Bangladesh and India: The Road Ahead

I wrote yesterday about Sheikh Hasina's victory in Bangladesh and the possibilities it opens up. In some ways, as The Economist observed, with the burden of expectations on her shoulders, she is bound to disappoint. But, it is undeniable that this is a moment of opportunity, not just to rebuild Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region for a whole - to move towards a stable, peaceful future.

To make this happen, the key lever is Bangladesh's relationship with India. India is not just the largest country in the region, it is getting stronger economically and militarily, and has deep connections - through people, culture and history - with Bangladesh. It is Bangladesh's largest trading partner, and neighbour across the border on three sides of the country. All major rivers of Bangladesh, critical as they are for this agrarian economy, flow through India before entering Bangladesh territory.

India should also be Bangladesh's most trusted friend. It trained and armed Bangladesh's Liberation Army during its war against Pakistanis and finally, sent in its army to seal the victory. It helped the newly formed government with aid and advice. Yet, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries were never very close, and the tensions erupted from time to time, over the sharing of water resources, regarding border hamlets, on the use of Bangladeshi territory by Indian terrorist groups, regarding the continuous stream of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India, on unfair trading practises of Indian companies and very limited access to Indian markets for Bangladeshi companies, and a number of other issues.

These tensions were visible from day one, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the political leader of Awami League and the celebrated leader of Bangladesh Liberation Movement refusing to identify himself too closely with India. [It must be said, at this point while Mujib was the instigator-in-chief, he spent the period of liberation war in Pakistani Jail, leaving the political initiative to be taken by the Bangladesh Government in exile leaders such as Syed Nazrul Islam and Kamruzzman, and the military action on a number of liberation army commanders, including Major Ziaur Rahman, later President and the late Husband of the current leader of Bangladesh opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia]. Mujib's strategy did not work: primarily because most of his comrades were part of the Government in Exile, and was identified too closely with India. This, along with his own dictatorial ambitions [along with his ill-fated courtship with Soviet Russia, which alienated the Americans at the height of Cold War], brought about his downfall, when he, along with his entire family [except his two daughters], was assassinated. The governments that followed, including the one led by General Ziaur Rahman, adopted a somewhat ambiguous strategy towards India, avoiding direct confrontations, but refusing to cooperate with India on most things, and making overtures to India's strategic rival, China.

India helped in Bangladesh's war of liberation out of its own strategic imperative: it wanted to avoid being challenged by Pakistan on the East as well as the West, and the civil war started by the genocidal Pakistani Army and resultant stream of refugees were creating unbearable population pressure on Eastern India [Interestingly, this was India's official reason for intervention, but one that was never believed]. But, for the Bangladeshi leaders, who gratefully accepted help when it was offered, being an Indian client state was never the objective [as George Washington never wanted the United States to be a vassal of the Louis XVIth of France]. India, however, was somewhat insistent on its gift of gratitude - and expected the Bangladeshi governments to be in debt forever for liberating the country.

This flawed view has undermined the realism in Indian foreign policy towards Bangladesh for decades. Indian policy-makers often pre-assumed a sense of debt and gratitude on the Bangladeshi side and were later disappointed when this was not in evidence. Bangladesh was hardly consulted while the barrage on Ganges, Bangladesh's main river, was built in Farakka, and this remains a key dispute even to this day. I recall the outrage I have witnessed in Bangladesh when the country learned, mainly through newspapers, of an Indian government plan to link its major rivers and alter the courses of some of these. Obviously, the Indians did not feel it necessary to consult the Bangladeshis, though they would have been directly affected by such action.

Also, Indian governments effectively barred Bangladeshi businesses from Indian market even when India started courting foreign investment and tried to lift the tariff barriers on most of the goods. Bangladeshis, many of whom have family and friends in India, face more difficulty in acquiring an Indian visa than a citizen of Iraq or Afghanistan. The Indian Border Security Force [BSF] often fought pitched gun-battles with Bangladesh Rifles [BDR] across the border, and at the same time, working hand in hand, turned the border zone an area of lawlessness, of smuggling, human trafficking and narcotics trade.

This created an environment of mutual distrust and hostility, which serves no one well. The politicians in both countries treated the mutual relationship as 'expendable' and played to the domestic audiences slating the other country and antagonizing the people even further. Inefficient and corrupt manufacturers lobbied with their respective governments successfully and kept the trade between two countries limited and ridden with tariff and restrictions. When I was enquiring about a limited initiative of creating tariff free trade undertaken by the two governments recently, a Bangladeshi business leader told me how he took advantage of the tariff free trade on furniture to start supplying to Indian North-East, only to see the duties reimposed as soon as he started gaining market share. A journalist also told me that if he has to believe that the world is flat, Bangladesh and India must be on two different tectonic plates, divided by a bottomless chasm.

Sheikh Hasina's victory opens an opportunity window, but is unlikely to change the relationship dynamics. But what can change this is India's attitude. Post-Mumbai, we are increasingly aware of the challenges of trying to build a modern state in a poor region. While most Indians may believe that we should build a brick wall, as Israel did, on our border, it is actually thousands of kilometers long, and has more than 198 enclaves on two sides [bits of territory surrounded by the other country]. Stopping people from crossing over, and particularly those who speak the local language and not racially any different from the residents, is not a viable task. The only way to stop them from crossing the borders is to allow the country to prosper - something which can easily happen with collaboration and trust between the two countries. This is exactly where a new start must be made, and a realistic and long term strategy should be pursued earnestly.

For India, it is time that we recognize the existence of Bangladesh, and treat with it with respect and fairness like any other sovereign state. The historical references to India's assistance in the Liberation Struggle should remind us of our commitment to democracy and shared prosperity, not of a moral debtor/creditor relationship. It is time for India to work a fair sharing of water resources, and move towards a Free Trade Regime with confidence and commitment. It does not make any sense to keep the Bangladeshis out when we are inviting businessmen from across the world to invest in India. While we should look for the facilities we need - transit facilities from the Chittagong Port to Indian North-East, road access from West Bengal to Assam, a Joint Action team against sundry terrorists - we must give in return: a preferential treatment for Bengalis buying property or setting up businesses in India, tariff-free access to our market [in reciprocal arrangement] and even visa-free movement between the two countries.

I know it will sound counter-intuitive to allow visa free movement at a time when some of the Mumbai terrorists have been proved to be Bangladeshis. But our sense of security is only superficial. No amount of supervision will stop terrorists: a familiarity with India and a prosperity in the home country will [a shirt for Qasab during Eid would have saved some of Mumbai's best policemen]. We are better off saving salaries of corrupt immigration officers and converting them to better coordination systems in our emergency services.

In summary, an opportunity has been created in Dhaka. But to make good of this opportunity, India must act with transparency and commitment. India, as the bigger partner in the equation, has to stop playing the zero-sum game and extend its hand to Bangladesh. It will, in turn, secure our economic prosperity and help build better lives for everyone.


Amitabh Natekar said…
Suprio, that's a very well written and detailed perspective. I agree with you...both countries can only gain from this new political development.

Amitabh Natekar
Anonymous said…
It agree, this remarkable opinion
Anonymous said…
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