India’s immediate past President Pranab Mukherjee (82) in his The Coalition Years, 1996-2012 – his twelfth book – tells his own tale about the last 16 years of his experience in active politics until 2012, when he became the President of the Republic. He was in active politics for 43 years (1969-2012), holding important positions as MP; Leader of the Lok Sabha, and Rajya Sabha; Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission; Defence; External Affairs; and Finance Minister. But for Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s selection of Manmohan Singh, he would have become the Prime Minister.
Since I haven’t seen his latest book yet, this piece isn’t about the book per se but what media has revealed from excerpts of the work, some of which are very revealing, and relevant to Bangladesh. This piece is all about the excerpts, which I consider very disturbing from the Bangladeshi perspective. The small paragraph on India’s relationship with Bangladesh tells us all. I know those who know about India’s hegemonic designs in Bangladesh, and its big brotherly attitude toward all its smaller neighbours, the excerpt I’m referring to here gives them the “you’re telling me!” moment.
They know, as I know, India has been very condescending, deceptive, domineering, and demeaning to Bangladesh. And Pranab Mukherjee – possibly inadvertently – has re-confirmed our perception and experience that India considers itself a hegemon, a neo-colonial master in the postcolonial world. Some of Pranab Mukherjee’s up-close comments about his intimate personal relationship with Sheikh Hasina and her family members, and some other important people in Bangladesh is very discomforting for patriotic Bangladeshis in general. However, those who want Bangladesh to remain an Indian satellite, would be ever thankful to Mukherjee for his role in doctoring the 2008 Elections in Bangladesh.
In Part II of his autobiography, he narrates an episode which virtually amounts to meddling in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. Mukherjee writes: “In February 2008 (while he was India’s External Affairs Minister), Bangladesh army chief Moin Ahmed came to India on a six-day visit. He called on me too. During the informal interaction, I impressed upon him the importance of releasing political prisoners.” Then Mukherjee mentions his assuaging the fears of the General about his personal safety under Hasina Government: “I took personal responsibility and assured the general of his survival after Hasina’s return to power….With my intervention through the then National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, I ensured the release of all political prisoners and the nation’s return to stability.” He also mentions India’s continued engagement with the military-backed caretaker government in Bangladesh.
What’s even more revealing in the autobiography that after Hasina came to power, she assured that General Moin would remain in office, and that Pranab Mukherjee also reprimanded Awami League leaders who deserted Hasina during her bad days: “In fact, when some Awami League leaders deserted her at the time she was in jail, I rebuked them for their stand and told them that to leave someone when they are down is unethical.” One may thank Mr Mukherjee for being so candid and honest! But there’s a problem here! He tells us – despite being an Indian politician – he regularly meddled in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, and moulded its politics to serve Indian interests.
So far, so good! We know India has always been an intrusive big brother, and a malignant neighbour of Bangladesh. And as to how some top Indian leaders assert India’s hegemony over Bangladesh is well-reflected in a personal correspondence of Dr Kamal Siddiquie, a former Principal Secretary to the PM Khaleda Zia, with this writer on October 23, 2017. He gives a candid eye-witness account of as to how India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee behaved with PM Khaleda Zia in this regard, at a top-level meeting in New Delhi in 2006:
“It was a formal official meeting between the two PMs in Delhi in March 2006. On our side were the PM, Foreign Minister Morshed Khan, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Reaz Rahman, myself the Principal Secretary, and Shamsher Mobin Choudhury, the Foreign Secretary. As soon as the meeting began, I found the Indian Foreign Minister grossly overstepping his role and firing broadside against us, for our ‘bad behaviour’ with India, including our alleged support to the ULFA which was a damn lie. As he was speaking, he was also pointing his finger at our PM in a most disgusting manner, and it showed that he was no gentleman. His language was the Babu English spoken by clerks in West Bengal.”
Dr Kamal Siddiquie’s account corroborates what Babu Pranab Mukherjee – who was once an upper division clerk – has written about his manoeuvring and undermining Bangladeshi politicians in the recent past. There’s no reason to assume that he was the first and only Indian leader to do so. Even senior Indian civil servants at times could be much more powerful than most powerful and influential leaders in Bangladesh. We know India’s former External Affairs Secretary Sujata Singh – who was just a public servant, not politician – directly intervened into Bangladesh politics on the eve of the so-called parliamentary elections of January 5th 2014. She flew to Dhaka, and literally coerced Ershad into submission. Who, till his close-door meeting with Sujata Singh in Dhaka was unwilling to take part in the farcical elections, had to change his mind. He participated in the voter-less election, and was “elected” uncontested. As desired by India, Ershad simply legitimised Hasina’s re-ascendancy to power, for another five years.
In view of the above, it’s obvious that Indian politicians in general – particularly those from the Congress Party – leave no stone unturned to see their own people in power in Bangladesh. Their most preferred Bangladeshi politicians mostly belong to the Awami League and the various factions of the Jatiya Party, originally floated by General Ershad. Possibly with the exceptions of Morarji Desai, V.P. Singh, and I.K. Gujral, all Indian Prime Ministers since 1971 have been intrusive and hegemonic with regard to Bangladesh. What we get from the anecdotes narrated by Pranab Mukherjee in his latest book, and from his grossly disrespectful behaviour with Khaleda Zia – a visiting Prime Minister from Bangladesh in 2006 – are just tips of the iceberg called “India’s Bangladesh Policy”, which is all about treating Bangladesh as an Indian satellite, not as a sovereign country.
As Mukherjee’s condescendingly intrusive mindset with regard to the internal affairs of Bangladesh is sickening, so are his public assertions as to how he treated General Moin, and rebuked those Awami League leaders who deserted Sheikh Hasina while she was in jail during the army-led “caretaker” government in 2007-2008. Most importantly, Bangladesh should not take Pranab Mukherjee as an exception in this regard. There’s no reason to believe that Narendra Modi, Shushma Swaraj, and other members in the Modi Government have any benign or non-intrusive policy toward Bangladesh. What Shushma Swaraj did during her recent visit to Bangladesh – she didn’t meet Rowshan Ershad, the so-called Leader of the Opposition, and instead met Khaleda Zia (despite Hasina’s dislike) – shouldn’t make self-respecting and patriotic Bangladeshis complacent about New Delhi’s not-so-hidden anti-Bangladesh agenda.
Nothing would be more counterproductive and disastrous for Bangladesh than considering Modi a better alternative to Manmohan, and Shushma Swaraj a better person than Pranab Mukherjee, with regard to India’s Bangladesh policy. By the way, who’s Shushma Swaraj to tell Bangladesh that parliamentary elections under an unelected caretaker government is not the right thing for democracy?
Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). [email protected]