Monday, October 18, 2004

Bangladesh: The Millstone and Milestones in relations with India


Indian views of 1971 have been flawed and influenced by emotions and coloured by its relations with Pakistan, instead of the reality of East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many Indians saw 1971 as the end of the two-nation theory, anathema to Indians, whereas for many Bangladeshis it was freedom from Pakistani misrule and in some ways the restoration of the spirit of the Lahore Resolution.Indian insensitivity extended to downplaying the role of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters and people at large, without whose contribution the demoralised Pakistan army could not be expected to collapse so rapidly. The compliment has been returned by Bangladesh in consciously erasing from memory the enormous risks taken by the Indian leadership in coming to their assistance at the time and the considerable sacrifices made. Despite the occasional expression of goodwill, relations between official India and official Bangladesh have not lived up to their potential. The mutual trust and confidence, that must form the basis of lasting and meaningful co-operation, has not been evident for much of the past three decades or more since Bangladesh emerged as an independent country. The perceptions of each about the other have been wanting in substance.
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Indo-Bangladesh relations

Despite the occasional expression of goodwill, relations between official India and official Bangladesh have not lived up to their potential, writes Deb Mukharji

Relations between nations have many facets and dimensions, and this is particularly true in relations between neighbours. We tend usually to focus on state-to-state relations to the virtual exclusion of interactions that exist at other levels between peoples and institutions that may be qualitatively different. Thus the decades of close Indo-Soviet relations were only sparsely reflected in interactions between their peoples, notwithstanding the feeling of warmth. The converse was true in the case of the United States.

It is, however, relations between states that gain primacy in our perceptions. And this also explains why states, which wish to thrust the government’s point of view on its people, are reluctant to permit cultural and media interaction or the movement of people through restrictive visa regimes and so on. This duality needs to be borne in mind when we talk of Indo-Bangladesh relations.

Despite the occasional expression of goodwill, relations between official India and official Bangladesh have not lived up to their potential. The mutual trust and confidence, that must form the basis of lasting and meaningful co-operation, has not been evident for much of the past three decades or more since Bangladesh emerged as an independent country. The perceptions of each about the other have been wanting in substance.

While the disparity in size, both permanent geographical and demographic features, may be expected to weigh on the Bangladeshi mind, there was scarce justification for this to be translated into a quasi-permanent state of suspicion about Indian motives or included permanently in the political vocabulary. Indian views about Bangladesh, on the other hand, have been often limited by its understanding of the processes leading up to, and the events of, 1971 which led to the emergence of Bangladesh.

Indian views of 1971 have been flawed and influenced by emotions and coloured by its relations with Pakistan, instead of the reality of East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many Indians saw 1971 as the end of the two-nation theory, anathema to Indians, whereas for many Bangladeshis it was freedom from Pakistani misrule and in some ways the restoration of the spirit of the Lahore Resolution.

Indian insensitivity extended to downplaying the role of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters and people at large, without whose contribution the demoralised Pakistan army could not be expected to collapse so rapidly. The compliment has been returned by Bangladesh in consciously erasing from memory the enormous risks taken by the Indian leadership in coming to their assistance at the time and the considerable sacrifices made.

If this is seen only as history long past with little relevance today, it is past history that influences the state of Bangladesh polity and politics, not merely the differences between individual political leaders as surmised by some. It is the internal debate in Bangladesh on whether ‘47 or ‘71 should be the primary determinant of the ethos of the state that substantially influences her views on relations with India. Which, however, is not the best of reasons for not seeking to understand our neighbour better.

It is natural for states to see external events in terms of their influence on itself. But if these events are important enough then there is all the more reason for greater understanding. It is thus unfortunate that the growth of orthodox Islam, as well as what is termed fundamentalism these days, in Bangladesh, should be so depicted as to imply that these characteristics are uniformly prevalent among Bangladeshi Muslims.

The phenomena are then interpreted facilely as a threat to the welfare and stability of India alone, thus ignoring the serious concerns in this regard among large sections of Muslims in Bangladesh, as mirrored by the anguish of many Hindus in India with regard to trends here, notably exemplified by Gujarat. And while observing the growth of orthodoxy in Bangladesh, we seem not to notice the strides made by women’s movements there or the increasing hold of orthodoxy on Muslim women in several parts of India.

Merely demonising the ‘other’ serves less than useful purpose, particularly when dealing with neighbours. The tendency in Bangladesh to ascribe to India primary responsibility for highlighting negative internal developments also falls in this category, seeking to transfer attention from harsh ground realities and grave international concerns.

Relations and understanding are further confounded when there are suggestions of a pro-active Indian policy vis-a-vis errant neighbours, admittedly and fortunately not emanating from the Government. Besides the fact that the State in India has been unable to deal with a mere bandit holding two southern states to ransom, a questionable track record in dealing with problems in the North-East, and the past experience of the adventure in Sri Lanka, such suggestions are also unmindful of the negative reactions they are likely to spark in the countries concerned. Nor do they reflect understanding of the consequences of Hobbesian arrogance in the 21st century as we see unfolding in the Middle East.

It has become routine to refer to ‘major unresolved issues’ between India and Bangladesh. The formulation was initiated by Bangladesh for its own political reasons, but seems now to be repeated by Indians as well, with neither country demonstrating the application necessary for their resolution. It would be unusual for two neighbouring countries not to have bilateral problems requiring resolution, but raising the decibel level, as has been customary with the media, and now unfortunately also by the Foreign Office in Dhaka, does not contribute to solutions.

There are no insoluble problems between the two countries; certainly none that engagement, goodwill and statesmanship cannot resolve. The question of the maritime boundary, dormant now for years, will require attention if it is not to acquire major dimensions should oil be found off-shore in the area. The Land Boundary Agreement remains to be implemented even after the passage of thirty years, neither government demonstrating either alacrity or concern for the welfare of the inhabitants in the enclaves imbedded in both. India’s handling of the Teen Bigha question has left much to be desired.

The major irritants

It has been India’s contention for decades now that there is continuing illegal migration from Bangladesh. This has been usually met by a blanket denial by Bangladesh, writes Deb Mukharji

The chief concerns of the two countries may be summarised as follows. Bangladesh has been stressing the need for easier market access to India to narrow the present substantial trade deficit. There is merit in the argument and one could hope that a bilateral Free Trade Agreement. weighed in favour of Bangladesh. would reduce the deficit. It would also, hopefully, attract international, including Indian, investment in Bangladesh with an eye on the Indian market, much also depending on the level of confidence that the internal situation in Bangladesh may inspire. Any increase in the prosperity of Bangladesh is. ipso facto, beneficial to India. One cannot but observe here the relatively muted response of Bangladesh to the substantial trade deficit with China, and the wide margin in Dhaka’s response to the two deficits.

A perennial source of concern to Dhaka is the flow of river waters. As a lower riparian delta where the lives, economy and ecology of the land and the people are inextricably linked to the how of the rivers, Bangladesh must observe with great anxiety and keenness any upstream developments. The absence of any binding international formula to regulate the flow of rivers makes it all the more difficult to arrive at solutions and sterile discussions among experts on possible alternatives may continue endlessly, as it did for years on the question of Ganga waters. It could, however, be stated that if India does not have any untrammelled right to the use of water upstream, neither can Bangladesh expect traditional flows indefinitely, given the large Indian population which has to be serviced.

India’s publicised plans for the linking of rivers without any prior consultations with Bangladesh, even if it were not to affect the lower riparian as claimed, was not conducive to building mutual confidence. Dhaka’s public charges, even at high levels of government, that deliberately opening the sluice gates of the Farakka barrage (emphasis intended) causes floods in Bangladesh, must cast doubts on the seriousness with which these issues are understood or addressed.

The question of river waters is likely to be an issue of the future requiring the greatest patience, understanding and vision, for the demands of the peoples of the two countries on a scarce resource would be genuine. The future may well lie in comprehensive engagement of all the countries involved, including Nepal and China.

It has been India’s contention for decades now that there is continuing illegal migration from Bangladesh. This has been usually met by a blanket denial by Bangladesh. Such migration, which may also include the seasonal, is well known and established, though it may not be the policy of Dhaka to encourage it. It is no less well known that Indian political parties have, in the past, chosen to look the other way for their own reasons, and the large dimensions of the problem has been understood only perhaps in the past dozen years or so.

Even recently, the approach in India to illegal migration has seemed to be clothed more in political expediency than clear purpose. Any visitor to the border would have no difficulty in observing the ease with which people can move across. It may be assumed that the illegal migrants would be fulfilling some economic needs in the country of their destination, as happens elsewhere in the world.

In the current structure of inter-state relationships in South Asia, India has no particular reason to offer them citizenship. If the problem is approached on this basis, an answer could lie in work permits, an idea occasionally mooted, but not pursued. The issue does have the potential fur impacting on Indo-Bangladesh relations in the future.

India is presently granted transit through select riverine routes in Bangladesh for access to Assam. The facilities available today are less than those during Pakistan days prior to 1965. Her request for transit facilities by rail and road has been awaiting a decision by Dhaka for a long time. The issue has long since become quite clearly politicised and India may have to consider investing further in alternatives, given also separate indications of Dhaka’s attitude and approach to north-eastern India. The question of Indian insurgent groups finding sanctuary in Bangladesh has been raised by Delhi with Dhaka for many years. Such sanctuary has been denied by Bangladesh that has, in turn, raised the issue of Bangladeshi criminals finding refuge in India and of groups operating in West Bengal seeking to excise parts of Bangladesh. Interactions on these issues have been marked by absence of mutual confidence. It is entirely possible that criminals flee across the border as convenient and the two governments should co-operate in a transparent manner.

Given the porosity of the border in general, and the nature of the terrain adjoining Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya, it may not be physically feasible for either government to ensure that insurgent groups do not filter across. What is important is that there must be no scope for any suggestion of state complicity for such activity. In a period when international attention is focussed on terrorism, the question acquires perhaps more than bilateral significance.

Any discussion of Indo-Bangladesh relations today cannot but take note of the comments made recently at a gathering of Bangladeshi and Indian journalists in Dhaka. The substance of what was said is not so important, as these views have been expressed in Bangladesh in various forms over the years. as the fact of their enunciation by a senior member of the government.

Particularly disquieting was the allusion to India taking heed of the North-East being Bangladesh locked as Bangladesh is India locked. The latter comment showed a deeply defensive distrust of the neighbour while the reference to the North-East, seen in the context of declining transit to make the region a captive market for Bangladesh and past promises of support to the “freedom fighters” there, cannot be expected to increase Delhi’s levels of trust and confidence.

But if the ledger does not balance favourably as far as state to state relations are concerned, due note also has to be taken of the half million Bangladeshis who travel annually to India with visas for business, pleasure, education or medical treatment. Away from the attention of the media, interactions are taking place in numerous fields including culture and co-operation in the private sector. It would be useful if these activities find some reflection in the media’s coverage of Bangladesh to permit a more balanced and composite view.

Concluded

The writer, a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, presented the paper at a recent SAFMA conference in New Delhi

News Today 18/10/2004