Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cosying up to the Bangla generals

Civil-rights and other abuses notwithstanding, New Delhi is looking at the current situation in Bangladesh with great interest – and actually hope.


AFTER years of turbulent relations, it is ironic that New Delhi is currently basking in a sense of reassurance over the possibility of good-neighbourly relations with Bangladesh, with the army-backed interim government appearing to be firmly in place in Dhaka. Since it took over in January, the tenor of statements emanating from the highest levels in the interim administration have enthused New Delhi for a variety of reasons. In particular, Indian diplomats and security officials have expressed approval for Dhaka’s crackdown on ‘terror’.

Indeed, hopes have been stoked in the Indian establishment that the interim government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former banker, will eventually take the long-awaited steps that could choke off the insurgents from Northeast India, whom New Delhi is convinced are taking refuge across the border in Bangladesh. But there are also hopes that the current administration in Dhaka will energise Indo-Bangladeshi ties that have been at a low over the past decade. In particular, this could translate into creating an atmosphere of trust and goodwill to boost mutually beneficial economic measures.

To optimistic observers, New Delhi and Dhaka have over recent years maintained a hot-and-cold relationship, largely defined by who has been in power in Bangladesh – either the seemingly secular Awami League, or the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). To a dispassionate observer of South Asian politics, however, India-Bangladesh relations have more specifically been held hostage to the bitter ‘battle of the begums’, between Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina and BNP supremo Khaleda Zia.

Either way, both parties have found it to their benefit to thwart Indian policy. The Awami League early on sought to shake off its pro-India image to please the domestic audience, by not coming out with proactive measures for improving ties with New Delhi. Meanwhile, the BNP, backed by Islamist forces, was able to be significantly more open in its anti-India posturing. Under both parties, New Delhi feels it has received very little cooperation from Dhaka on matters of illegal migration, or shelter for the Northeast insurgents who India says operate out of 200 camps inside Bangladesh. Furthermore, Dhaka has regularly continued to deny India transit facilities from West Bengal through Bangladesh, to service its landlocked northeastern states.

At least on the surface, things have changed significantly since the interim government took over in January and imposed a state of emergency. The army-backed regime called off the 22 January national elections, and has subsequently reconstituted the Anti-Corruption Commission, and arrested close to 200 politicians (and mounting), mostly on graft charges. It has also revived the National Security Council, giving military leaders a platform on which to air their views on governing the country. In the meantime, there has been mounting criticism over human-rights abuses, unconstitutional governance, and clamping down on the media and other bodies urging transparency. But New Delhi seems heartened by the crackdown on militancy, and this may well blind Indian policymakers to a host of problems, the seeds of which are planted in the current bout of activism by its eastern neighbour.

The most ‘reassuring’ signal that the interim government in Dhaka has sent New Delhi came on 30 March, when the authorities executed the most prominent names in Bangladesh’s rising Islamist militancy – chief of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) Abdur Rahman and his deputy, Siddiqul Islam, alias ‘Bangla Bhai’. With its hands full in Kashmir, India has been extremely wary of the possibility of a new front on its eastern flank, along the 4100-km porous border, particularly in the wake of controversial Western reports that the country was becoming a hub of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist forces.

The 30 March executions were seen as a significant blow to Bangladesh’s first overt militancy campaign, which had rattled the country through a series of coordinated blasts and suicide bombings during 2005. With the BNP-Jamaat alliance government having consistently denied the existence of Islamist militancy in the country, the executions were seen by Delhi as Dhaka’s getting serious about a clear and present danger.

What India can do
Should India cosy up to Dhaka’s new army-backed regime? Some analysts would give an emphatic nod – despite both the strong-arm tactics being employed by the interim administration, and the fact that Dhaka officials have yet to carry out any action against the alleged Northeast-insurgents’ camps. As things stand, the possibility of the Bangladesh Army taking over direct power appears unlikely, particularly given the role its ranks play in lucrative peacekeeping missions. This is all the more reason, then, for India to engage with the interim government, and give it much-needed backing.

The current rulers in Dhaka look set to remain in power for some time, with elections not about to be held for at least a year. Furthermore, the process of comprehensive electoral reforms, including the preparation of the new voters’ list and identity cards for all those above 18 years of age, is yet to begin. This massive exercise, involving between 76 and 80 million voters, is estimated to take at least 12 months to complete. Furthermore, the Bangladesh Army chief, Lieutenant-General Moeen U Ahmed, has vowed no let-up in the hunt for corrupt politicians and militants while the interim government clears the way for a ‘free and fair’ election. That job will be accomplished neither easily nor soon, and so it appears that the army will inevitably carry on ruling Bangladesh by proxy for some time to come.

Aside from keeping contact with the Fakhruddin Ahmed regime, New Delhi must also take into account the possibility that sections from within this interim authority (or a new political force entirely, including fresh faces from the existing political parties) could well come to call the shots during the next elections and beyond – with, perhaps, the backing of the army.
As the larger and more powerful neighbour, India is also in a position to cut some ice with the regime, by taking unilateral, proactive action on a few particular issues. New Delhi can demonstrate its support to Dhaka’s battle against militancy by rounding up Bangladeshi criminal elements who may be operating from India’s border areas. Towards this end, Dhaka has already been regularly furnishing the names of such criminals to Indian officials, just as India has been providing Dhaka with details of Indian militants said to be operating from within Bangladesh.

But the most important area where New Delhi needs to intervene is in correcting the balance of trade between the two countries, which has long been weighted heavily against Bangladesh. In 2001-02, Bangladesh’s exports to India were a meagre USD 50.2 million, while imports from India that year stood at more than USD 1 billion. That trade imbalance continues, with Bangladesh’s exports to India in 2005-06 standing at USD 251.6 million, and imports from India going up to nearly USD 1.8 billion during that period. Part of this process is already underway, and offers an immediate opportunity for the Indian government. Since mid-2006, India has offered duty-free import of seven new items from Bangladesh, and promised to do away with duty on 4200 additional items within three years. New Delhi has also sought a list of all irritants, including non-tariff barriers, that are currently impeding bilateral trade.

During the visit of Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Dhaka on 19 February, the Indian government announced unconditional duty-free access to the import of two million pieces of readymade garments from Bangladesh. With a total investment of USD 389.2 million during the period of 1971 to September 2006, India is ranked as the 12th-largest investor in Bangladesh. Now, hopes are pinned on India’s Tata group to finally negotiate its long-pending three-billion-dollar investment in Bangladesh, for a power station, steel plant and fertiliser unit. Talks were suspended last summer, but in mid-May this year the new Board of Investment executive chairman, Nazrul Islam, said that the government was “close to an agreement with the Tatas”. While these assurances need to be taken to their logical end, under the current circumstances India should also consider extending to Bangladesh a free trade agreement, as it has with Sri Lanka.

Once bilateral economic ties improve, and once Bangladeshis begin to see benefits from concessions given by India, the government in Dhaka would be in a better position to pursue an ‘India-friendly’ policy. As for the other bilateral bone of contention, New Delhi need not even push for transit facilities through Bangladesh at this time. After all, India has recently started a USD 103 million development project on the Sittwe port in Burma and the Kaladan River in Mizoram, bypassing its need to access the Chittagong port. If Dhaka-New Delhi relations improve, the two countries would be in a position to work on a strategy to end the most politically potent issue – economic migration from Bangladesh to India – by focusing on how to jointly improve the economy in Bangladesh.

Being the most dominant of Bangladesh’s neighbours, and a democracy to boot, India cannot for long remain a mute witness to widespread reports of the throttling of democratic values by the army-backed Dhaka regime. Apart from everything else, the test for New Delhi will lie in successfully performing a delicate balancing act: between cosying up to the generals in Dhaka, and warning them of the possible consequences of straying too far from the democratic path. This will be a very difficult undertaking, but the latter cannot be accomplished without the former. #

Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based Political Analyst and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India

This article was first published in HIMAL magazine, Kathmandu, July 2007