Bangladesh riots close in on India's president during visit

Protesters toss a petrol bomb outside the hotel where Pranab Mukerjee is staying during his second day in the country. Samanth Subramanian and Suryatapa Bhattacharya report

A fire fighter sprays water inside the burnt compartment of a train at Kamlapur Railway Station in Dhaka on Monday. Andrew Biraj / Reuters
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NEW DELHI // A petrol bomb exploded outside the hotel where India's president was staying in Bangladesh yesterday as more protesters died in a wave of violence sparked by the government's prosecution of local Islamist leaders.

There were no reports of injuries in the explosion in Dhaka, which was the latest incident to mar Pranab Mukerjee's state visit that began Sunday. Day one of his trip coincided with the start of a two-day general strike called by political supporters of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic party, who was convicted of war crimes on January 21. At least 61 people have been killed in protests that have intensified since Sayedee was sentenced to death last week.

Sayedee supporters yesterday attacked government offices and police responded with bullets and tear gas. At least three people died and dozens more were injured.

Some commentators have raised concerns about the timing for Mr Mukherjee's three-day visit. An editorial in the Indian newspaper Asian Age said yesterday that "the wisdom of being welcomed during a major domestic upheaval in a host country appears questionable".

Mr Mukherjee's visit was planned months in advance and comes in the heels of the visit of India's foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, who was in Dhaka on February 16 and 17.

Ms Zia's aides said she was unable to attend the meeting because of the two-day strike in the country.

The Bangladesh government has prosecuted 10 leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami for their alleged role in the massacres and rapes, abetted by the Pakistan army, in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. Jamaat-e-Islami is an ally of the opposition Bangladesh National Party, headed by Khaleda Zia, who called for the strike.

Ms Zia was scheduled to meet Mr Mukherjee yesterday, but she called off her appointment in a move that was regarded as a diplomatic snub.

But India's foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, said security concerns about the strike changed Ms Zia's schedule. "We had the meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia fixed well in advance," Mr Mathai said in a statement. "The president was, in fact, looking forward to it. Our external affairs minister had met [Ms Zia] on February 17. She had also met the president in India during her visit in November."

Mr Mukherjee's visit was planned months in advance and comes in the heels of the visit of India's foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, who was in Dhaka on February 16 and 17.

The Indian president has steered clear of commenting on the protests, the worst violence in the Bangladesh since independence.

In a speech at Dhaka University yesterday, having accepted an honorary doctorate, Mr Mukherjee only remarked: "I am confident that democratic traditions in Bangladesh will grow stronger with time and that you will preserve democracy with your constant vigil."

Smriti Patnaik, a research fellow and Bangladesh specialist at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), said that India had to tread a fine line.

If India were to explicitly support Bangladesh's government and the secular forces, she said, it would "delegitimise" what the youth are fighting for.

"They need to figure out themselves about where they will head with this. India has learnt its lesson about keeping out of its neighbours' political affairs."

Mr Mukherjee has stuck to safe notes of optimism on bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh.

He referred to the agreement between the two countries to ratify their common border.

"We are committed to working closely with Bangladesh to avoid any untoward incidents on our border," Mr Mukherjee said. We can together make it a gateway of peace and mutually beneficial cooperation."

The border agreement includes a proposed land swap, in which the two countries would exchange tiny enclaves that have existed as anomalies since official borders merged between India and Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, in 1947. The Indian cabinet has already cleared the land swap, but it still requires a constitutional amendment that must be passed by two-thirds of parliament.

The 51,000 residents of these enclaves have remained effectively stateless, unable to vote in India or Bangladesh, and their welfare neglected by both governments.

India charges that Bangladeshi citizens cross illegally into its territory and has erected barbed-wire fences along the border, which Bangladesh protests.

Farooq Sobhan, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to India, said his country was "strongly in favour" of the pact being ratified as soon as possible.

"The ball really is in India's court," Mr Sobhan said in December. "You have your legislative and constitutional requirements. But over here, there's no protest. No one has raised any issues or objections."