Bangladesh’s claim to have busted a secret ISI operation to fund the BNP opposition party should be taken with a grain of salt because the country’s pro-Indian ruling party has an interest in using Pakistan as a bogeyman to delegitimize popular protests and distract from the organic Hybrid War tensions that the state itself is irresponsibly provoking.
Blame The Russians…err, Pakistanis!
The Bangladeshi security services blamed Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency for supposedly funding the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) opposition group, a dramatic claim that prompted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to attack her political rivals for “taking bribe and money from the ISI to destroy the democratic structure of the country.” Thus far, no evidence has been presented to the public to back up these meddling accusations, just like the US’ security services failed to prove that Russia allegedly did the same in their country’s elections two years ago. In fact, just like how Hillary Clinton’s campaign relied on this narrative to scare people away from voting for Trump and then delegitimize his victory in case it happened anyway, so too might Sheikh Hasina be doing the same when it comes to her main BNP-supported competitor Kamal Hossain.
The Democratic Decline
The key difference, however, is that many opposition supporters have taken to the streets in recent days to protest against what they believe to be the unfair conditions under which the vote is being held, something that Trump’s supporters didn’t do. The reason why this is happening in Bangladesh is because Hasina jailed BNP leader and personal rival Khaleda Zia on corruption charges that she says are politically motivated, hence why Hossain was selected by an opposition alliance (that includes the BNP) to be their candidate during the upcoming vote. The ruling party is so afraid of these protests that they’ve resorted to violent means to disperse them, which has in turn cyclically motivated the masses to continue rallying in support of their cause.
The present state of Bangladeshi democracy is very precarious because Hasina’s Awami League party has been centralizing control over the state since returning to power in 2009, which caused the BNP to boycott the last election in 2014. During this time, Hasina has closely aligned with India and positioned her country as the rising hegemon’s “junior partner”, much to the chagrin of the zealously patriotic population which is traditionally prone to fiercely defending their independence. The reason why the whole population isn’t up in arms about what Hasina has been doing is because economic growth has continued to be spectacular under her tenure, with some people becoming politically apathetic as a result and seemingly disinterested in protesting against her accelerating authoritarianism.
The Internally Directed Infowar
Not wanting to take any chances that the people might “politically awaken” in the run-up to the election or shortly thereafter if reports of state abuses against the protesters (let alone any photos or video footage that might emerge) incite the population, the Awami League is trying to delegitimize the BNP by misportraying it as Pakistan’s lackeys despite they themselves actually being India’s lackeys. The ruling party’s accusations are extremely sensitive in Bangladeshi society because their country’s people fought against what at the time was regarded as West Pakistan in order to turn their contemporaneous state of East Pakistan into the independent nation of Bangladesh with Indian covert and ultimately conventional military support.
Claiming that the BNP “took bribe and money from the ISI to destroy the democratic structure of the country” is meant to brand them as “traitors” and make the Awami League look like “patriots” even though Bangladesh behaved the most independently under the BNP’s tenure and only turned into India’s “junior partner” under the Awami League’s most recent one. Hasina is basically waging an infowar on the minds of her own population by taking a page from her Indian patron’s playbook in blaming Pakistan anytime something goes wrong, thinking that associating the anti-government and pro-democracy protests with the ISI will lead to less people joining them out of fear of being branded as “traitors” and brutally dealt with by the authorities as such.
Back To The Basics
The state-sponsored intimidation and authoritarian centralization taking place in Bangladesh today is very worrying because it contravenes every principle that the Bangladeshi population is taught that they fought for in 1971, but it also goes to show that the original Hybrid War in the country has finally come full circle. The 1971 conflict can be described as one of the world’s first modern Hybrid Wars because it was the textbook case of externally provoked identity conflict exploiting preexisting tensions in order to transition a Color Revolution (“mass protests”) into an Unconventional War (“insurgency”) with foreign backing (the Indian–aided “Mukti Bahini”) that ultimately ended in a conventional military invasion. What’s happening now, however, is entirely indigenous and the result of 1971’s domestic and international winners abusing their victory.
There’s no foreign hand invisibly guiding events, let alone funding unrest and organizing armed militants in preparation for a conventional invasion, but just a concerned populace upset that their political rights are being trampled upon and aghast that their country is surrendering its sovereignty to its much larger neighbor in exchange for nothing of tangible significance at all. Rapid economic growth is welcomed by all Bangladeshis but is occurring independently of their domestic political processes, having nothing at all to do with Hasina’s power grab despite the Awami League’s incessant efforts to make it seem like this boom is the result of her controversial centralization of authority. The outcome of the state’s actions, and especially its internally directed infowar, is that the population has become unprecedentedly polarized.
Hints Of Hybrid War
Under such increasingly tense conditions and that are dangerously occurring in the context of a “democratic reversal”, history reveals a clear trend of people becoming progressively “radicalized” as they begin to perceive of their situation as hopeless, thus making them susceptible to suggestions that the only recourse available to them is “kinetic action” (“insurgency”). That’s not to render any judgement on the legitimacy or lack thereof concerning that possible course of action but just to point out that this scenario could indeed unfold within Bangladeshi society if there are genuine concerns about the result of this Sunday’s election, with the clear exception to prevailing Hybrid War thought being that this development would be entirely indigenous without any external support.
If anything, it can be asserted that there’s already a low-level Hybrid War being waged inside of Bangladesh, albeit by the ruling Awami League with Indian strategic and advisory support. It’s actually the government itself and its Indian allies in RAW that are meddling in the upcoming elections by attempting to delegitimize the BNP opposition through their unsubstantiated claims that it’s being backed by Pakistan, not the ISI for supposedly funding this organization. The violence being carried out by government-linked mobs against the opposition represents the first real instance of “kinetic action” being undertaken in this ever-more-heated political conflict, frighteningly putting it on the trajectory of further escalation if the state doesn’t back off before crossing a “point of no return”.
It would be irresponsible and largely speculative to predict how any future worsening of the Bangladeshi situation might play out, but observers should recognize that the regional stakes are very high because of the potential that any kinetic conflict could spill across the country’s borders into India’s restive Northeast, possibly occurring in parallel with the fanning of communal tensions by the BJP in the run-up to its own elections early next year and around the time that upwards of three million Muslims might be expelled across the border from Assam on the alleged basis that they’re illegal immigrants. It’s not hyperbole to assert that the last thing that India needs at this sensitive moment is a simmering Hybrid War crisis in Bangladesh caused by the recklessness of its political proxy there.
All told, nothing good can come out of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League accusing the BNP opposition of being Pakistan’s pawns in the last few days before the country’s contentious elections, especially bearing in mind that the personal animosity between Hasina and Zia is thought to be behind the state’s decision to jail the latter on what she says are politically trumped-up charges of corruption. Attempting to flip the narrative script and reframe the BNP as “traitors” in order to delegitimize their popular protests and distract from the Awami League’s subordination of national interests to India is very dangerous and could provoke organic Hybrid War tensions in one of the most populous and geostrategic countries in the world at the worst possible time.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution