BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 6(3) November December 2003


Shaping the future of Bangladesh 

H. Calvin

Thirty years ago, Bangladesh was written off as a basket case and a nation without a future.  Today Bangladesh is still surviving as a nation-state, and perhaps has a better prognosis than Pakistan, from which it was hewn in 1971. However, the future is not rosy.  Bangladesh is a nation with deep psychological wounds that is at a critical juncture in its history.  It can either come to terms with the reality of its past and move into the twenty-first century, or it can remain wedded to the Stockholm syndrome where friends are confused for foes.  For India, the path that Bangladesh takes has deep implications for India’s economic well-being, social stability, democratic polity and national security.  As such, it is important to understand the various drivers in Bangladesh today to facilitate their development along preferred paths.

Current Trends

Bangladesh has been slowly making progress in some areas.  For example, it has achieved near self-sufficiency in rice (1, 2) and has the second fastest growing economy in South Asia (2) aided by the well-known innovations of micro-credit (3).  It has implemented many of the mechanisms necessary for a democratic society, including the conduction of relatively free and fair elections (3).  However, Bangladeshi society is still driven by many of the factors that led Kissinger to call it a “basket case” including: Population Growth, Illiteracy, Religious Extremism, and Protectionism. 

Population Growth 

Bangladesh’s population is still growing at over 2% a year.  It is currently around 130 million, and is expected to reach 150 million by 2010, and 180 million by 2025 (4).  It is a very young country with a median population age of 21 years. This means that the next 10 – 20 years will be critical as this group of young men mature (5).  Their life choices will shape whether Bangladesh becomes an entrepreneurial state or an Islamist-terror-exporting state.  Bangladeshi economic growth has been hovering in the 4 – 5 % range over the past several years, making it second only to India in South Asia (5, 6).  Increasing economic opportunity will reduce the Islamization of society that shackles women’s rights and education.  This is critical, since increasing women’s education is known to lead to reduced population growth.  


The literacy rate is around 40% (5), compared to nearly 70% literacy in India (7).  In India, literacy rates have escalated as a result of efforts of encouraging education in modern institutions, as compared to the traditional schools.  In Bangladesh, much of the education still continues to occur within the 65,000 madrassas that exist there.  As a result of the low literacy rates, and the educational system driven by religious institutions we find an escalation in religious extremism.  In addition, the effects of a high degree of illiteracy in a country dominated by young people where economic opportunity is limited has led to an increase in religious extremism. 

Figure 1. Map of Bangladesh showing linkages with India.

Religious Extremism  

The country has been termed the world’s most corrupt (8), and has seen the Jamat-e-Islami obtain almost 17 seats in the Bangladeshi parliament.  Hindus have borne the brunt of this Islamist extremism.  The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Jihadi (HUJI) is the largest of these groups with an estimated membership of over 15,000 (9, 10).  HUJI was created by Bangladeshis who fought in the Afghan War and is known to have a direct link with Al Qaeda (10) with Fazlul Rehman one of the signers of Al Qaeda’s Jihad against the United States.  It is known to have linkages with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan (10) having received training and funding from them, and has been involved in attacks on Hindus and secular intellectuals. 

Ethnic Cleansing

The Hindu population has declined from 24% of the population in 1961 to around 10% today.  Even accounting for the murder of 3-million in the genocide by the Pakistani government, the proportion of Hindus has shown a consistent decline.  Given the fertility rate of Hindus in the regions surrounding Bangladesh, it appears that the decline in the proportion of Hindus is primarily due to their eviction from their native lands (9, 12, 13).  The attacks on Hindus may be properly termed ethnic cleansing, with the state instruments guilty of acts of omission as well as commission (14).  This trend of attacks on minorities designed to expel them from their native lands finds a parallel in Pakistan.  In Pakistan, of course, the logical extension of the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities has now turned to the ethnic cleansing of non-Sunni Muslim sects.  The implications for Bangladesh are grave.

Economic Impoverishment  

The escalation of religious extremism pertains to the economic situation in Bangladesh.  Bangladesh is still one of the poorest nations in the world.  It has a GDP of approximately $50 billion (15).  The time-tested path to wealth creation involves trade and commerce.  For Bangladesh, surrounded almost completely by India, trade with India could be a critical source of wealth generation.  In addition, since Bangladesh effectively separates North East India from Central India, it has the opportunity to engage its economy with India’s by providing commercial transit to India’s North Eastern States.  Enabling commercial transit has the potential of adding approximately $80 – 100 million per year to the Bangladeshi economy (16).  Unfortunately, there appears to be an institutionalized fear of India’s intentions, fed by the Islamist establishment.  As a result, Dhaka has been unwilling to enter into a Free Trade Agreement with India, expand transit links with India, or sell gas to India (17).  This counterproductive stand on trade with India has resulted in a number of oil majors winding up their Bangladeshi operations (18) boding dangerously for the future of the Bangladeshi economy.

Implications of current trends

In the next 10 years, Bangladesh will have a 150 million people, of which almost 92% will be Muslim, with a Sunni majority.  Given the trends towards extremism in other nations with a Sunni majority, this suggests that unless the institutional drivers of extremism are addressed, the extremists will continue to consolidate their power.  With over 64,000 madrassas in Bangladesh (8, 9), the majority of the youth are affiliated with religious institutions, and therefore not obtaining a modern education and are feed for the pipeline of Islamist Terror.  The institutional drivers include the judicial system, law-enforcement entities, and flow of funds through Islamic Charities to entities that threaten violence as well as the issues of modern education and a healthy and growing economy.

Bangladesh is known to provide shelter to a number of violent and armed terrorist organizations fighting the Government of India (19).  The existence of such groups within Bangladesh, despite government denials, serves to create and sustain a black market in arms traffic, as well as criminality and murder.  The logical extension of this process can be seen in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.  Unless there is a concerted attempt by the Bangladeshi government to prosecute and eliminate these groups, they can act as a fissure mechanism for Bangladesh itself, as they are doing in Pakistan. 

In addition, around 500,000 – 1,000,000 of Bangladeshis enter India every year, illegally (19).  The majority of these are Muslim, although the number of Hindus may be estimated (from the differential population growth rages) at approximately 20% of the total, as a result of the ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh.  This social and economic burden of Bangladeshis is changing the demographic profile of the border districts of West Bengal and the North Eastern States.  Unless this migration is ended through political means, it is likely that this will result in a major communal fault-line in Eastern India.  Since India appears to have reached a critical mass with sustainable economic growth of 6-8%, it is likely that the economic drivers for this illegal immigration will continue to expand.

Shaping the future

In order to shape the future, it is essential to understand what the objectives must be.  Simply put, India desires a peaceful relationship with Bangladesh, where trade and commerce foster increasing wealth in both countries.  In order for this to occur, Bangladesh needs to move away from state sponsorship of religion (20), create an independent judiciary, and effective law enforcement mechanism, a financial sector that is independent of government interference with an effective capital market.  Equally important, Bangladesh should invest in modern education, thereby sucking the life force out of religious extremism.  In addition, Bangladesh should enhance its commercial sector, by encouraging investment from Indian enterprises, enabling transit between central and northeastern India.  The three broad goals are (a) Eliminating Extremist Islamism; (b) Facilitation of a pro-India sentiment; (c) Enhancing Trade and Transit.

Eliminating Extremist Islamism 

Islamist extremism is on the rise in Bangladesh today because the Bangladeshi military has used Islam as a counterweight to the Awami League (9) and due to massive funds from Saudi Arabia (20).  In addition, the 65,000 madrassas that exist in Bangladesh exist because of a void that is not met by modern educational institutions.  If extremist Islamism is to be excised from the polity in Bangladesh, it requires a broad spectrum effort designed to eliminate the financial support, political patronage as well as the availability of students. 

Bangladesh currently only spends 2.2% of its GDP on education (22).  The conventional wisdom is that this is what feeds the madrassas.  The level of competency achieved in a madrassa was found to be more than ten-times worse (6% compared to 61%) than that of a formal school (22).  This further supports the belief that the madrassas do not equip their students for a productive life, rather for a life where the transition to an Islamist terrorist is a rather simple one.  If the madrassas are to be discredited as institutions of learning, it requires a clear-headed effort created and disseminated by Non-Governmental Organizations in Bangladesh, perhaps guided by New Delhi. 

It is in New Delhi’s interest to encourage the creation of primary and secondary educational institutions in Bangladesh.  These institutions may be funded through World Bank and other aid agencies.  India should offer to train Bangladeshi NGOs in the methodologies adopted to facilitate the acceleration of Indian Literacy rates.

Funding a Radio station (Radio Bangladesh) is an important part of the overall strategy to co-opt Bangladesh by appealing to its citizenry.  This station would be designed to provide a forum for the variety of suppressed opinions and voices regarding the ethnic cleansing of minorities, India’s peaceful intentions, and to create a radio broadcast truth-and-reconciliation designed to heal the psyche of the nation.  The cost of funding such a station may be estimated from the annual budget for Radio Free Asia (23, 24) of $ 30 million.  Given the spread of RFA (China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Tibet and Vietnam) it is realistic to assume that a Bangladesh centered radio station should not cost more than $10 million a year.

Ending political patronage of Islamist organizations by the Army and the BNP, and stemming the flow of Saudi funds into Bangladesh requires a dedicated effort.  This requires long term, and extensive human intelligence into the relationships between these four organizations (Saudi “Charities”, Bangladeshi Armed Forces, BNP, and Islamist Extremist forces).  The purpose of these intelligence efforts is to expose the links between these entities, and to aid their adversaries at every level of society.  The political system in Bangladesh is driven by the personal animosity between Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia.  It is especially necessary to develop a second tier leadership within the BNP and Awami League that has legitimate nationalist credentials without the baggage of religious extremism and anti-Hindu positions.  The mass media outlets described above will be critical in this effort to expose the corrupt interrelationships.

Facilitation of a pro-India Sentiment

The tenor of the relationship between India and Bangladesh is driven by Bangladesh’s inferiority complex inherent to that of a small nation surrounded by a large nation.  The Peace and Friendship Treaty between India and Bangladesh have been viewed as an imposition following India’s liberation of Bangladesh, providing in Article 10, in the case of a an attack, or a threat of attack “the high contracting parties shall immediately enter into mutual consultation in order to take appropriate effective measures to eliminate the threat” (26).  Since the threat of attack was most likely to be a Chinese attack on India, this was understood to imply Bangladeshi concessions to India in the face of an attack on India.  Further, comments that in the face of any aggression by China, that Bangladeshi territory would be used to transport troops to the frontline have been taken as a threat to Bangladeshi sovereignty (“There is not the same risk of the Chinese cutting off Assam as there was in 1962, since in the course of hostilities, the northern Bangladeshis are likely to be overrun by the Indian forces and the communication lines with Assam will be broadened rather then narrowed down or closed”, which was attributed to K. Subrahmanyam) (26).   

As a result, Bangladesh, as a nation surrounded by India is exceptionally sensitive to comments from Indian leaders.  In an attempt to allay these sensitivities, negotiation with India has involved considerable concessions from India.  As a result of these imbalanced negotiations, Bangladesh views Indian concessions as a sign of weakness resulting in an escalation of Bangladeshi demands.  If India is to exit from this vicious cycle governed by Bangladesh’s wounded psyche, it can only do so by not making unilateral concessions that can be viewed as weakness.  In a certain sense, India must chart out its course independent of what Bangladeshi responses are going to be.  For example, if Bangladesh is unwilling to allow the transit of goods to the North East, India should focus on investing in improving links to North East through Indian territory (i.e., through Siliguri). 

In the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh affecting the social, political and economic landscape of the states that border Bangladesh, India has avenues to address the implications of some of these problems through the use of a National Identity Card.  Unfortunately, the lack of political will in New Delhi has prevented implementation.  In this regard, making threats towards Bangladesh accomplishes little other than fan anti-India sentiment, while assuring that effective steps that might be unilaterally taken remain unaccomplished.

It is well recognized that a relatively small number of people can be exceptionally effective in determining the course of a nation if they have access to the appropriate resources.  In this regard, it would benefit India to invest in the human resources within Bangladesh to advance a mutually advantageous agenda.  In this regard, key academicians, politicians and bureaucrats are to be identified and cultivated with a view to enunciating ideas in a politically acceptable fashion into the polity in Bangladesh.  As indicated above, facilitating a second tier of nationalist leadership within the BNP and Awami league that are not anti-Hindu and by extension anti-India is essential.  A careful use of the mass media mechanisms can leverage this effort, if done carefully.  If done carelessly, it can destroy the effort, if not the lives of those involved.

Additionally, building personal links with key personnel is critical in fostering an atmosphere of trust.  In a sense, Bangladesh’s growing relationship with Pakistan, despite Pakistani complicity in the murder of 3 million Bangladeshis in the 1960s, is linked to the personal relationship between junior level officers in the 1960s that are now in leadership positions today.  Creating a framework that enables officer training, joint military exercises, joint EEZ patrolling, anti-piracy efforts, and intelligence sharing can build strong and long-term relationships with the armed forces, which have been historically anti-Indian.  In addition, offering training and professional development of the administrative and bureaucratic personnel offer the opportunity for long-term relationships within the government institutions.  Similarly, Indian educational institutions may be leveraged to provide education to Bangladeshis as part of the long-term relationship building process.  Often, the greatest anti-Hindu and anti-Indian sentiment exists within the elite.  Consequently, it is important to create a sub-elite that is philosophically inclined towards democracy and individual rights.  Since the elite are already perverted, it is necessary to create this sub-elite out of the socially deprived strata.  Consequently, it may be beneficial to extend these educational opportunities for the socially deprived.

Bangladesh is a nation that falls victim to many natural disasters.  Help in a time of need is often cherished.  Assistance with emergency services and humanitarian disaster management in the times of cyclones, ferry and boat capsizing are relatively low-cost opportunities that may be leveraged to improve the image of India.  These efforts can be further magnified with the aid of a Radio Bangladesh.

Enhancing Trade and Transit  

It is well known that the pursuit of wealth creation brings out the best in people.  Creating an environment that facilitates commercial enterprise can be a catalyst for political accommodation and destroying religious extremism.  The first step in the enhancement of trade and transit is the creation of a free trade agreement with Bangladesh.  Such an agreement will enable Bangladesh to increase its exports to India, with the effect that overall trade will increase, although the trade imbalance may reduce from Bangladesh’s viewpoint.  More importantly, as trade increases, there will be a larger number of Bangladeshis who view India and relations with India favorably.  Recent reports suggest that such a Free Trade Agreement leading to an elimination of duty is almost at hand (27).  

Figure 2.  Transportation network in Bangladesh

Transit through Bangladesh will greatly reduce access times to the North East.  The two key routes will all involve considerable investment to upgrade or even create roadways that are designed for floods.  These are the Calcutta-Bongaon-Jessore-Dhaka-Comilla-Agartala (200 miles), and the Jangipur-Nawabganj-Rajshahi-Bogra- Mymensingh-Sylhet-Silchar (300 miles) route (28).  The second route does not exist currently and requires considerable investment involving traversing many rivers that often shift course in the rainy season.  It has been estimated that the cost of road construction is approximately $0.6 million/mile (25).  This equates to a cost of approximately $300 million for these two key EW corridors to the North Eastern States.  The investment sources for this could come from the ADB, World Bank or other Aid donors. 

Alternatively, a build-operate-transfer (BOT) mechanism whereby Indian investors facilitate the creation of road, rail and river ways could be pursued.  These must be carefully done to prevent them from mutating into an anti-India sentiment during the “own and operate” stages that are required for an adequate return on investment.


If Bangladesh is not to slide into the extremist Islamist morass, then it will be because of actions taken by the Indian government.  If on the other hand, the Indian government lacks the political will to act, Bangladesh will slide into Islamist extremism.  This slide is driven by the population growth rate, illiteracy, and the lack of economic opportunity. 

For India to forestall this slide, it must take active measures to eliminate Islamist control of the Bangladeshi Army and the BNP.  This can only be done through the use of human intelligence as well as mass media outlets giving voice to the suppressed voices of Bangladesh.

An integrated strategy involves the implementation of domestic policies that address the social, political and economic impact of illegal immigrants, as well as ending the Gujral-Doctrine of unilateral concessions, since these lead to perceptions of weakness.  In addition, to this are the efforts to assure investment in Bangladesh’s elementary, secondary and higher education sectors, while simultaneously starving the flow of funds to madrassas.  Enabling a positive view of India can be aided by the creation of long-term personal relationship between the military, administrative and bureaucratic institutions.  These can be further strengthened by leveraging India’s educational institutions to train the limited number of Bangladeshis from the socially deprived strata.  Creating a rapid response task force to for emergency assistance in the face of cyclones and river capsizing provides another opportunity for India to facilitate a benevolent image in Bangladesh.  India should also facilitate the investment into road and rail links that traverse Bangladesh E-W, thereby shortening the transit times to the NE.  Notwithstanding the advantage of such a link, India should invest in the alternative link through Siliguri in order to retain its negotiating advantages.

Ultimately, the best-laid plans fail if there is no execution, or political will.  This will has to come from a clear-headed analysis of what is in the self-interest of the nation.  India is served well by having a peaceful border with Bangladesh, where trade and commerce help both nations increase their wealth through the efforts of private citizens.


  1. USAID and Bangladesh – A success story.

  2. West, Gordon, “Food and Agriculture in Bangladesh – A success story.”  (May 2002)

  3. Richardson, Bill, “Making Democracy Work in the 21st Century" Remarks at Remarks at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 13, 1998


  5. CIA World Fact Book

  6. Bangladesh’s Economic growth to accelerate in FY 2003 and 2002.

  7. Education for All, Year 2000 Report by Human Resource Development, Government of India.

  8. Lintner, Bertil, “Bangladesh Extremist Islamist Consolidation” Faultlines Vol. 14 (July 2003), Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi

  9. Is Religious Extremism on the Rise in Bangladesh?

  10. Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami

  11. Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics.

  12. Ethnic Cleansing in Bangladesh, Editorial in Mayer Dak (May 15, 2002)

  13. Gupta, Rahul, “Ethnic Cleansing in Bangladesh”

  14. Bangladesh Ruling Party Accused of Ethnic Cleaning (REDIFF, Feb 19, 2003)

  15. Bangladesh at a Glance.

  16. Rahman, Mustafizur, “Bangladesh-India economic relations: current status” Peace Initiateves (June 2001) p.174

  17. Bangladesh Gas Exports Row Hots Up (BBC, 20 August 2002).

  18. ChevronTexaco Winds up Business in Bangladesh.

  19. Fernandes, George, Speech at Integrated Management of National Security as reported by the Press Trust of India (September 27, 2003)

  20. Bangladesh Constitution

  21. Extending a Helping Hand to Those in Need  (Fall 1999)

  22. Bangladesh: Assessing Basic Learning Skills

  23. Review of Administrative Operations of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Bureaus

  24. Section 6208. Radio Free Asia

  25. Thapliyal, Sangeeta, “India-Bangladesh Transportation Links”, Strategic Affairs (March 1999).

  26. Bhardwaj, Sanjay “Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy vis-a-vis India” in Strategic Affairs Vol. 27 (2) pp 263-278 (Apr-Jun 2003).

  27. Fresh India Bangla pact for FTA (October 29, 2003)



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