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'Support building for BNP-Jamaat combine ahead of Bangaldesh polls'
Friday November 8, 2013 6:38 PM, IANS

A political "storm" is brewing in Bangladesh ahead of next year's elections with the opposition BNP and its Islamist partner Jamaat-e-Islaami indulging in daily shutdowns and violence, experts here warned and noted that the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have shown a "convergence" in their support for the BNP-Jamaat combine.

Addressing a daylong roundtable on 'Bangladesh: Prospects of Democratic Consolidation' at the India International Centre here Thursday, government officials who have dealt with Bangladesh and knowledgeable experts also said that Bangladesh's sound economic growth, its social and human development indicators -- which are better than India's, and its democracy are, at the same time, a reassuring factor for India on its eastern border.

Pinak Chakravarty, who retired recently as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, said the daily hartals (shutdowns) by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat alliance to push for a caretaker government were hurting the economy and the common man in the nation of 155 million people.

Chakravarty, former Indian envoy to Dhaka, said there is "convergence" between US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in their leaning towards Zia, and consequently the Jamaat, which is riding piggyback on the BNP.

"The US believes that the Jamaat is a moderate Islamic party ... The US argument is flawed ... it only helps the Jamaat gain leverage," he said. On Thursday, Bangladesh's Election Commission declared the Jamaaat-e-Islami ineligible for the coming polls in line with a court order.

"The Jamaat has intimate relations with its namesake in Pakistan and is close to Saudi Arabia, and getting funds," he said, adding that the Islamist party, which advocates that women be in purdah and remain indoors and targets minorities, has lost none of its "obscurantist" ideology.

He said both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and BNP chief and former prime minister Khaleda Zia are to blame for not fostering faith among people in the institutions of democracy.

He also said that while the "shadow of the army looms in the background", the "open calls by opposition parties for it to take over are severely undermining democracy". Bangladesh has seen several coups, including the one on Aug 15, 1975 that saw the assassination of the country's founder-president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, addressing the roundtable, said Bangladesh, despite being confronted with fundamental forces, has been able to sustain democracy "in the larger liberal sense".

"India is facing a difficult situation on its western border, but on the eastern border (with Bangladesh) there is a sense of assurance," Saran, chairperson of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) said at the event organised by thinktank Society for Policy Studies (SPS).

"It is in India's interest that democracy is consolidated in Bangladesh" and it does not become the hunting ground for fundamental and extremist forces. "We don't want to see in the east the kind of situation we sometimes see in the west," said Saran, adding that both neighbours need to work together to strengthen forces of democracy.

He cited the recent establishment of the India-Bangladesh electricity grid, under which 500MW of electricity was being sold to power-starved parts of Bangladesh, as a good example of collaborative work. He said India's large size should not be seen as a threat but an asset and India should give its neighbours a stake in own prosperity.

Abul Barkat, chairperson, department of economics, University of Dhaka, delineating the strong economic foundations of Islamists in Bangladesh, said there are 125 religious extremist organisations in Bangladesh, including in villages and go by the name "Allah-ar Dol (Allah's team).

He said the Islamists have "created a state within the state". In 2012, the net profit of the Islamist organisations in Bangladesh stood at $280 million, while from 1975 till 2013, the figure stood at $6.5 billion. According to Barkat, the economics of fundamentalism can be overcome by strengthening democratic and secular forces.

Sadeka Halim, an information commissioner in Bangladesh and a professor in the department of sociology in Dhaka University, said religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh "seek to keep the women invisible" and were also trying to impose "Islamic code of dress".

Imtiaz Ahmed, professor department of international relations, Dhaka University, said there is a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and businesspersons in Bangladesh. Veena Sikri, former Indian high commissioner, said it was a "tragedy" that democratic institutions have not been allowed to put down deep roots in Bangladesh and said that all should work together to strengthen democracy in that country.

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