Friends since ’71

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit to Dhaka has given much needed impetus to our relationship with Bangladesh. Mr Mukherjee’s trip followed up on the visit to India in January by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. That visit was, by any measure, a success. The two countries signed a series of agreements and memoranda of understanding on a range of issues, including assured supply of 250 mw of power from India; transit rights for Bangladesh through Indian territory to Nepal and Bhutan; access to Chittagong and other ports for India; and the mutual assurance of forward movement on settling the disputes over land and maritime borders. Perhaps the most striking outcome of the visit was India’s extension of a $1 billion credit line to Bangladesh — a clear indication that New Delhi was willing to flex its growing economic muscle to promote better ties with neighbours. This agreement was formally inked during Mr Mukherjee’s visit.
The significance of this visit goes beyond the optics of signing an important, unprecedented agreement. Ever since Ms Hasina’s promising trip to India, there was a feeling in the Bangladesh government that the relationship was being hamstrung by New Delhi’s limited attention span and its tendency to engage episodically. This view might be overstated, but there is real force to it. And it is essential that we understand Bangladesh’s desire to engage afresh with India in the larger context of the changes currently underway in that country. Two events in particular need to be taken into account: the trials for crimes against humanity in 1971, and the annulment of the 5th Amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution.
The trials are aimed at bringing to justice those individuals who actively worked with the Pakistan Army in its brutal campaign to suppress the movement for an independent Bangladesh in 1971. That campaign had res­u­lted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the ra­pe of thousands of women, and the displacement of millions. The list of individuals allegedly involved in crimes against hu­manity runs to over a thousand. Back in 1971, many of them had been associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami — a party that stoutly opposed independence — and its affiliated student body and paramilitary organisations.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, of cour­se, is now in the political mainstream of Bangladesh. In 2001 it was part of the coalition government led by Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Supporters of the Jamaat and the BNP have branded the trials as an exercise in political vendetta. But Ms Hasina has re­m­ained unfazed by such critici­sm and is determined to proceed with the trials. These trials, we may note, follow in the wake of the execution of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both the executions and the trials are seen by her party, the Awami League, as part of the unfinished agenda of the liberation struggle initiated by Sheikh Mujib.
The repealing of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution is an integral part of this agenda. The original Constitution of Bangladesh, which came into existence in 1972, proclaimed four guiding principles for the new state: democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. The notion that the state should be secular met with the approval of various sections of the Bangladeshi polity. The tiny Islamist minority that though otherwise had been discredited by its role in opposing independence; hence its views carried no weight in the making of the Constitution.
Things began to change with the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975 and the ensuing period of military rule. The 5th Amendment was moved in 1979, during the reign of Gen. Zia-ur Rahman. It sought to impart constitutional legitimacy to the military dictatorships that followed Mujib’s assassination. Among other things, Gen. Rahman expunged secularism from the principles of state policy enumerated in the Constitution, and deleted Article 12 which proscribed religious parties. The removal of this article paved the way for the entry of the Jamaat into the political arena. It is not surprising that it was Gen. Rahman’s party — the BNP, now led by his wife — that embraced the Jamaat in 2001.
In August 2005, the Bangladesh high court ruled that the 5th Amendment was unconstitutional. The BNP and the Jamaat challenged this verdict. On July 28, 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh dismissed their petitions and upheld the high court’s ruling. What is more, it explicitly criticised the omission of secularism under the 5th Amendment as a step that “destroyed one of the basis of our struggle for freedom and also changed the basic character of the Republic”. The Supreme Court verdict also upheld Article 12 of the Constitution, much to the chagrin of the Jamaat and its patrons.
It is now up to the Bangladesh parliament to give effect to this judicial ruling by means of a constitutional amendment. Ms Hasina has constituted a parliamentary committee to draft the amendment. Notwithstanding the parliamentary majority enjoyed by her party and its allies, she is moving ahead cautiously. For one thing, she has already announced that the “Bismillah” introduced into the text of the Constitution by the 5th Amendment would not be removed. Clearly, the Awami League does not want to give its opponents an opportunity to brand it anti-Islamic. For another, she may not go so far as to re-impose the ban on religious outfits like the Jamaat. Doing so might have serious political consequences, particularly when the trials for crimes against humanity are around the corner.
These developments are closely linked to Ms Hasina’s desire for a rejuvenated relationship with India. After all, the Jamaat not only opposed independence for Bangladesh but also close ties with India all along. Similarly, a secular, pluralist Bangladesh is certainly a more attractive regional partner for India. As Ms Hasina’s government enters choppy waters with the trials and the new constitutional arrangements, it will look to India for deeper engagement and greater support. Pursuing a policy along these lines will accord with India’s values as well as its interests.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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