by Mumtaz Iqbal
Every country’s intelligence agency employs journalists and newspapers on its payroll, remunerating them in cash (retainership or bribes) or in kind (access to inside or privileged information), as its surrogates to propagate motivated points of view. India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) is no exception.
One such RAW journalist appears to be Subir Bhowmik, East India Correspondent of the BBC World Service for the last 15 years and described in the Sage website as an eminent—a term of endearment widely employed in South Asia!–journalist and academic researcher.
The newspaper is the distinguished Times of India (TOI) whose 3.2 million circulation makes it the world’s one of the largest selling English-language dailies. Based in Delhi where RAW and various organs of India’s national security establishment (South Block, ISDA, ICWA et al) are located, the TOI is often used as a sounding board and echo chamber of official thinking.
The roots for this observation stems from an 860-word 11 para article published in the TOI on 1 November 2013 by Bhowmik dateline Dhaka titled: Bangladesh is in a violent phase and India must do all it can to see a friendly regime return to power (underlining supplied) The article is an odd even quixotic mishmash of alarmist epithets; biased presentation; blatant meddling in our domestic politics; tiresome bogeyman clichés about Islamic fundos; and an open call for Indian military intervention.
The heading says it all. “Bangladesh…in a violent phase.” This can’t be denied. Bangladesh politics invariably generate more heat than light. The violence has been steadily building up for months.
While some of the blame for this unsavoury situation lies with our domestic leaders, it would have reflected objective reality had the article touched upon, even in passing, RAW’s role in creating this imbroglio. Bangladesh is RAW’s biggest overseas station employing directly and indirectly thousands of agents, sympathisers and associates.
Besides, its worth recalling that RAW money helped the AL come to power. There is a fair amount of evidence—none more telling than the TOI article—to suggest that RAW’s hoping to repeat this performance in 2014. This is made manifest for all to see in the second part of the headline: “and India must do all it can to see a friendly regime return to power.”
The undisguised arrogance inherent and implied in this statement is astonishing. Dhaka is considered no more nor less than the cat’s paw of Delhi, which alone can decide who and what is a “friendly” regime. The people of Bangladesh don’t matter at all!
The article’s first Para states: “Bangladesh… political crisis… might impact Asia’s regional balance.” Really? To what balance is Bhowmik referring? Is Bangladesh of such pivotal importance? “Utter rubbish” as our honourable Finance Minister would say with forceful clarity (MA English Dhaka University 1955). And for once he would be right!
We are enlightened in Para one that “…Indian diplomats in Dhaka were desperately trying to get…Hasina…and Khaleda to speak to each other and start a dialogue.” Well, their efforts were successful, in one sense. The two Begums did talk. But in another sense it wasn’t. The dialogue was a miserable failure. Perhaps the South Block diplomats should have coached their star player a bit better. Or maybe the dialogue was meant to fail.
This would conveniently open the way for the next step in the AL’s mysterious and mystifying but largely self-defeating election strategy of going it alone after bludgeoning the opposition into submission. If so, we may see history repeating itself a la Marx, the first (1996) as tragedy, the second (2014) as farce (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon). Indo-AL relationship may be as close as lip to teeth but this fosters the unpalatable image of a client-patron relationship.
But Bhowmik’s second Para takes the cake in selective narrative that shows up the AL as a spotless knights in shining armour. First, Bhowmik offers the comically novel comment: “Hasina finally broke the ice and offered all-party interim cabinet…” Really? Bhowmik must think us daft if we believe this airy fairy story.
Bhowmik then outdoes himself by breathlessly proclaiming that Hasina “…quickly followed it up by speaking to Khaleda over telephone and inviting her for dinner.” Well, we all know how that delicious dialogue ended.
As evidence of his pronounced partiality, Bhowmik observes in the next sentence: “Khaleda refused the invitation…instead decided to go ahead with a 60-hour…strike.” Note the word “instead.” It suggests cavalier unreasonableness on Khaleda’s part to Hasina’s sweet reasonableness.
Well, Bhowmik should know, or be informed, that that’s not the way things happened. The history of reciprocal scorn between the two Begums goes back a long way, into the mists of time!
In addition to bias, Bhowmik is partial to amnesia. For example, he makes no reference to poll after poll showing that 70-90% of the Bangladesh public want an election under a caretaker government. And that Hasina’s insistence that “…this was not possible after the fifteenth amendment” (Para 3) is an exercise by Bhowmik in creative sophistry and apologia that leaves out a crucial condition of the Supreme Court’s judgment.
That an eminent journalist like Bhowmik—a BBC correspondent to boot—can make such a doctored and one-sided presentation of AL’s innocence and virtue beggars belief! This makes sense only if Bhowmik is a paid advocate propagating his master’s voice.
In what Bhowmik terms a sideshow but occupies three (27%) out of the article’s 11 paras are the protestations of Indian diplomats in Dhaka—Bhowmik’s source material—about US Ambassador Dan Mozeena’s activities.
In Para 5, Bhowmik mentions that these diplomats told journalists—read Bhowmik—that Mozeena was behaving “…like a standing committee member of the BNP.” The obvious riposte is: why not? This is what a superpower does, however disagreeable it may be. And yet, Indian diplomats are coy regarding the pro-consular role they play in the deliberations of the AL Presidium. What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. One detects a note of wistful envy in the Indian diplomats’ complaint.
But the most disquieting feature of Bhowmik’s observation is the blithe notion that the fortunes of Bangladesh are to be carved up by external forces without any input by Bangladeshis except as passive tools of their diktats! This is a sad commentary on how little esteem the Bangladesh authorities are held by the sole superpower and regional hegemon.
But while these two forces are locked in surreal “combat,” Bhowmik quotes an unnamed Indian diplomat describing the Chinese stand as “constructive.” Surprise, surprise. Is this harking back to the good old days of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai? No way.
What is at play is crass commercialism. The ostensible reason for this effusive praise is that if PRC were to build the Sonadia deep-water port of Chittagong—one of PRCs so-called string of pearls—the economic spin-off would benefit India’s north-east. Money obviously talks tantalisingly enough for an Indian diplomat to see virtue in the commercial venture of a historic rival. So Chinese “meddling”, in contrast to Mozeena’s intercession, is “good.”
Tiresome bogeyman clichés
A main motivation for Bhowmik’s article is provided in paras 6 and 7 where he lets the cat out of the bag: “For Delhi, the real worry is Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam…US overlooking revival of Islamic radicalism … when Khaleda was last in power…thus weakening the focus of the war on terror.” This commentary obviously reflects Indian security views.
Islamic fundamentalism and the war on terror are of course convenient whipping boys but they have become a bit blasé and dated, especially after Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Even the US has abandoned the term “war on terror.” But is Bhowmik’s assessment valid?
Religious orthodoxy and conservatism in Bangladesh predates JI and HI. The strivings of the Muslim Bengali peasant for a place in the sun against the exploitative Hindu zamindars goes back to at least 1905, if not earlier. To that extent, therefore, there will always be “Islamic” parties in Bangladesh purely because the majority of its peoples are Muslim who traditionally have protested and fought an unjust economic system, even when perpetrated by fellow Muslims (Pakistanis).
Our situation is not unique. There are political parties in India extolling Hindu fundamentalism and revivalism. One of them is the BJP which, in contrast to JI, has held power nationally in Delhi. The BJP threatens to do so in the next Indian national elections under a prospective leader (Narendra Modi) who’s credited with masterminding a hideous pogrom against Muslims and who the US government has banned from entering America. No Bangladeshi leader comes anywhere close to the dubious distinction Modi enjoys.
Like the AL and BNP, has a sizeable vote bank that could play a crucial swing role in credible elections. But both the JI and HI have been badly battered by the AL. To expect them to acquiesce meekly in their own annihilation and reduction to irrelevance is perhaps to expect too much.
Espousing military intervention
This prospect brings us to the crux of Bhowmik’s article in Para 10. He intriguingly and baldly asserts that “It (India) cannot afford a hostile government in Dhaka.” Why? Because “India appears nervous over the future of its east and northeast…afflicted by violent statehood movements and insurgencies.”
Obviously Bhowmik, reflecting the views of his RAW patrons, is making it clear in no uncertain terms that any government other than the AL would be considered hostile by Delhi. This Olympian view has some fairly large holes.
The first hole is that the Seven Sisters insurgencies predate Bangladesh’s independence. It goes back to 14 August 1947 when the Naga National Council led by A.Z. Phizo declared Naga independence on 14th August 1947 and informed the UN headquarters in New York by cable.
Since then India through using undiluted force and large dollops of cash has maintained an equilibrium in the north-east that, while queasy at times and has not won the tribals’ hearts and minds, has never seriously challenged or endangered Delhi’s rule.
Considering that Indian diplomats have said more than once that India is not wedded to any party in Bangladesh but to its people, can Bhowmik’s assertion be taken with a grain of salt? Hardly. To do so would be unwise.
That is because Bhowmik immediately goes on to make the following scathingly scandalous, highly inflammatory and entirely fanciful statement: “This, in a way, revives the pre-1971 scenario where a similar situation forced India to back the Bengali insurrection and militarily intervene in East Pakistan, braving threat of a US naval intervention.”
First, note Bhowmik’s reference to “Bengali insurrection” rather than the accepted term of “liberation movement.” This is insidious, inaccurate, insulting, demeaning and belittling. Bhowmik owes us an apology for this deliberate semantic slander.
Second, to equate 2013 as reviving the “pre-1971 scenario” is delusional. In 1971, our fight for our fair share of the national pie which we had been deprived since 1947 was peaking. Needless to say, RAW and its predecessor IB fished efficaciously in those waters.
Is it recreating March ’71?
The 2013 confrontation is over the constitutional question of how to hold elections. To say that a “similar situation” prevailed suggests that Bhowmik is engaged in deliberate disinformation and is off his rocker, to put it mildly
What’s really chilling is the reference to “militarily intervene.” Is Bhowmik suggesting that the India Army emulate the Warsaw Pact’s takeover of Czechoslovakia of 20-21 August 1968, recreate 25 March 1971 and then hunt down (commit genocide?) Muslim fundos like the Pakistan Army hunted Hindus in that year?
Or is the 1965 Indonesian model to be followed, when the Armed Forces (ABRI) led by Suharto killed an estimated 0.5 million PKI members and sympathisers with names supplied by CIA. Arrests and purges continued for ten more years throughout the archipelago at CIA’s behest and supervision.
Direct military intervention Warsaw Pact style would cost India more than what it would get in benefits. So this option, while technically feasible, is politically a non-starter.
The second option is the more feasible and likely, with RAW like the CIA supplying intelligence, logistics and support. Assuming that RAW does not have access to the equivalent of ABRI in Bangladesh, the most likely executing agencies—pun intended—would be a cocktail comprising AL and Chhatra League musclemen, official Para military units, infiltrators from across the border (Paschim Banga civilian Black Cats!) and local collaborators modelled on the Al-Shams and Al-Badr stereotype.
One wonders whether the RAB-BGB action of May 2013 against the HI was a dress rehearsal of things to come?
The reference to braving the US naval intervention is irrelevant whistling in the dark. The nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise steamed into the Bay of Bengal to mark Nixon’s displeasure with Indira Gandhi. However, neither DC nor Delhi expected to get involved in a shooting war, much as Pakistan would have liked this to happen. America was up to its neck in Vietnam and Nixon had no intention of engaging in any naval combat (The Blood Telegram—India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, page 314).
Are the tenor and tone of Bhowmik’s article the harbinger of a potent threat or some serious kite flying designed to spread panic and fear amongst the Bangladesh political opposition specifically and the public generally? Difficult to answer. Probably a bit of both, to illustrate Delhi’s capacity and capability for energetic arm-twisting.
But what is undoubtedly revealing about the article is its timing, coming as it does in the wake of the collapse of the dialogue and launching of a crackdown against BNP. This could backfire, stiffening rather softening Khaleda’s spine. She has precious little to lose and much to gain by being wronged.
But the more devastating drawback is that it will prove beyond doubt that the incumbent AL is an offspring sired by India and that Delhi will protect and promote it pretty well at any cost. This would of course destroy whatever little of the much-reduced credibility and legitimacy the AL still enjoys.
We have to thank Bhowmik and the TOI for their candid insight and revelation into the mind of a section of the hawks that grace Indian intelligence. Without doubt, the journalist and newspaper are sincere friends of Bangladesh.
Courtesy: The Weekly Holiday.