Afeew days back, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan telephoned the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. According to the various news reports, they primarily discussed the Coronavirus pandemic and the flood situation in Bangladesh. PM Khan also raised the issue of Kashmir in the course of the conversation. Indian sources claim that Hasina remained silent and refused to be drawn into the dispute. In the wake of the telephone diplomacy, some analysts are trying to find a shift in the South Asian geopolitics. They are optimistically asking whether this call is the beginning of a thaw in the Pakistan-Bangladesh deep-frozen relationship.
Before presenting my own analysis, let me share some more information with my readers collected from important sources in Dhaka. It was Pakistan who initiated the prime minister level tele-conference. Sheikh Hasina kept her counterpart waiting for few days before agreeing to receive the call. It may be noted that Khan took similar initiatives in 2019 and telephoned Hasina just a day before she embarked on a state visit to Delhi on 3 October. The Bangladesh Prime Minister never bothered to give a return call. At this point of discussion, a reading of history might be helpful to arrive at an objective conclusion.
Sheikh Hasina, the current fascist prime minister of Bangladesh, took refuge in Delhi in 1975 after the military coup led by a handful of mid-ranking military officers toppled the single-party authoritarian regime of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was a reckless idea considering the limited number of men in uniform involved in the operation and the shortage of armaments. Not a single general or commanding officer took part in the breathtaking coup which killed the Mujib family except the two daughters who were abroad. However, the entire power structure of a budding Orwellian state crumbled in a single night because the common people supported the bloody putsch against the highly unpopular and repressive Mujib regime. The coup leaders became instant heroes. More than four decades later, Hasina hanged them after returning to power in 2008.
Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India and old friend of the Sheikh family, granted asylum to Mujib’s two surviving daughters. Dr. Wazed Miah, the husband of Sheikh Hasina, was also given a job in the Indian atomic establishment. He was a physicist. Sheikh Rehana, the youngest daughter of Mujib, was unmarried then. The sisters enjoyed the hospitality of the Indian government until President Ziaur Rahman facilitated their return to Bangladesh in 1981. The government of Bangladesh handed over all the wealth of the Mujib family, including the famous house in Dhanmondi in Dhaka to Hasina. Incidentally, President Zia was killed in another military coup within 15 days of her return.
Sheikh Hasina has remained ever grateful to Indira Gandhi in particular and India in general for giving refuge to her family from 1975 to 1981. It is also widely believed by political analysts and intelligence community in both Pakistan and Bangladesh that Indian intelligence first established contact with Sheikh Mujib during the days of united Pakistan in the 1960’s. The old relationship between the Sheikh family and India has endured for more than six decades. This strategic relationship is not dependent on the change of guard in Delhi. The Indian Congress Party helped Sheikh Hasina to regain power in 2008. Then in 2014, the same Congress government sent a high- level delegation to Washington to convince the US government of the necessity for keeping Sheikh Hasina in power through undemocratic means. Just prior to the single-party farcical election, the then Foreign Secretary of India, Ms. Sujatha Singh visited Dhaka to oversee the preparation of the drama and publicly arm-twisted General Ershad, a former military ruler of Bangladesh to remain within the Hasina fold.
Narendra Modi came to power defeating the Congress shortly after the burial of democracy in Bangladesh. In spite of the fact that, Hasina is an old friend of the Gandhi family and preaches a brand of Islamophobic secularism while Modi is the proponent of extremely communal Hindutvabad. The new administration in Delhi promptly embraced the trusted client in Dhaka. Hasina in return, allowed a sovereign Bangladesh to gradually become an undeclared colony of India. Hasina feels no inhibition in publicly claiming that no Bangladeshi ruler can match what she has given to India. She steadfastly sided with Modi in all his brutal persecution of minority Muslims in India and wholesale massacre of Kashmiri Muslims. India, under Modi, once again supported and aided Hasina in her blatant rigging of December 2018 election.
Now enters the dragon. China appears to have come to the conclusion that there is no alternative to Hasina in Bangladesh. She has succeeded in destroying democracy, disabled the opposition and silenced all dissenting voices by the cruel application of state terror against the people of Bangladesh. Her style of anti-Islamism in the façade of secularism also complements communist atheism. China first came to the rescue of a globally cornered Hasina in 2013 by offering to build the Padma Bridge through the supplier’s credit when The World Bank withdrew its loan on the allegations of corruption at the top. Since then, China has become the main source of financing majority of the so-called mega projects in Bangladesh. The country has to bear the enormous debt burden for the show-case projects while possibly reaping some economic benefits when these are finally completed. However, the main beneficiaries of these Chinese investments are undoubtedly Sheikh Hasina herself and a small group of politicians and businessmen close to the ruling family. In addition to boasting of inflated economic growth, the ruling coterie have made billions of dollars by indulging in unprecedented level of corruption. Although Hasina returned to power through the joint mechanism of the US and India, it is Chinese money that helped her to consolidate power. It is also alleged that China even helped Hasina to devise the strategy to hijack peoples mandate a night before the actual election day in 2018. It is a strange development that India and China, the two warring parties in South Asia worked in tandem to keep Hasina in power through blatant rigging.
China has probably taken a long-term view regarding its relationship with Sheikh Hasina and expects to gradually reduce Delhi’s influence in Bangladesh through economic diplomacy. Veteran pro-China politicians in Bangladesh might also have played a significant role in guiding the current Chinese policy. The courting of the fascist ruler in Bangladesh by the US, India and China is however, not exceptional. We find in history many examples of a similar appeasement of autocrats in developing countries by the so-called global powers. Saddam Hossain of Iraq used to be courted in turn by the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. However, the present Bangladesh policy of China has its own vulnerability and uncertainty.
The vast majority of the people of Bangladesh are anti-Indian because of many historic reasons. They are by default pro-Chinese which is evident from the spontaneous support shown in the Bangladesh social media for the Chinese military in their recent Ladakh fist-fight with the Indian army. But, by no means are they ideologically communist. The nationalist and pro-Islamic population support China out of their resentment to Indian hegemony.
Now, China is going against the popular sentiment of the same segment of people by bank-rolling the highly repressive Sheikh Hasina regime, risking the rise of simultaneous anti-Chinese sentiment among the majority population of Bangladesh. Secondly, Chinese leadership may be unaware of the fact that since the demise of the Soviet Union, most of the former communist leaning politicians and intellectuals in Bangladesh have shifted their allegiance to India because of their inherent apathy towards Islam. They would try to mislead Beijing regarding the actual political situation in Bangladesh to fulfill their Islamophobic agenda. Thirdly, the apparent pro-Awami League tilt in the Chinese policy would compel the once pro-Chinese nationalist parties to amend ties with Delhi, resulting in a paradigm shift in the political balance in Bangladesh. And finally, at the end, Sheikh Hasina would always remain faithful to Delhi in spite of taking Chinese fund. China has apparently taken a big gamble in Bangladesh and in all probability, the policymakers in Beijing would not change its course until Hasina shows her true colors.
A significant section of political pundits in India and Bangladesh believe that it is China who encouraged Imran Khan to offer an olive branch to Hasina. After all, Pakistan is also dependent on Chinese money, military and political support. In 2008, the US virtually gifted Bangladesh to India as the political price for forming an Indo-US strategic alliance against China. By 2014, Washington has lost all its influence in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina publicly ridiculed the Obama administration when it tried to dissuade her from holding a single party farcical election. She indignantly ignored American pressure with full support from Delhi. American influence has dwindled to such insignificance that Washington could not even lodge a strong protest when its ambassador in Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat was physically attacked in the capital by the armed thugs of Awami League on August 4, 2018. It appears that now it is China’s turn to give a gift to Hasina in the form of an apologetic Pakistan accepting the fascist ruler’s moral and political superiority. It is however, to be seen whether history repeats and China loses all its influence in Bangladesh like the US in coming years. The very policy of taking an unreliable fascist ruler on board, abandoning the majority population in a country is always a non-starter.
*Mahmudur Rahman is a renowned author and editor of a national daily in Bangladesh. He has written more than ten books and is a regular contributor to various distinguished journals. He is a former energy advisor to the government of Bangladesh. He is also the foremost voice against the current autocratic regime in Bangladesh.