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Blame thy neighbour: perspectives on Indo-Bangladesh relations

MBI Munshi

Apr 8, 2007
United Kingdom
As bitter historical memories, geographical exigencies, political advantage and shifting global politics have adversely affected Indo-Bangladesh ties, so has the inept big brotherly attitude of India towards its smaller neighbours. There is no harm in hoping against hope that India is going to learn that poor relations with its immediate neighbours would never allow India to emerge as a superpower, writes Taj Hashmi

INDIA has never been in good terms with its immediate neighbours except Maldives. The Indo-Bangladesh ties have always been strenuous due to various factors. Although immediately after the emergence of Bangladesh—with direct Indian help and military intervention—the Bangladesh government officially portrayed India as Bangladesh’s Bandhu Rashtra or ‘friendly state’, most Bangladeshis were not enthused about the short- and long-term prospects of having the mighty India as a neighbour. To them, India was not a benign neighbour but a hegemonic and expansionist power, determined to turn their country into a subservient ally and a market or, even worse, into a protectorate.

Ever since the 1975 military takeover in Bangladesh, the government and people in India have serious misgivings about their Muslim-majority neighbour in the east. India not only considers the country a source of illegal immigrants but also as one in league with Pakistan, allegedly a promoter of Islamist terror and a sanctuary for ethno-national separatists in India’s northeast. Then again, contrary to Manmohan Singh’s belief that around twenty-five per cent of Bangladeshis who are anti-Indian belongs to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, thanks to Indian hegemonic behaviour towards Bangladesh, much more than twenty-five per cent of the Muslim population in the country are avowedly anti-Indian and they do not necessarily only belong to certain Islamist parties as they do not represent more than five per cent popular support in the country.

Let us look at the historical roots of the problem as to why India and Bangladesh behave to each other as they have been since months after the emergence of Bangladesh. Historically, it is not correct to assume that Bangladesh came into being due to the bulk of the East Bengali Muslims’ quest for a secular Bengali identity; and that its emergence in 1971 signalled the departure of their Muslim identity, nourished and nurtured for at least a hundred years before the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. There is no reason to assume that East Bengali Muslims, who played the most important role in the creation of Pakistan, all of a sudden discarded anti-Hindu communalism (main sustainer of and rationale for Pakistan) and joined the bandwagon of the so-called secular Bengali nationalism. East Pakistan’s transformation into Bangladesh was not inevitable. Pakistani military crackdown leading to an indiscriminate killing of Bengalis in East Pakistan and Indian intervention played the vital roles in the creation of the country. Most importantly, for the bulk of Bangladeshis (Muslims), 1971 just transformed their political not religious identity. They were/are still predisposed to anti-Indian (anti-Hindu) communal propaganda.

While the Bangladeshi Muslim psyche was still vulnerable to communal/anti-Indian mobilisation, Indian highhandedness and inept foreign and trade policies towards Bangladesh, especially its dumping of substandard goods into Bangladesh and coercing the latter into signing a ‘friendship treaty’ (on unequal terms) with India in 1972 to last twenty-five years, alienated many Bangladeshis. Meanwhile, by early 1972 supporters of Islam-oriented political parties that remained proscribed in Bangladesh for more than three years up to the military takeover in 1975 for collaborating with the Pakistani occupation army in 1971, pro-Chinese leftists and others having strong reservations about India joined the anti-Indian camp under Maulana Bhashani. After the bloody overthrow of the Mujib government in 1975 (people generally considered the regime pro-Indian), anti-Indian movement got further momentum due to various factors. Ever since 1975, lots of contentious issues between the two countries have further embittered the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. India’s harbouring, arming and training pro-Mujib militants under Kader Siddiki who continued attacking Bangladeshi border outposts in 1975-1976 and the Chakma insurgents (Shanti Bahini) for two decades up to 1996; and Bangladesh’s providing sanctuary to ULFA rebels for years, allegedly in collaboration with the ISI, may be mentioned in this regard. Last but not least, India’s unilateral decision to activate the Farakka Barrage across the Ganges—to the detriment of Bangladesh—has been the last straw.

Consequently, very contentious issues like India’s withdrawing water from the upstream of the Ganges in the north of the Farakka Barrage and the proposed Tipaimukh Barrage have remained the main bones of contention between the two countries. While Farakka has turned parts of north-western Bangladesh very arid and infertile, the proposed Tipaimukh Barrage on the Barak, would adversely affect agriculture, and create environmental and navigational problems for more than thirty million people in north-eastern Bangladesh. Again, ignoring Bangladesh’s demand, India has not stopped unilateral withdrawal of water from the upstream of the Teesta Barrage of Bangladesh in northern Bangladesh, which has posed a serious threat to agriculture in greater Rangpur district of Bangladesh.

While water is a very big issue between the two neighbours, which is likely to aggravate further in the coming years as India will need more water for its dry and populous state of West Bengal, the lack of mutual trust, and most importantly, the lack of resolve to resolve the problem on both sides, are the stumbling blocks towards bringing the two countries closer to each other. The perpetual sense of deprivation and helplessness on part of Bangladesh vis-à-vis Indian highhandedness will not do any good to the parties. Tense Indo-Bangladesh relationship is at the roots of many transnational security problems in the sub-region.

There are several bilateral, sub-regional and global issues hindering the onset of normal relationship between the two neighbours. The bilateral issues include border security, boundary demarcation, trade, and transit rights, water management, travel and tourism. During the recent visit of Indian foreign minister SM Krishna to Bangladesh, two accords were signed between the two countries. One was on the transit rights to Bhutanese vehicles to Bangladeshi ports through India; and the other one was on the ratification of the Indo-Bangladesh agreement on promotion and protection of investments. As Indian Border Security Force’s shooting down dozens of Bangladeshi intruders into India in the recent past enraged Bangladesh, Krishna assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that in the future India would not shoot at Bangladeshi intruders and would only use ‘non-lethal weapons’ to deal with border intruders from Bangladesh. What is noteworthy that neither the Hasina-Manmohan memorandum of understanding in 2010 nor the Krishna-Dipu Moni agreement in 2011 has resolved the more pressing issues dogging the Indo-Bangladesh relations besides the issue of granting transit rights to India through Bangladesh to the former’s north-eastern provinces.

As indicated at the beginning of this article, India is apprehensive of the influx of illegal immigrants, Islamist terrorists and Muslim protagonists of ‘Greater Bangladesh’ from Bangladesh to destabilise the northeast and West Bengal. Bangladesh is also worried about the long-term design of India-based Bengali Hindu extremists who want to carve out several south-western Bangladeshi districts to create the so-called Swadhin Bangabhumi (Free Bengali Land) to settle Hindu Bengali refugees (and their descendants) who left East Pakistan/Bangladesh for India during the last sixty-odd years. Many Bangladeshis are apprehensive of another unlikely event, Indian annexation of their country, very similar to what happened to Hyderabad, Kashmir, Goa and Sikkim, which could lead to the return of millions of Hindu Bengali refugees and their descendants to Bangladesh to reclaim their abandoned (or sold at nominal prices) and stolen properties from their present Bangladeshi Muslim owners. Bangladeshis also do not want to compete with the better-educated Hindu Indians in the not-so-competitive job market in Bangladesh, which they apprehend would be the outcome of an Indian annexation of their country.

In the backdrop of some of the major contentious issues between India and Bangladesh, which are by-products of historical, cultural, geographic and natural phenomena, there are several avoidable political factors as well. While it is time consuming to get rid of the historical hangover induced by the age-old communal antagonism between Hindus and Muslims and the bitter memories of the Partition on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border, it is also not that easy to convince India not to divert river waters to irrigate its arid lands in West Bengal. It is equally difficult to contain the outflow of the illegal immigrants from the border districts of Bangladesh where the land-man ratio is gradually becoming untenable for the sustenance of the landless poor. Then again, what is most unfortunate is the political use of both avoidable and unavoidable issues to the detriment of any Indo-Bangladesh understanding. Communally motivated politicians on both sides of the border make capital of the imaginary Hindu-Muslim fault-line. Thus, the BJP and members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar in India and their counterparts in Bangladesh, such as the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and their ilk, love to play the communal card or the Muslim and Hindu bogeymen for political leverage, respectively. It is quite surprising that some so-called ‘leftist/progressive’ leaders on both sides of the border also use the communal card for sheer political benefits.

As leaders and members of the civil society in India and Bangladesh fail to educate, enlighten and de-communalise people for the sake of better Hindu-Muslim understanding and good relationship between the two neighbours, some of them overtly or covertly promote agent provocateurs to tarnish the image of their neighbouring country out of political expediency and communal prejudice. The promotion of Taslima Nasrin and her controversial fiction Lajja by sections of the Indian politicians, media and intellectuals was simply counterproductive. Given the opportunity, their Bangladeshi counterparts would not shy out from promoting turncoats from India for political gains and communal gratification. Thus ‘blame thy neighbour’ has become an important component of the domestic and international politics of India and Bangladesh.

Last but not least, as the Cold War impacted the Indo-Bangladesh relations in the post-Mujib era up to the end of the Cold War (1975-1990)—Russia and the West (and its Arab allies) favoured India and Bangladesh, respectively—the emergence of the ‘Neo Cold War’ between America and China (and its clients in the Muslim World) is fast polarising the Muslim and the Western worlds. America’s promoting India as a bulwark against China—and against Pakistan in the long run—has direct bearings on the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. Hillary Clinton’s telling India on July 20 in Chennai ‘it’s time to lead’ and ‘exercise political influence to match its fast-growing economic muscle’ is not re-assuring for Bangladesh and Pakistan. America’s quest for a pro-Indian government in Bangladesh while India and Pakistan fight their proxy war over Kashmir (and river waters) in Afghanistan will further alienate the average Bangladeshis from both America and India. America’s and the Israeli Lobby’s not-so-hidden agenda to de-nuclearise Pakistan may be considered a catalyst in the new big game within and beyond Afghanistan. Thus, Bangladesh has become a not-so-insignificant pawn in this game and has also become a battlefield of the Indo-Pakistan proxy war. While Pakistan has been keen on promoting Bangladesh as a destabilising factor for India by its surreptitious support of Indian insurgents, Bangladesh under the ‘pro-Pakistani’ BNP-Jamaat coalition government responded favourably to Pakistan against India, the ‘common enemy’.

Although geopolitical factors and global politics (both during the so-called bipolar and unipolar worlds of the Cold War years and in its aftermath, respectively) and the Indian and Bangladeshi governments’ positions vis-à-vis the global alignments are important catalysts in Indo-Bangladesh relations, Indian intransigence and myopia have been mainly responsible for the prevalent less than warm relations between the two neighbours. India’s over-reliance on the Awami League to have a working relationship with Bangladesh is anything but myopic. The Awami League barely represents around forty per cent of popular support in Bangladesh while its archrival BNP, which is traditionally soft on Pakistan, represents another forty per cent of popular support. The Islamist and some left-oriented parties in Bangladesh are also avowedly anti-Indian. It appears that Manmohan Singh’s singling out the Jamaat-e-Islami as the only anti-Indian party in Bangladesh could be a politically expedient under-statement as he possibly deliberately avoided mentioning BNP in this regard, as it is potentially the next ruling party of Bangladesh.

In the backdrop of the prevalent mutual lack of trust and understanding between the two neighbours, quite surprisingly India and Bangladesh seem to have come closer to some understanding to resolve some of its age-old problems, including disputed border and water issues between the two countries. India has already promised to give duty-free access to some Bangladeshi products and the two neighbours are going steady towards finding a solution to the transit issue, which actually amounts to grant India a corridor to reach its hinterland in the northeast through Bangladesh. One is not sure if Bangladeshi road network is capable of handling thousands of Indian cargo vehicles passing through Bangladeshi territory every month. Bangladeshi people are also not aware of what their country would receive as transit-fee from their mighty neighbour. Meanwhile, the balloon of hope and expectations for a better deal from India for Bangladesh has already been pricked by India’s refusal to discuss the Teesta water sharing issue, as the Pashchim Banga chief minister is unwilling to share the river on a fifty-fifty basis with Bangladesh. In view of this disturbing development, one is not sure if Manmohan Singh’s visit will soothe Bangladesh, which has more than one reason to be annoyed with its powerful and not-so-trustworthy neighbour.

In sum, as bitter historical memories, geographical exigencies, political advantage and shifting global politics have adversely affected Indo-Bangladesh ties, so has the inept big brotherly attitude of India towards its smaller neighbours. There is no harm in hoping against hope that India is going to learn that poor relations with its immediate neighbours would never allow India to emerge as a superpower. Then again, as the Economist surmises, ‘India lacks any kind of vision’. Kuldip Nayar could be quite instructive in assessing that:

India needs to reflect on why all the neighbouring countries have distanced themselves from it. No doubt its size deters them. But more than that, their feeling is that New Delhi is becoming increasingly conscious of itself as an emerging world power. It tends to throw its weight about in such a manner that the neighbours are having doubts about its bona fides.

New Age | Newspaper

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