Foreign Affairs Opinion

Why Indian Bengalis are overjoyed by Bangladeshi elections result?

The defeat of Khalida Zia and her allies in the recently concluded Bangladesh elections once again proved that majority of Bengalis – either in the Indian state of West Bengal or the independent Bangladesh – don’t believe in mixing religion with politics.

There were two key issues in the Bangladesh election this time. One was religion or as Zia and her Islamist friends called ‘the protection of Islam’. The second issue, as promoted by Sheikh Hasina and her allies, was development and poverty eradication. Victory of Hasina and allies with a two third majority gives a clear indication about the preference of the Bangladeshi people.

The main right wing party in India – BJP has repeatedly failed to do well in West Bengal even though it was formed by a Bengali – Syma Prasad Mookerjee. In Bangladesh, Islam was adopted as the state religion only in 1988 under a military ruler.

The Telegraph, based in Kolkata (the capital of Indian state of Bengal) called the election results ‘the stunning Hasina cyclone’. It added that the win ‘”gives her the power to craft a new history for one of the poorest countries on the face of the earth, and prove that its culture overcomes religious fundamentalism.”

The radical Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami has been a major loser in this election. Jamaat’s numbers has gone down to 2 from 18 in last parliament. The party, which was a part of Zia’s alliance, has historically been pro-Pakistan. During 1971 struggle of independence, it had supported the anti-liberation forces. There have been demands to prosecute them as war criminals. Bangladesh’s leading newspaper The Daily Stars calls Jamaat’s defeat as “sweet revenge for Bangladeshis against the war criminals”.

Jamaat along with other religious fanatics in Bangladesh have been vocal about their anti-India feeling. Indian intelligence has claimed Bangladeshi terrorist groups like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) responsible for attacks on its cities. With Hasina at the realm, India expects such forces to be controlled. It has often been feared that Pakistan has been increasing its influence on the country. Pakistani intelligence organ – ISI is said to have been recruiting from the poverty-stricken villages of Bangladesh. However the uprooting of Jamaat and the win of Hasina clearly indicates that Bangladeshis are in no mood to allow their country to become another of ISI laboratories.

Indian Bengal overjoyed

The Indian state of West Bengal is overjoyed with the return of Hasina and her secular and liberal policies. Indian External Affairs Minister and a major leader from the state – Pranab Mukherjee would soon visit Bangladesh to personally convey India’s good wishes.

Mukherjee hailed the return of democracy in Bangladesh and observed that “the massive participation of a large number of voters and the outcome is a clear demonstration and manifestation of people’s confidence in multi-party democracy”. Referring to the issue of terrorism, he said that India had raised the issue of terrorism emanating from the Bangladesh territory with the earlier Government, “…but unfortunately we have met with some denial. So at that point of time, we had most respectfully reminded them that if you simply deny the existence of a problem you will never solve the problem”.

Veteran communist leader and former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu recalled that during Hasina’s earlier tenure as prime minister friendly ties between India and Bangladesh had improved. “I hope friendly relations between the two countries would be further strengthened following the victory of the Awami League-led alliance,” Basu said in a statement.

Hasina shares a personal relationship with India. After the murder of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the founder and the first Prime Minster of Bangladesh, Hasina and her sister took asylum in India. She returned to her country on 1981 to take charge of her father’s party Awami League. During her first term in office (1996-2001), India and Bangladesh enjoyed an excellent relationship. One of the major highlights has been the 30 year-agreement of sharing of Ganges river water.

This election is not just about the return of democracy in this poverty-stricken-country after two years of military backed emergency rule. The result reflects a shift in the larger national mood in Bangladesh. As one of the poorest nations in the world, the key focus for the country is poverty. Hasina has already declared that one of her first steps would be to reduce essential goods’ price. “Our lone enemy is poverty and we will work hard to eradicate poverty from the country.”

A Bengali’s footnote

My Bengal of gold, I love you
Forever your skies, your air set my
heart in tune as if it were a flute…

In 1971, Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) by Indian national poet Rabindranath Tagore was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh. Even as it struggles with poverty and religious fanaticism, Bengali philosophy of cultural oneness still prevails.

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