With the expected noise, both positive and negative over Prime Minister Sk. Hasina’s visit (Jan.10-13) reducing in decibels, it is time to take a calm look at the complex India-Bangladesh relations. It is unique relationship steeped in history, nostalgia, religious ideology, and a substantial amount of disagreement. A powerful section of Bangladesh’s political milieu are married to the “doctrine of hate India”, do not how much it hurts the country’s growth and development.
It was unfortunate and in bad taste, that a small section of the anti-India media tried to spread the canard that Prime Minister Sk. Hasina will be insulted in India. It was said that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh would not meet her, and only some Indian Minister will conduct the talks with her. Following the visit, the same media group, embarrassed but not to be deterred, wrote that their Prime Minister was slighted as Dr. Manmohan Singh did not receive her at the airport.
What this right-wing media group did not know that according to international diplomatic protocol, the visiting dignitary is received by a Minister-in-waiting. The visit officially starts with the welcome ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, with the Indian Prime Minister welcoming the dignitary. Sk. Hasina was given a full red carpet reception in India.
This kind of reporting is not done by an uninitiated reporter or a mischievous editor, but a well planned strategy of the political party that runs the media. The vernacular media has a greater readership among the common people and creating a negative image of India and Sk. Hasina, at least among those who have been saturated with such propaganda, is not very difficult.
There is no prize for guessing this identity of the political party behind these stories. It is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). All its leaders were involved in the rape and killing of Bangladeshis on behalf of the Pakistani occupation army during the 1971 war of liberation. The party’s erstwhile amir, Gulam Azam, had his citizenship revoked after the war and was in exile. He was rehabilitated only after Sk. Mujibur Rahman, the liberation leader of Bangladesh, was assassinated by a group of army officers in August 1975. The current amir of the JEI, Matuir Rehman Nizami, has his name listed among top war criminals of 1971. The war criminal case is expected to come up in the next few months.
The JEI and a small assortment of Islamic parties were the Gestapo of the Pakistani army. They continue to be Pakistanis main extension in Bangladesh. Circumstantial evidence seem to exist that the JEI was involved in Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) revolt in February, 2009 at the behest of Pakistan.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was formed in 1978 by late President Gen. Zia-ur-Reheman, who was also assassinated in a failed coup in 1981. Zia-ur-Reheman’s credentials as a liberation war hero has been questioned. He and his supporters manipulated the truth to try and establish that it was he and not Sk. Mujibur Rahman, who declared independence of Bangladesh. His clever moves after Sk. Mujib’s death to quickly become the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) in November, 1975 and President in April 1977, are testimony to his politics. On the way, he killed and murdered people, even those who helped him. He rehabilitated the JEI in 1978 as a political party.
The Awami League was not allowed to resume its political activities till Zia consolidated his position and formed the BNP. The newly formed BNP inducted quite a few pro-China and anti-India elements, and conspired to derail relations with India. A friendly Pakistan was control to the BNP’s agenda.
Following Zia death, his widow Begum Khaleda Zia took over the leadership of BNP, not an unknown phenomenon in developing countries. Khaleda Zia is a product of the Pakistani cantonments, and is alleged to have had rather intimate relation with them.
It is, therefore, not a surprise that the BNP and the JEI entered into a strong alliance in Bangladesh politics, and the BNP-JEI led four-party alliance during their governance (2001-2006) sought every excuse to distort relations with India. This included alliance with Pakistan’s ISI to launch terrorist attacks on India from the Bangladeshi soil, harbouring and aiding Indian insurgents like the ULFA, NSCN (I/M) and the Manipur and Bodo groups. They helped Islamic terrorist to take roots in Bangladesh without a thought that these elements would eventually devastate Bangladesh itself. A Bangladesh-Pakistan-China intelligence co-operation was agreed upon in late 2005 to run operations in India.
As a foot-note, it may be recalled the Pakistan established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh only after Sk. Mujib’s assassination. And china established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh only after Pakistan did. The Pakistan-China alliance in Bangladesh vis-a-vis India remains a strong, but not necessarily as active, after the Awami League formed the government in 2009, January.
The ground reality: The ethnic commonality between India and Bangladesh in terms of language, art and culture and even genetics, is historical. This despite the extremists trying to deny history. India was involved in 1971. The two countries have a 4000 km border with India surrounding Bangladesh on three sides. But the converse is true, as BNP-JEI government Foreign Minister Morshed Khan had said, meaning Bangladesh could make life in India miserable.
The fact: Given the geographical configuration of India and Bangladesh, positive co-existence between the two countries will be ultimately inevitable.
Unconditional love or visceral hatred or both counter-productive in relations between two countries. There are problems between the US and Canada, and between time tested allies Pakistan and China. What is required is mutual respect. There is need to recognize mutual interests and equality in the interest of peace, stability and development.
In the first three decades since Sk. Mujib’s assassination both sides made some serious mistakes. It can hardly be said India’s Bangladesh diplomacy was ideal. Far from it, there was a tinge of arrogance of a big country, and emotional reactions. There was a deep sense of hurt that Bangladesh was ungrateful. After all, India had hosted ten million Bangladeshi refugees, around three thousand Indian soldiers had given their lives to help liberate Bangladesh, and India had risked war with the most powerful countries in the world – the USA.
That was misplaced diplomacy on India’s part, given the peculiarity of connections between the two countries. On the other hand, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s diplomatic direction tended to be giving away too much in the face of Bangladeshi obduracy.
India was too pleasant during the BNP-JEI rule. The philosophy was India will give and “hope” Bangladesh would reciprocate. From the beginning it was evident this policy would not work. It did not. The picture of an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officer abducted from the Indian territory by the BDR, tortured and killed, and then strung up on a pole by Bangladeshi villagers like an animal, was a kick in India’s face. This photograph was carried by several Bangladeshi newspapers. Indian diplomacy floundered. There was no reciprocal action. India was seen as a frozen soft state.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the opposition in Bangladesh. Although the BNP and JEI were almost wiped out in the last general elections. The votes polled suggest they have significant support spread over the country. Seats won and support polled are two different things. The latter signifies the intrinsic strength of a political group or ideology. Both India and the Bangladesh government should be cognizant of this empirical statistics.
The situation, however, is that Sk. Hasina and her government have decided on a path of co-operative action. After experimenting on different options of alignments, Sk. Hasina appears to have come to the conclusion that if Bangladesh has to develop as an independent secular democracy, certain strong decisions have to be taken. One of the first promises she made after getting elected was eradication of terrorism. She proposed a South Asian model. Not stated in words, India was the partner. Sk. Hasina has been delivering on her promise.
It took Prime Minister Hasina one full year before she visited her closest neighbour, India. She used the year to interact with many world leaders including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raja Gilani. After India, she has already announced her plans to visit China when a number of bilateral issues in the economic area will be discussed and agreed upon.
An important issue to be discussed in China is the old BNP-JEI efforts to give China road access to China to the Chittagong port. The fly in the ointment is Myanmar (Burma) which has not agreed to allow this access through its territory. While the Chinese have a long term plan to set up a port in Chittagong, or more preferably in Kutubdia (deep sea) as it has done in Gwadar, Pakistan, Myanmar has its own strategic and security concerns. A Chinese controlled port in Bangladesh has military strategic agenda. The BNP-JEI coalition wanted this Chinese built port to complement the Gwadar port, to hold India in a Chinese pincer move in the Indian Ocean to circumvate India. The present Bangladeshi government should be aware of this.
Bangladesh must have its own international relationship for all round development. Independence, development, and security must be upper most in its calculations. Climate change can be one of its worst enemies, and it will need strong assistance from the international community and its neighbours.
On return from India, Prime Minister Sk. Hasina emphasised that the visit, and the agreements and MOUs were a “100 percent success”. Her opposition dubbed the visit a total failure, abject surrender to India, and threatening the security and sovereignty of the country.
The Bangladeshi opposition has exposed itself as a myopic section willing to spite India at the cost of self-destruction. This, of course, is a trait of those who are blindly seeped in destructive ideology. Otherwise, why would they have given space to the Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorists and, even, Dawood Ibrahim.
It is, therefore, no wonder that a string of seminars and newspaper writings continue to dwell on Sk. Hasina’s India initiative. It is equally exhilarating to see seminars and newspaper writing’s supporting Sk. Hasina’s initiative. A healthy debate would be welcome. But the opposition line appears deeply deceased.
Of course, Bangladesh must evaluate its core interests and values, not be delirious about a particular neighbour, and act upon inclusive relations with countries of interest. The US and European Union form one quadrant, Russia and Central Asian countries another, and the Islamic countries as a third. But the South Asian neighbourhood is of primary importance in eradication of terrorism and obscurantism.
One of the understanding reached during Sk. Hasina’s India visit is the land connectivity between Bangladesh, and Nepal and Bhutan for trade and export/import for these two landlocated countries through Bangladeshi ports. It will earn Bangladesh much needed revenue. With Indian access to Chittagong port alone, the earning would be to the tune of one billion dollars to start with. One can just imagine the development of Chittagong and Khula (through Mongla port) that will accrue through such facilities. Most importantly, it will evolve a South Asian quadrangular development paradigm that can eventually expand into a larger sector through this Asian Highway project.
The opposition naysayers have only demonstrated a regressive agenda. One, they say access to India to the Chittagong port will jeopardise the country’s security, and the Ready Made Garment (RMG) manufacturers of North-East India will debilate Bangladesh’s RMG industry.
The opposition also asserts that transit facility to India to its North-East will ease transit for Indian military to that region to counter insurgents like the ULFA. They see this as detrimental to Bangladesh’s interests as all anti-India forces need to be supported. That is, force wanting to break up India must be encouraged and helped. This is exactly the Pakistan army’s agenda.
They also militate against India-Bangladesh cultural agreement as cultural invasion from India. This is basically the West Bengal culture they are up against, as Rabindranath Tagore has been nurtured more in Bangladesh than in India.
Most agreements and MOUs arrived at during Sk. Hasina’s visit will expectedly go through. The opposition has declared their rights to cancel all the agreement if and when they come to power. But as Sk. Hasina said in her press conference in New Delhi, if the common man benefits from these agreements then no one will be able to negate them.
Leaving aside the security agreements between the two countries, India must accelerate the implementations of the people friendly agreements. It was good that another 47 items of import from Bangladesh were put on zero tariff list. But there is much more to do in the economic and commerce area.
It is imperative for the concerned Indian ministries to understand that dealing with Bangladesh is a larger strategic issue and not a commercial one. Today, India is in a position to give Bangladesh a “friendship deal”. This is a moral obligation for India, and must be viewed in the context of co-operation, peace and development in South Asia.
Then there are high profile issues like river waters sharing, maritime boundary, and killing of Bangladeshis (mostly petty smugglers) by the BSF.
On the first two issues, India has made a beginning reopening discussions. Bangladesh wants free flow of river waters for sheer existence. This needs to be approached from a long term perspective related to India security at this end.
Imagine the scenario. Restrictions on river water flows can result in large arid zones in Bangladesh. Rise in sea level may encompass around 20 to 25 percent of Bangladesh’s lands in the next twenty to thirty years. Where will these displaced population go? Only to India.
There is an urgent need for India to help Bangladesh’s economy to develop to the extent it can engage its growing population at home. On the other hand, India has to help Bangladesh on water conservancy and agriculture. This is to help India as much as to help Bangladesh.
The BSF, may be trying to avenge past sins against it, seeking retribution. In the last 13 months, the force has killed 93 Bangladeshi along the border, whatever their descriptions may be, and reported regularly on the Bangladeshi media, this is giving India a terrible profile among the people of Bangladesh and an easy fodder for India baiters.
On the cultural side much more access must be given to Bangladeshi films and television. Till now, it has been one sided in favour of the Indian producers. The importance of the cultural issue must be well understood in India. Bangladeshis are emotional and sensitive on culture, a major issue in the fall out with Pakistan.
It must be well understood that Sk. Hasina and her government are fighting against heavy odds. They must be supported in their struggle. Bangladesh is a special case and must be handled accordingly. India runs in the blood of Bangladesh, positive and negative.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email;firstname.lastname@example.org)