Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Three Significant Developments


By M.R. Josse
Of late, interesting politico-diplomatic developments have been taking place that, perhaps, have not received the serious attention they merit. Foremost on my shortlist are the disturbing recent developments in nearby Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Much has been graphically underscored by the nearly 400 carefully timed blasts across Bangladesh last Wednesday, resulting in the death of two individuals and injury to 138. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, significantly leaflets from the banned Islamic group, the Jumayetul Mujahideen (JM), were found at the sites of a number of explosions calling for the installation of Islamic law.

As per an AFP report from Dhaka quoting the police, some leaflets warned Britain and the United States “to get out of Muslim countries.” Nearly 90 people have been arrested, including a local leader of the JM that was banned in February for alleged links to a series of bombings of religious shrines and other targets.

In another possibly unrelated development two days later, border forces of India and Bangladesh exchanged fire thrice in the worst confrontation on the Indo-Bangladesh frontier in recent months, thereby ratcheting tension between them.

HMG was quick to issue a note of condemnation on the terrorists attacks in Bangladesh of August 17 and went on to express its total solidarity with the government and friendly people of Bangladesh. However, the reaction from India and the United States – now virtually joined at the hip – was dramatically, though not surprisingly, quite a different kettle of fish.

Thus, speaking at a press conference in Kolkata on 19 August, Pranab Mukherjee, India’s defence minister, expressed cause for concern for India, echoing the earlier reported charge leveled by Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Chief Minister, West Bengal, that fundamentalists in Bangladesh were increasing their influence and that Pakistan was trying to open a second front there. In Mukherjee’s words: “The Bangladesh situation is causing concern to everyone. Since it is a neighbour, if there is unrest there, it will have a reflection in our country.” (Times of India, 20 August.)

American Ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, speaking to the press after meeting Bhattacharya, condemned the serial blasts in Bangladesh saying that “these types of activities are regrettable, unacceptable, irrespective of whether it takes place in New York or Bangladesh.” While admittedly not as sharp as Mukherjee’s barb, it comes not only against the backdrop of a disturbing cosying up between New Delhi and Washington but also against the backdrop of charges in the US media portraying Bangladesh as another Afghanistan a la the Taliban.

For example, in October 2002, Time magazine reported that groups linked to Al-Qaeda had been taking root in Bangladesh and said that Osama bin Laden and his close aide Ayman al-Zahawiri may have found refugee in that country. Subsequently, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, declared in a major speech in Philadelphia on 21 April 2004 that Bangladesh is “a valued friend in the Global War on Terror as well as a moderate voice in regional and international fora.”

However, in the second Bush administration inaugurated on 20 January this year – and, more so, following the recent forging of a “strategic alliance” between the United States and India – fears and concerns about the rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh have once again increased in the US.

Taken in conjunction with the increased pressures now being applied on Bangladesh from India, the self-claimed “dominant” power in South Asia, it is a sombre development whose implications need to be thoroughly mulled and analysed by policy makers not only in our region but in China as well.

That such a prescription is called for has, incidentally, been well if indirectly underscored in a 19 August editorial in India’s premier establishment daily, the Times of India. Among its sermons: “Dhaka must remember that flirtations with extremist groups and parties have backfired on countries and leaders that have practiced them.” (Apparently, India’s clandestine support for our Maoists seems to have been conveniently ignored by the editorial writer.)

Then, there is this grave charge: As part of its right-wing agenda, the BNP-led coalition has also been providing sanctuary to armed extremist groups like the ULFA. (Forgotten, once again, is that India continues to be a safe haven for the Maoists!) Finally, there is this veiled warning: “SAARC is due to meet in Dhaka in November, rescheduled from February earlier this year; it may have to be postponed once again if security of visiting dignitaries cannot be assured.”

China-Russia Another important recent development that needs to be closely monitored by Shital Niwas mavens is the growing proximity between Beijing and Moscow, bitter ideological and geopolitical rivals not too long ago. Two recent instances among many are now provided. The first relates to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose last summit was held in Astana, Kazakasthan on 5 July. While partly the SCO was dominated by energy issues among its five member states, it is surely interesting that the final communique called, rightly, for ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

However, as the Economist put it: “Telling outsiders – meaning, mainly, Americans – not to interfere, however is only part of it. The SCO wants to rid the region of the American military presence altogether. This week it called for a deadline by which the American-led coalition should remove its airforce bases in Kyrghizstan and Uzbekistan. Ostensibly, the SCO made the call because Afghanistan is becoming more stable. But Russia and China would be keen to fill the vacuum.”

More recently, Russia and China have launched their first joint war games in a show of military might they insist was not aimed at any country – after the US expressed concern. Washington, which has indicated unease over the pace of China’s military presence, is not attending as an observer but said it is closely monitoring the drills.

Notably, Chinese defence officials said they would focus on the ability of Russian and Chinese forces to fight separatism and terrorism. It may be noted that China faces challenges from separatists in its Muslim-populated in the northwest and Russia from Muslim separatists in Chechnya.

Naxalites in Andhra Finally, we have the engrossing case of the Andhra Pradesh government in India re-imposing its ban on Maoist groups operating in the state. As per a PTI report, this happened after New Delhi gave its green signal to the state government for re-imposing the ban on Naxalite groups in the wake of a spurt in violence, especially the killing of Congress MLA C. Narsi Reddy, his son and seven others the other day.

Interestingly, one is informed that while the Andhra Chief Minister called Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil and argued the case for a nation-wide ban on the Maoists, Patil reportedly took the view that since law and order is a state subject, the extremist-affected states were free to adopt any policy including banning extremist outfits.

Unstated in the news report is the possibility that New Delhi cannot impose such a blanket ban without offending the Indian Communists who prop up the government – an uncomfortable fact that, perhaps, is lost on its strategic partner, Washington.

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