Sunday, January 30, 2005

BANGLADESH: SAARC drifting on undercurrent of tension

+ Bangladeshi newspapers published reports from their Kolkata correspondents
that demands to punish Bangladesh were voiced by Indian speakers and some
Bangladeshi expatriate non-Muslim delegates in an 'international' conference
attended by a French journalist and briefly by Taslima Nasreen, the
self-exiled Bangladeshi writer. The demands included economic blockade of
Bangladesh by India, other (military?) forms of Indian pressure to be
brought upon Bangladesh to accommodate 'two crore' fugitives of Bangladeshi
origin in India in a chunk of territory to be ceded for that purpose. The
coincidence of the three-pronged propaganda drives must be deliberate. +

28/01/2005
SAARC drifting on undercurrent of tension
Sadeq Khan

The thirteenth SAARC summit begins in right earnest after the next weekend
in Dhaka. The trumpeted exuberance of the SAARC spirit, however, is giving
way to sombre reflection, or 'soul-searching', as some newsmen noted from
the remarks of Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan. That change of mood is not
just because of the tsunami
disaster that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of people
in
three of the seven SAARC nations. That effectively displaced the SAARC
summit as
well.

Our Foreign Minister described the outlook of the rescheduled summit as
follows:
'Two decades have already passed and SAARC will step into the third decade
with the
Dhaka summit. Now we should start delivering the fruits of SAARC to the
doorsteps of
the common people.

'We should be business-oriented and put our heads together for
implementation of the
commitments made by the member-countries for the cause of the betterment of
the
common people in the region, rather than merely adopting a declaration.

'We must find out how we can reduce the present level of poverty to half
within 2015
in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals, how to improve the
standard of our
goods for more trade, how to harmonise our customs and avoid double taxation
among
SAARC member-states.'

These are modest and achievable socio-economic goals, particularly after the
landmark agreement on differential terms of SAFTA that was signed in the
outgoing
round of the SAARC process under the chairmanship of Pakistan. Bangladesh
takes over
from Pakistan the chair for the next round of the SAARC process from this
summit.
All the indications are that we are in for a rough ride ahead. Even the
agreed pace
of SAFTA implementation has already slowed down. Only two of the four
subsidiary
agreements for SAFTA implementation are ready to be signed in the coming
summit. The
first one to be signed relates to promotion and protection of capital
investment
within the SAARC region. The second one is for mutual cooperation of SAARC
nations
in fiscal administration. But no one can tell when the relevant expert
committees
will be able to finalise the other two agreements, one on the establishment
of a
SAARC Arbitration Authority and the other on a mechanism to avoid double
taxation.

Meanwhile, the engine of bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan,
and also
that of negotiations between India and Bangladesh, are both failing to pick
up
steam. Stalled civil war conditions in Sri Lanka as well as in Nepal have
left them
largely incapacitated, in the former case further dispirited by the tsunami
disaster. The
Maldives is still reeling from the tsunami. Other than on trade issues,
Pakistan
appears to be getting nowhere in its agenda of bilateral talks with India.
Apart
from the Kashmir dispute, it has now developed another serious difference
with India
over structural intervention and diversion of flows from a Sindh tributary
upstream.
Bilateral talks between Bangladesh and India on the water-sharing issue of
Teesta
and other common rivers are floundering too. In addition, India's
mega-project of
river-linking for a national water-grid to supply western and southern arid
zones
from eastern Himalayan rivers hangs as a Damocles? sword over the head of
Bangladesh.

On the matter of implementation of the Indira-Mujib pact for border
delineation and
return of enclaves, a long wait of thirty years has yielded nothing yet for
Bangladesh. The issue of South Talpatti and marine boundary determination
between
India and Bangladesh has still not been addressed. And at the delineated
borders,
the Indian Border Security Force sentries from watch-towers or from behind
the
barbed
wire fence are often shooting and killing frontier inhabitants of Bangladesh
like
game-birds in the name of deterring illegal cross-border traffic. On top of
that,
sporadic attempts to push in Bangla-speaking Indian residents into
Bangladesh
surreptitiously have been resumed by the BSF as a regular practice of late.
Indeed,
it is only in trade relations that Bangladesh is getting some satisfaction
from
India by patient and protracted negotiations.

Of the seven SAARC countries, Bhutan is the only country, locked as it is
within
land boundaries and currency regime controlled by India, that remains happy
in
mountainous seclusion with its very thin population and ample resources. It
is no
wonder that India, as the core country of the SAARC region and as an
aspirant for
high status
as a power centre in the evolving multi-polar world of tomorrow, will have
its own
peculiar game to play in the SAARC process. But a wary perception is dawning
on its
neighbours that perhaps that game will be played in hostile superiority
rather than
in benign cooperation. India seems to have a game plan that may degrade if
not
destabilise the smaller nation-states of South Asia by covert and overt
exercise
of Indian might in military, economic and mind-invasion sectors.

Covert signals for Bangladesh are even more ominous. Psychological warfare
waged
against Bangladesh in the world media to brand it as a 'cocoon' of Islamic
terror,
appears to have been on hold over the last few months in anticipation of the
SAARC
summit camaraderie. It has been resumed with a bang ahead of the rescheduled
Dhaka
summit. Bangladesh has been stained with a question mark for harbouring what
in
media hype has become the 'Bangla Bhai' scare from Jagrata Janata's
activity, as the
cradle for 'the next Islamic revolution' in a craftily assembled
dissertation by New
Yorker Elija Grisold. Containing a string of hackneyed old stories of
misinformation
and
disinformation and disproved allegations, the article was published in the
Sunday
Magazine of the New York Times on January 23, and circulated worldwide by
the Press
Trust of India under the title 'Fundamentalist groups gain strength in
Bangladesh'.
It was also put on the website by the Indian network New Kerala under the
title
'Bangladesh fast becoming a Talibanised state'. In Pakistan, a newspaper
called
Daily Times quoted the story to suggest that 'a former Bangladeshi Taliban
militant
is out to transform Bangladesh into a Taliban state'.

In Bangladesh, daily Prothom Alo reproduced the whole article under a front
page
spread in its January 25 issue. Amongst the many questionable 'expert'
opinions
quoted, the article also refers to confidential reports of the Indian Secret
Service. The government of Bangladesh in a verbal rejoinder on January 25
termed the
article
'unfortunate, one-sided and politically motivated', since Bangladesh is
known for
its long history of 'democratic' spirit and religious 'tolerance'. The
picture of
religious 'zeal' leading to violent conflicts in one village is but an
isolated
case, 'one in some ninety thousand villages'.

A number of Bangladeshi newspapers on the same day orchestrated a story of
what
local police say was possibly a violent conflict over material interests
coloured as
a political confrontation in the same village. It has resulted, according to
the
police, in the unsubstantiated complaint of an attempt on the life of a
Union
Council chairman, the death of one of his associates by gunfire, and the
death by
beating of three Jagrata Janata activists in the hands of his supporters. A
large
crowd of Jagrata Janata supporters in the village gathered thereafter to
pelt the
police with brickbats for 'inaction' in prosecuting the killers of the three
Jagrata
Janata men. The police in turn arrested and prosecuted sixty-six of them
under
Sections 143/353/332 and 34 of CrPc for breach of order.

On the same day, Bangladeshi newspapers published reports from their Kolkata
correspondents that demands to punish Bangladesh were voiced by Indian
speakers and
some Bangladeshi expatriate non-Muslim delegates in an 'international'
conference
attended by a French journalist and briefly by Taslima Nasreen, the
self-exiled
Bangladeshi writer. The demands included economic blockade of Bangladesh by
India,
other (military?) forms of Indian pressure to be brought upon Bangladesh to
accommodate 'two crore' fugitives of Bangladeshi origin in India in a chunk
of
territory to be ceded for that purpose. The coincidence of the three-pronged
propaganda drives must be deliberate.

Personally I had an unsettling experience due to the undercurrent of tension
in
Indo-Bangla relations. In the third week of January, I was invited to an
Indo-Bangladesh dialogue for what was projected in the media as
'second-track
diplomacy' sponsored by the Centre for Policy Dialogue and financed by the
Ford
Foundation. My wife on her own decided to have a tourist trip to North-west
India
and we planned to spend Eid-ul-Azha holidays together in New Delhi after the
conference. I applied for my visa on January 13, as the validity of my
earlier visa
to visit Delhi for the same purpose had expired. My agent was told that
three days
would be required for clearance of the visa as my profession was given as
'journalism'. On the 16th, the clearance did not come. My wife left for
India on the
17th, as did other delegates to the conference in Delhi. The sponsors
changed my
ticket to travel on the following day as they said the High Commission
officials had
assured them that clearance would be expedited. Professor Rehman Sobhan, the
principal sponsor, phoned me from Delhi for two consecutive days and told me
that
the matter had been taken up at the top level of the Indian Foreign Office,
and I
need not worry about the visa.

On the morning of the 19th however, he phoned me to say that the labyrinth
of India
bureaucracy had frustrated all his attempts to get me to Delhi even for the
concluding session of the dialogue the next day, but he was kind enough to
add that
the ticket his office had provided would remain at my disposal if I would
avail
myself of it later to meet my wife in Delhi. But as I was preparing to go
myself
for the visa to the India High Commission, which I thought was being
delayed, not
denied, my attention was drawn in the Press Club to a report dated January
18
despatched by BSS in Delhi and published in several dailies in Dhaka on
January 19.
It said: Senior Bangladeshi columnist and chairman of the Press Institute of
Bangladesh (PIB), Sadeq Khan, has been denied Indian visa, Indian External
Affairs
Ministry spokesman Navej Sama said today while replying to questions during
a news
briefing.

Asked whether Khan was denied visa as reported by the Bangladesh press, Sama
said
that Sadeq Khan had been denied a visa. When asked the reason, Sama would
say
nothing more than 'his antecedents are not good'.

Sadeq Khan, who was scheduled to take part in the ongoing talks here between
the two
neighbouring countries titled 'Indo-Bangladesh Dialogue,' could not go to
attend it.

The dialogue, hosted by the India International Centre (ICC), remained
closed to the
press apart from the concluding session set for tomorrow. Sama also said
that India
was in favour of 'free movement of journalists in the neighbouring countries
including Bangladesh'. He said, 'Bangladesh has been denying visas to Indian
journalists. Very recently some very senior Indian journalists have been
denied
Bangladeshi visas.'

Before the publication of the above despatch, no news had in fact appeared
in the
Bangladesh press at all about the delay or denial of my visa application by
the
Indian High Commission, whose officials were correct and polite in their
dealings.
Being a septuagenarian veteran who had participated in the language movement
and the
Liberation War and the democracy movement against the Ershad regime, apart
from my
journalistic and cultural involvement, I remain proud of my antecedents,
unruffled
by the black mark publicly given me by the Indian Foreign Office spokesman.
The
Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, on its part, dismissed the comments of the
Indian
Foreign office spokesman, terming them 'sweeping and regrettable'. Foreign
ministry
records show that some 200 Indian journalists visited Bangladesh in 2004 and
116 in
2003. This year, the foreign ministry has already received 82 applications
from
Indian journalists wishing to cover the upcoming 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka
during
February 6-7.

Dhaka, however, has not yet received the particulars of the 40 Indian
journalists
scheduled to accompany Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Let us hope the matter will end there.

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