Change of guard in Bangladesh, hope for the region?

December 31, 2008

Sheikh Hasina, the leader of an avowedly secular party, is set to return to power in Bangladesh, the 
other end of South Asia’s arc of instability stretching from Afghanistan through Pakistan to India.

And because the teeming region, home to a fifth of the world’s population, is so closely intertwined 
Hasina’s election and the change that she has promised to bring to her country will almost certainly have a bearing across South Asia, but especially for India and Pakistan.

Bangladesh, as far as New Delhi is concerned, is the eastern launching pad for Islamist militants hostile  to it, complementing Pakistan on the west. So even if the heat is turned on the militants in Pakistan as India is  demanding following the attacks in Mumbai, they or their controllers can unleash groups such as  Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami  (HuJI) based in Bangladesh.

India’s new Home Minister P. Chidambaram told a parliament debate this month that Bangladesh had a  responsibility to control the  HuJI.

Hasina has said she wouldn’t allow her nation to be used to attack other countries, and her election has been welcomed in New Delhi. In particular the defeat of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the  largest Islamist party and an ally of Hasina’s bitter rival Khaleda Zia, is seen as a sign that the country wants to stick to a secular democratic path. In that, New Delhi is hoping Hasina would act against the hardline forces who have attacked her as well .

But how far can she really go? She has a huge parlimentary majority but no politician in Bangladesh can been seen as doing India’s bidding. India, which was instrumental in Bangladesh’s birth as an independent nation from what was then East Pakistan, has over time been seen as a big brother, a hegemonic power.

Tensions are rarely far from the surface, with New Delhi routinely accusing Bangladesh of allowing tens of thousands of people to cross into its territory and live as illegal immigrants. Dhaka, in turn, accuses border guards of killing innocent Bangladeshis on the frontier, in the name of curbing infiltration.

This month the nations were feuding over the maritime border in the Bay of Bengal.

What of Pakistan? It has, as has “all weather ally” China, cultivated close ties with all of India’s neighbours including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. How will it, and especially the military-intelligence establishment view Hasina’s return to power and her promise to crack down on hardline groups? The links of some of these groups such as the Huji go all the way to Pakistan, the Indians say.

And New Delhi is on a diplomatic offensive at the moment, trying to convince governments worldwide of the threat posed by these Pakistan-based  organisations.

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