Bangladesh, SAARC and a chequered history

My passion was to strengthen SAARC, and I strongly felt that Rao’s decision was not appropriate. 

S D Muni Mar 01, 2024
Dabbling in Diplomacy

I have been studying South Asian regional cooperation since the initiative taken by Bangladesh President General Ziaur Rahman in 1980. I co-authored a book with my wife Anuradha titled Regional Cooperation in South Asia (National Publishing House, New Delhi, 1984), much before the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an institution in 1985. In anticipation of the summit, I was contemplating ways to raise funds to go to Dhaka when Nikhil Chakravartty, Editor of Mainstream Weekly, invited me to observe the SAARC summit on behalf of his magazine. I readily agreed and received Rs 25,000 in cash from him for my expenses, with more than half of it being spent on travel arrangements. I supplemented the remainder with my own savings and went to Dhaka for a week-long visit.

During my stay, I contacted Mizanur Rahman Shelly and C.M. Shafi Sami for assistance. Shelly, Director of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh, had become a friend through seminar circuits on South Asian regional cooperation. He was a former Pakistan Civil Service bureaucrat who resigned from the Bangladesh government in 1980 due to his intellectual inclinations. Known by the adopted name ‘Shelly’, he was also a writer and poet. He also served as the editor of a journal called Asian Affairs. He became a minister under General H.M. Ershad’s regime in 1990. Sami, a Bangladesh Foreign Service officer, was known to me during his posting in India at the Bangladesh High Commission. At the time of the SAARC summit, he was serving as Bangladesh High Commissioner in Pakistan and had been called to coordinate the summit. Both of them facilitated my movements in Dhaka during the summit, with Shelly arranging my stay at Dhaka Club, and Sami helping me obtain a media card for observing the summit.

The roads leading to the summit venue were cleaned and adorned with decorations and welcoming posters in Bangla and English. Despite my pointing out a few spelling mistakes in the English posters to Sami, they remained uncorrected throughout the summit. I was happy to have listened to the speeches made by SAARC leaders and witnessed the signing of the Dhaka SAARC Declaration on 8 December 1985. After returning from Dhaka, I wrote two articles for Mainstream Weekly on the summit.

Meeting with Khaleda and Hasina

I had extended my stay in Dhaka for another four days. With Shelly’s help, I secured an appointment with Bangladesh President General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Gen. Ershad, in a bloodless coup, ousted President Abdus Sattar and imposed martial law on 24 March 1982. He declared himself President of Bangladesh in 1983. Rumours in political circles, both in India and Bangladesh, blamed India for supporting Gen. Ershad’s coup. During our meeting, I presented my book on South Asian Regional Cooperation to him. We discussed India-Bangladesh relations, and Gen. Ershad expressed contentment with the state of bilateral relations with India and expressed optimism about further strengthening them. He also informed me of his plans to hold democratic elections in Bangladesh soon.

I also met Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of former Bangladesh President, the late General Ziaur Rahman, who was considered as the driving force behind the coup that led to the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire family in 1975. General Ziaur Rahman had taken the initiative in 1980 to establish SAARC. Begum Zia was accompanied by her political secretary, Abul Harris Chowdhury, who did most of the talking to answer my questions on Bangladesh’s domestic politics and its relations with India.

I had visited Bangladesh even before the SAARC summit to participate in the conferences organised by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). These conferences helped me establish contacts with academics at Dhaka University like Professor(s) Raunaq Jahan, Amina Ahmed, Imtiaz Ahmed, and Akmal Hussain, and academics from other institutions like Rehman Sobhan, Gowher Rizvi and Iftekharuzzaman. With the support from Ford Foundation, I collaborated with Stephen Cohen of the US, Shelton Kodikara of Sri Lanka, Lok Raj Baral of Nepal, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema of Pakistan and Gowher Rizvi of Bangladesh to establish the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) for South Asia in Colombo in 1992. Iftekharuzzaman succeeded Prof. Shelton Kodikara as the second Executive Director of RCSS.

I’ve met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed on three occasions. In two instances, she was the Opposition leader. On the third occasion in 2010, she addressed a conference in Sweden organised by the International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). During her time as the Opposition leader, she visited India, during which I attended her talk at the Saturday Discussion Group at IIC, New Delhi. Furthermore, in 2003, I met her at a lunch hosted by (I K) Gujral at his residence. For over a decade, my friend Gowher Rizvi has been serving as an Adviser on International Affairs to her.

Critical of PM Rao's decision

While in Singapore, I often found myself engaged in spirited discussions about Bangladesh with my Bangladeshi colleague, Iftekhar Chowdhury. He had previously served as the foreign minister of Bangladesh under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government led by Begum Khaleda Zia. I had been acquainted with Chowdhury since he was pursuing a PhD at the Australian National University in 1979-80, a period during which I was also present there on a fellowship. Throughout our interactions, Chowdhury consistently supported the US’ preference for Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, while I firmly believed Hasina Wazed was the right choice for the country’s development. Notably, Chowdhury actively lobbied for the 2013 elections in Bangladesh to be conducted only under an interim government.

After the Dhaka SAARC summit, it was India’s turn to organise the annual event. Bangalore was selected as the venue for the second summit to be held in November 1986. Muchkund Dubey, serving as secretary in MEA, was deputed to coordinate the preparations for the summit. He invited several academics and journalists to contribute ideas for India’s agenda. I was also one of the invitees. I offered several suggestions. First, I recommended the establishment of SAARC Chairs and SAARC Fellowships, not limited to nationals of the host country but open to individuals from other SAARC member nations. These fellowships and chairs, I argued, should be administered independently. Additionally, I put forth the idea of a SAARC University and suggested exploring the possibility of establishing a SAARC Parliament in the future, modelled after the European Parliament.

The Bangalore SAARC summit endorsed the concept of SAARC Fellowships and Chairs, leaving their administration to respective University Grants Commissions of SAARC member countries. Prof. Shelton Kodikara was invited as a SAARC Chair at India’s Delhi University. Unfortunately, the institution of SAARC Chairs and Fellowships did not thrive, as educational bureaucracies did not see value in sustaining them. In 2007, a SAARC ministerial Memorandum of Understanding was signed to establish a multinational South Asian University. Although the university started functioning in 2010, a lack of commitment from some member states posed challenges to its healthy growth and expansion. Over the years, I have served on the panel of experts for faculty selections in Social Sciences.

Bangladesh was scheduled to host the SAARC summit in December 1992, but it got postponed to April 1993 due to Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s refusal to participate. This decision was influenced by the anti-Hindu riots in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which erupted in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992. Hindu temples and business establishments were under attack. Additionally, black flag demonstrations were being organised against Rao in Dhaka. 

Rao’s decision was in reaction to the unstable situation in Dhaka. H.K. Dua, editor of Hindustan Times, called me to write an edit page piece on India’s decision. My article questioning Rao’s decision created a bit of a stir in the MEA and the PMO. Later, I learned that a senior official in the ministry, while reviewing my article, commented in a file that the ‘author of this anti-India article (i.e., me) had been prompted by the Bangladesh High Commission, which often entertained such people at cocktail parties and dinners’. I wish the mentioned senior MEA official knew that I do not consume alcohol. Indian academics maintain robust integrity and are not swayed by incentives like Scotch or any other inducement to critique their own prime minister, unless they objectively believe a certain policy needs scrutiny. My passion was to strengthen SAARC, and I strongly felt that Rao’s decision was not appropriate. 

(The writer is a well-known Indian academic, a South Asia scholar, who had a short stint in diplomacy. The article is excerpted from his recent book "Dabbling in Diplomacy: Recollections of a Non-career Diplomat"/Konark). 

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