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'There is method in communal madness'

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DOWN MEMORY LANE If I am profiling her now, 23 years later, it is because of what she had told me about communalism in the Indian Sub-continent;...

DOWN MEMORY LANE If I am profiling her now, 23 years later, it is because of what she had told me about communalism in the Indian Sub-continent; right now she is herself facing communal forces in her country In February 1990 I was a member of the press party that had accompanied the then External Affairs Minister IK Gujral to Bangladesh. While Gujral and his Bangladeshi counterparts were busy spinning out negotiations on the river water row, and as other members of the press party had their own interests, I decided to interview the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina Wajed who was at that time no more than president of the Bangladesh Awami League, not even Leader of the Opposition. But she was the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, and that was enough for me to zero in on her. If I am profiling her now, 23 years later, it is because of what she had told me about communalism in the Indian Sub-continent; right now she is herself facing communal forces in her country. The first thing I noticed was that Hasina had the dignity of a duchess. But that was hardly surprising, given that she was the daughter of Bangabandhu. When she addressed public meetings as president of Bangladesh Awami League, my notebook says, she looked cast in the mould of Mark Antony, capable of rousing her audiences to any deed against the then Government of General Ershad, describing it as dictatorship. As the leader of a 15-party alliance, she was a more formidable foe of the Government; yet she believed in the eventual victory of the ballot over the bullet. But the Sheikh Hasina I met at the legendary house of her father in Dana Mandi, Road 32, was the very antithesis of the firebrand politician; urbane, even demure, like a typical woman of the Sub-continent with her head covered with the folds of her cotton sari. As I waited in the drawing room, which was lined up with books in both English and Bengali, the first book I noticed was "Rabindranath Tagore Centenary Volume: 1861-1961" . Hasina's voice floated over from the adjacent room, and even to one not familiar with Bengali it was clear that she was hearing the grievances of the masses. When I introduced myself, she said spontaneously: "Every Indian is welcome in Bangladesh." The accompanying smile confirmed that the statement was not a concession to convention. But was she sure? Had she not seen anti-Indian demonstrations off and on in recent times? "The answer to either question is yes. But I am sure the masses of Bangladesh have not only love but also gratitude for India and Indians who helped liberate them. I can prove it. For instance, I am often accused of being pro-India; yet massive crowds turn up at my public meetings. What does that prove?" She raised her head and exerted a slight backward pull of the scalp that had tightened the face into its mask of alert formality. Meanwhile, Samad, the first Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh but now a trusted lieutenant of Hasina, who alone sat in on the exclusive interview nodded his head in affirmation. Then Sheikh Hasina picked up the thread: "The anti-Indian demonstrations are organized by fundamentalists. Right now, the real threat faced by Bangladesh, India and Pakistan comes from them." I wondered if she could be said to have been born with an aphorism in her mouth! Yes, fundamentalism indeed poses a threat to society in each of these countries but, right now, India faces another threat, that in Kashmir posed by Pakistan. Would she not call a spade a spade? That was the mischievous me. Without batting an eyelid, Sheikh Hasina said: "We are watching the developments in the Kashmir Valley and shall take the right stand at the right moment." This showed that as a conversationalist she was quite exceptionally undisturbed by her own fluffs, if any, and unusually successful in not looking guilty after dodging a question so as to ensure that one error did not breed another. The Bangladesh government, whom she had just called names without naming names, had also adopted a similar stand. What then was there for an average Indian to choose between the government and the 15-party combine that she headed? The compulsions of the Government are at least easier to understand. But whatever prevented the Awami League, even if not the alliance, from taking a categorical stand on this issue, particularly after the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami had issued a predictable statement supporting Pakistan? For the first time I noticed a frown on her face as she said: "Please don't compare us with such discredited and fundamentalist outfits as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Zakar Party which have been responsible for non-Muslims fleeing to India to escape persecution. If secular parties like ours had not rushed to their rescue, not even a single non-Muslim would have been left in Bangladesh today." (Major-Gen CR DATTA, a veteran of the war of Bangladesh liberation, had told me the same thing an hour earlier.) All right, here was a purely hypothetical question, but one she was eminently qualified to answer. If Sheikh Mujib had been alive, would he have hesitated to condemn what Pakistan was doing in Kashmir Valley? Her answer showed that she was a believer in great men, great women and great causes, in ideas rather than the steady destructive determinism of petty events building up the downstream of the Indian sub-continent's recent history. "If my father had been alive, the scenario would have been entirely different. But that was not to be. First, my father was murdered. Then Bhutto was hanged. And finally Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Don't you see a method in this apparent madness?" It was no longer possible, if it ever was, to posit that her ideological allegiances were superficial. Anyway, she had answered my question without seeming to have done it. But, no, I wanted a categorical answer. Looking at what was already happening in Karachi and elsewhere in Sind, India could easily exploit the situation there if it wanted to. If it did, would she say she was watching that situation too? The spontaneity with which she answered that question was breath-taking: "India would never do that. It is not made that way." Since she would not condemn what amounted to covert aggression by Pakistan in Kashmir, I told myself there was no harm in needling her. Her 15-party combine looked like tangential figures, ships sailing in company with her to the same continent rather than pilots pointing the way to a particular port, I said, and added, that the next general election in Bangladesh was due only in 1993. Until then the Ershad Government would sit pretty. What, then, could she and her allies do to sustain the supposed momentum of popular resentment against the Ershad regime for the next three years? For the first time I noticed a flicker of annoyance in her eyes. Then, like one resigned to her fate, Sheikh Hasina said: "We are not, and never have been, hungry for power. We shall continue to serve the poor masses and that will ensure that propaganda is not at a higher premium than popularity." � M V
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