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Waiting for India-Bangla Embrace

Whether appropriate or not, I have deliberately used the word “embrace” for the much anticipated visit of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohn Singh’s visit to Bangladesh (September 06-07) which some media time keepers have timed for 30 hours duration. Given that Prime Minister Singh works 18 hours a day, this will leave him 26 hours for work.  Ministers and officials from both sides have worked out most of the agreements, MoUs and intents.  And there will be no jet-lag in a two hours 30 minutes flight.  The thirty hours will pass in a blink, but this blink will go on to pages of media reports, analysis of commentators, radio and television talk shows.

The expectations on both sides of the border are high, that the September meeting of Prime Minister of India and Bangladesh will be a game changer eventually for South Asia and its eastwards march.  Usually in India major foreign policy initiatives have proponents, opponents and balanced critiques. The Bangladesh case is, however, unique.  There are no opponents or even restraining critics.  It is a consensus view of all Indians that Bangladesh can only be a friend, and past problems were irritants, best left to pages of history.  But that is a dismay.  Why cannot the entire people of Bangladesh reciprocate similarly? That is why the word “embrace”.  India, a huge country, may embrace with warmth.  Bangladesh, a smaller country, would certainly have sections which question if this embrace is of real warmth or a tight hug of a gorilla that can eventually crush Bangladesh? This is understandable. But a chorus of one section seeing India as ghost in every issue, and projecting India as the one and only enemy of Bangladesh is retrograde.

Going by the Bangladeshi media, most writings on Dr. Manmohn Singh’s visit is highly positive.  It was gratifying to note BNP acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir formally stating his party’s views (August 15 ) in the following words “we welcome Indian Prime Minister to our country.  We want to build relations with the close neighbor on the basis of equal relations”.  Alamgir also hoped problems with India would be resolved during the visits and Bangladesh will get due share of Teesta and Ganges waters, and the construction of the Tipaimukh dam will be stopped.  A day after the BNP threatened to enforce hartal during Dr. Singh’s visit, it was withdrawn.  But there are rumours that the BNP may resort to some protest demonstrations during the visit.

The above suggests there are leaders in the BNP who are looking at India with greater maturity and realism. Although the BNP was formed only in 1978 by former Army Chief and President Zia-ur-Rehman. The composition of the disparate leadership suggest the  party took over baggages from 1947, 1952, 1971, 1975, each landmark events from partition of India, the language movement, liberation war and the assassination of the founding father of the nation, Sk. Mujibur Rahman.  The communist movement in Bangladesh split, much like that in India, into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factors. The pro-Beijing leftists, some of whom joined the BNP and the others who formed their splinter groups, remained ideologically anti-India. Unfortunately, Zia revived the Jamaat-e-Islami and their Razakars, Al Badrs and Al Shams the pro-Pak elements who either joined the BNP or formed their own parties.  It was a masterful strategy of the anti-liberation elements which even Zia may have missed.

The confraternal politics will remain in Bangladesh.  They have only to look at their neighbour,  India.   But there is also a difference that the opposition in Bangladesh must learn.  The parliamentary debates in the Indian parliament on the Indo-US nuclear issue could have toppled the UPA government.  But at the end of it all the political polemics, while reserving their differences, agreed on the positives of the deal.

Of course, there will be India baiters in Bangladesh who are sworn to this ideology.  Separatist Hurriyat Conference leader Prof. Geelani in Kashmir, India, had once said Pakistan was written on his heart.  One has to live with such people, and in course of time they will mellow or dissipate.  What matters is the view of the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi opposition parties may like to take a cue from it.

Old die hard, ideologically rigid politicians must realize that they are becoming dinosaurs.  The younger cadres of the Jamaat and its youth wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir (ICS) are already disillusioned with their old leaders with Razakar colours.  BNP also has somewhat similar problems.

The time has come for the old obscurantist leaders to realize that the youth are no longer enamoured with ideology and war on empty stomach. The world has become a global village. The only thing that matters to the youth is stability, education and development which in turn will address their aspirations for jobs and a better life.  Nationalism is no longer visceral antagonism, but building the nation and prosperity. This is the reason the Awami League swept the polls in December, 2008.

The BNP and the Jamaat, and their acolytes must revisit their recent history and introspect on their actions honestly.  Do they still think that their rule (2001-2006), that was tornado of unbridled corruption, promotion of terrorism and political assassinations had the approval of the young Bangladeshis who aspire for a better future, and are sick of retrogressive politics which almost convinced the international community to label Bangladesh as a country sponsoring terrorism?

This writer is not of the mode of supercilious pontification.  Size and population may have restricted Bangladesh in some ways, which has led to economic migration. But the country is growing at 7 per cent.  Bangladesh’s main asset is human resource, that is, a highly intellectual brain bank.  They are second to none in the world. If instability is removed, it can become a second Singapore eventually.  But all these depends upon the politics in the country –  retrogressive politics will only take the country down.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit will not be a one time elixir.  This will be just a start and a huge amount of work from both sides will have to follow to make their bilateral initiative a sustainable reality.

The government of Bangladesh requires support on the India initiative from other political parties.  The BNP has given qualified support, which in itself is encouraging. On the other hand, India has a lot to do, too.  First and foremost, the Indian bureaucrats cannot deal with Bangladesh just as any other country.  True, after Sk. Mujib’s assassination in August 1975 in which India did not intervene (as it should have according to a lot of people including in Bangladesh), the Indian government went on a hands off policy.  Under prime ministers Inder Gujral, A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, India reached out but was rebutted.  There was also some short sightedness in India’s foreign policy.

All that must be consigned to the past. This is a new beginning.  India must deal with Bangladesh as a special country with an understanding of regional and geopolitical reality.   Acting with alacrity on pledges by Indians ministers visiting Bangladesh is a must.   Special provisions must be made for Bangladesh in trade and economic interactions if India is to carry Bangladesh with it in economic development.

Notwithstanding the fact that India has not directly interfered in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, there are issues that India cannot ignore any longer.  Terrorism foremost.  India cannot just standby and ignore when elements and personages in Bangladesh’s government support and provide Indian separatists, and terrorists with the wherewithal.  This happened during the BNP-JEI alliance government and everything is in the open in Bangladesh courts now. Nor can India tolerate assassination of top Bangladeshi political leader as that will also impact India.  On other issues, Bangladesh is a sovereign country and has to deal with its own internal problems.

India is grateful to Bangladesh, especially Prime Minister Sk. Hasina, for her pro-active policy to counter terrorism.  This has helped India in countering Pakistan sponsored terrorism from Bangladesh’s soil.  It cannot be denied, but applauded that Sk. Hasina’s foreign policy is not partisan.  Each side has pursued its own foreign policy interests without coming into conflict.  This is an ideal bilateral relations formula which neither seeks interference nor alliances.

On the horizon is a huge opportunity for India and Bangladesh to create a new broad band of economic and trade corridor from Central Asia to the outreaches of South East Asia.  If Dhaka agrees to give the land corridor to India through Bangladesh to North East India, it would accelerate Nepal and Bhutan trade not only through Chittagong and Mongla ports of Bangladesh but even to north-east India.  This, indeed can be merged with the already existing BIMSTEC, and revive the December 2000 Ganga-Mekong Cooperation (GMC) to promote trade and cultural   relation   between   India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. If Pakistan cooperates, this corridor can be extended through Pakistan to Afghanistan and then to Central Asia.  This will not be a revival of a “silk road” but a Asian Broad Band of trade, tourism, cultural exchanges and shared development.

The jewel in the crown will be Bangladesh, as it will be the natural hub, given its well located sea ports.  The question is of vision.  If narrow interest, which have no future, dominates, such a vision will never materialize.  But a workable start can be envisaged.

We are not only looking at a new India-Bangladesh start, but one which has a huge future.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka, if really successful holds up a great new sugar cone.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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