrates ignorance of Indian governmental agencies on Bangladesh.

Whatever may be fallout from the statement, we welcome the forthcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh and hope that the controversy raised out of his reported statement should not be allowed to cloud the political environment in which certain key bilateral issues need to be resolved for the mutual benefit of the people of two nations.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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