Wednesday, February 23, 2005

BANGLADESH:Why can't India get along with BNP government?

One simple question is: Why do Indo-Bangladesh relations come to a level of mutual suspicion when both governments have been elected by their people? The simple answer appears to be "lack of trust" by New Delhi with Dhaka that constitutes one of the major psychological barriers to cooperative and mutually supportive relations.

Why can't India get along with BNP government?
Harun ur Rashid

The Bangladesh government feels that India has let her down in postponing the 13th Saarc Summit at the last minute when every preparations including security for the summit was on a high gear. On the other hand, on February 14, India's Foreign Secretary defended his government decision in an address at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

India's Foreign Secretary in his address underscored the fact, "If the creative energies of over 1.3 billion people were pooled together, what heights could we not achieve? Let us make a new compact therefore among the countries of South Asia."

The vision is no doubt noble and achievable but the difficulty is that India does not practice what it preaches. It seems it is good to preach sermons to others (it does in the UN as well) but is very poor in practice, although (to quote Foreign Secretary's words), "India is fully aware that its destiny is inseparable from what happens in its neighbourhood."

The important thing is how neighbouring countries perceive the largest country in South Asia and not what it considers it to be. The perception is that India uses neighbouring countries for either its strategic or economic purposes only. There are more dimensions of relations than those that need to be emphasized and reinforced.

The vision of India's Foreign Secretary appears to be contrary to what exists on the ground at the governmental levels with Bangladesh. The Gujral Doctrine is never to be seen in action and strict reciprocity is the mantra of the Indian government's policy, when it could be, in some cases, counter-productive to cooperative relationship with neighbouring countries.

In early February 1972, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, after meeting with India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in New Delhi, issued a statement: "Bangladesh and India would live in eternal friendship as brothers." It was commitment of deep friendship and good neighbourliness.

The vision of Sheikh Mujib was not realised even during his lifetime. By 1975, he was finding it hard to get his message of friendship and cooperation understood by Indian leaders. He was deeply disappointed that the operation of the Farakka Barrage under the guise of "test-run" of feeder canal, took place in April, 1975, without allocation of water of the Ganges during the dry months (January to May) to Bangladesh, contrary to the Mujib-Indira Joint Declaration of 1974.

It seems that from1975 to 1996, India was being difficult in bilateral negotiations in resolving issues with Bangladesh except the conclusion of the 1977 Ganges Water Agreement under the Desai Janata government in the late 70s.

During Sheikh Hasina's government (1996-2001), one landmark agreement, the Ganges Water Treaty, was concluded with India and with the support of India, the 1997 Peace Agreement with the Tribal Representatives in Chittagong Hill Tracts was inked. The conclusion of both agreements has demonstrated that if India is willing to play a fair game with a neighbour, it can be done in no short time.

The current BNP-led coalition government seems to be unlucky on that score. The earlier Vajpayee and the present Singh government have failed to build a kind of relationship that is mutually supportive and beneficial to each other during the last three years of the current Bangladesh government.

One of the signs of non-cooperative state of relations is that none of the major outstanding issues, such as ratification of the 1974 Mujib-Indira Border Agreement, maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal, sharing of water of common/trans-boundary rivers in terms of the 1996 the Ganges Water Treaty, and huge trade deficit for Bangladesh, have been resolved. Moreover accusations of harbouring insurgents from the northeastern states of India in Bangladesh's border areas has continued to be made.

Furthermore, India's proposed mega river-linking project of the Himalayan rivers of the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Meghna has caused serious concerns in Bangladesh. Over and above, Indian Prime Minister's unwillingness to attend the Saarc Summit in Dhaka on grounds of "security" after the fatal attack on the former finance minister and Awami League leader and MP seems to have brought bilateral relation to a new low point.

One simple question is: Why do Indo-Bangladesh relations come to a level of mutual suspicion when both governments have been elected by their people? The simple answer appears to be "lack of trust" by New Delhi with Dhaka that constitutes one of the major psychological barriers to cooperative and mutually supportive relations.

I would argue that there are certain factors that are pushing Indian government to be non-cooperative with the BNP-led government. Some of them deserve mention below.

First, India perceives that BNP was not born as a traditional political party. The party was created in military cantonment, with largely retired military and civilian officials. Although it has now reached to grass roots level, the ideology of the party is not strictly secular. It was during the regime of President Zia, the founder of the party, that the principle of "secularism" was deleted from the Bangladesh Constitution. To many Indian leaders, Bangladesh Constitution has been "Islamised" under both the Zia and Ershad regimes.

Second, many leaders in India consider that Bangladesh under the current government has aligned itself with Islamic countries including its arch-rival with Pakistan. This does not bring comfort to India.

Third, during her first term of government in 1991, Prime Minister Begum Zia within a year coming to power paid an official visit to India and the purpose of the visit was to make it clear to Indian leaders that Bangladesh wanted dynamic and cooperative relations with India. What kind of response did Bangladesh get from India?

The answer lies in the words of a former India's Foreign Secretary and former High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Muchkund Dubey. His assessment was that, "The government of India did not take any initiative to deal effectively with any of the issues raised in the trip. The then Prime Minister did not pay the much expected return visit to Banglades … In this the larger share of the blame must be attributed to the bigger neighbour which is endowed with greater capacity to act."

Fourth, the current coalition government in Dhaka is perceived as a right-wing government, insensitive to the needs and demands of religious minorities that constitute more than 12 per cent of the total population. It also ignores the demands of sectarian minorities and unnecessarily banned the publication of books of the Ahmadiyya sect.

Under the BNP-coalition government, it is perceived that rise of Islamic fundamentalism with violence is on the increase, threatening the otherwise secular, moderate and tolerant society in Bangladesh. One Indian journalist, Prem Shankar Jha, reportedly warned against the propagation in the country of "an intolerant Arabicised brand of Islam that was alien to Bangladesh's secular culture." India perceives that the coalition government has not done enough to keep off the extremists and hold culprits of violence to accountable.

Fifth, the report of the New York Times of January 23 by Eliza Griswold has confirmed India's fear of a possibility in future of "Taliban type" of Islamic regime in Bangladesh, although Dhaka termed the report baseless and motivated. Does the denial wash with India? It seems it does not.

Sixth, the BNP-led coalition government with Islamic parties appears to have a negative impact on Indian government. Ex-Foreign Secretary Dubey has expressed the view that "Many in India are concerned that with the accession to power, the Islamic component of Bangladeshi nationalism would acquire higher salience which would not only adversely affect bilateral relations but might also pose problems for India's own pluralistic society ... It is feared that the government would work assiduously for imparting a more pronounced Islamic orientation to the Bangladesh society and polity."

Seventh, there is a section among Indian leaders who doubt the democratic credentials of many BNP leaders. Furthermore Parliament has become a "rubber-stamp" to government policies and the main opposition has been boycotting the Parliament on grounds of undemocratic behaviour of the coalition government. Even the former President and the former Secretary General of BNP has created a new political party and criticized publicly the undemocratic activities of the BNP government.

Furthermore, there is a strong view that the democratic right of a Member of Parliament has been undermined by Article 70 of the Constitution that states, among others, that a Member of Parliament is bound to resign if he/she "votes in Parliament against that party." A Member of Parliament cannot even abstain from voting if he/she is present in Parliament. This provision has been incorporated in the Constitution in 1991 by the first term of the government of the BNP.

Eighth, there is a perception in India that BNP-led coalition government has been reluctant to provide India transit through Bangladesh to its northeastern states (in the words of India's Foreign Secretary, "Severed transport and communication linkages among member countries") The expert committee to look into this matter instituted by the Hasina government has not been revived.

Furthermore, gas export to India from Bangladesh has not been an active agenda of the government. Moreover the export of gas through pipeline from Myanmar to India through Bangladesh is conditional upon India granting transit right to Bangladesh to get access to the hydro-electricity of Nepal and Bhutan using India's power grid, a trade corridor to the Himalayan kingdoms through India and reduction of trade deficit with Bangladesh.

Finally, cynics in Bangladesh believe that India probably does not wish to resolve the outstanding issues with the BNP-led coalition government because it will provide much credit to the BNP government with the result that the mainstream opposition party Awami League may be put into disadvantage at the coming election.


India's Foreign Secretary's policy statement on South Asia and India's neighbours reflects the stereotyped attitude of "India can do no wrong," blaming everything on some neighbours for all the ills of South Asia's cohesion and cooperation. It is regrettable to be a jaundiced view of South Asian political and economic environment.

The unwillingness of India's Prime Minister to visit Dhaka for the summit appears to point to the stiffening of the attitude of the Singh government towards the current Bangladesh government. Furthermore, India has to realize that it gains much from a peaceful, friendly, and harmonious relationship with Bangladesh. Given the right spirit and desire to live together in peace and harmony, there is no adequate reason why Indo-Bangladesh relations should go wrong.

Strained relations with India may have two far-reaching consequences. One is that Bangladesh may consider seriously looking eastwards and eventually may form a cooperative institutional relationship with Myanmar, Thailand, and China (road link between Bangladesh and Myanmar is to begin soon). The other is to push Bangladesh in the long run into the lap of Islamic extremists. And that could boomerang against India itself.

What is needed is to recognize that friendly relation with the Bangladesh government is valuable for peace and cooperation. Or is India waiting for a new government in Bangladesh in 2006? That would be a misreading of the situation because Awami League is expected to fiercely pursue Bangladesh's national interests as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.