Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Will the Maitree Express turn out to be a train to nowhere?

Mythic Consolations


THE ROMANCE of the railroad generated confidence long before strategic writers recognized connectivity as an essential element of bonding. One of history’s best-known examples is British Columbia’s refusal to join the Canadian federation until the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. But romantics on either side of the Bengal-Bangladesh border would be well advised not to be carried away by the heavy symbolism of the flower-bedecked Maitree Express running for the first time in 43 years on Pahela Baisakh.

True, India has no major political problem with Bangladesh, like the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan or the border with China. But the state of mind that generates mistrust is the most dangerous of all dividing factors for it can breed monsters out of trivialities. So, when Pranab Mukherjee told the Bangladeshi daily, Prothom Alo, that “the depth of political relations between our two countries is now as deep as it should be”, it sounded like a realistic admission that, train or no train, there never can be a return to the euphoric high noon that animated the two Bengals in 1971. The external affairs minister’s compliment to the interim government for cooperating with India is even more revealing. Despite its achievements, this government is not politically accountable. It is an executive regime that can take sensible decisions regardless of grassroots reactions but enjoys no popular mandate. Precisely for that reason, it may also run counter to the popular mood. An election may not uphold its values and virtues.

A small detail like the Maitree Express’s change of engine and crew at the border, however cordially carried out, highlights the absence of trust between the two countries. Born on the rail track, as it were, and bred in railway saloons and station retiring rooms, I have a nose for these minutiae. For all the bickering between Singapore and Malaysia, the train from Kuala Lumpur drives right into Singapore’s heart. The quaint little station at Tanjong Pagar, the tracks, rolling stock and staff all belong to Malayan Railways. The same crew and engine serve the entire route. There would be no train if Singapore demanded proprietary rights. In the early Fifties, the vivid green Parbatipur Express, with its huge white Arabic lettering, swept past our bungalow in Kanchrapara as a mobile manifestation of Pakistan’s Islamic personality. I doubt if the engines and crew were Indian.

As a reporter covering Ireland’s Troubles in the late Sixties, I often rode the train from Belfast in British-held, fiercely Protestant Northern Ireland to Dublin, mellow capital of the predominantly Catholic Irish republic, and back. No one was aware of when and where we crossed the border. Yet, those were the days when the Provos, the murderous Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary each defended its pitch with the fervour they devoted to god and Caesar. The railway could be ignored because the substance — Protestant supremacy, Catholic emancipation — mattered more than the symbol.

For Bengalis, the symbol always takes precedence over the substance. The tearful passengers on the train were refugees of the spirit, dwelling nostalgically on the innumerable plates of chicken curry they had devoured (or had heard of being devoured) on the pre-partition Goalundo-Narayanganj steamer. Their objective is not sound political and economic relations between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh with an 89.7 per cent Muslim population whose ‘state religion’ is Islam. They yearn for the consolation of a mythic East Bengal where hilsa was sold as a whole fish, not chopped into pieces, and a goat slaughtered for meat.

I say ‘mythic’ because there are far more East Bengal zamindars in Calcutta today than ever existed in real life east of the Padma. But real or imagined, that lifestyle presumed a communal hierarchy — Muzaffar Ahmed of the National Awami Party called it the “two-hookah” culture — that played no small part in East Bengal’s choice in 1947. Beneath the bravado, Bangladesh lives in neurotic fear of attempts to undo that decision. So does Pakistan. When a sentimental Bengali gushed during the Calcutta visit of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s suave former high commissioner, that the British mischief of partition should be undone so that India could be united, he saw it as further evidence of Hindus still not being reconciled to Pakistan.

There are some similarities with Russia’s complex-ridden relations with Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They have little in common with each other but are strongly united in their suspicion of Russia, of which they were once a part. Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, the secessionist Tskhinvali area of Georgia and Ukraine’s flirtation with the North American Treaty Alliance would not have looked like serious casus belli if it had not been for underlying misgivings. But there is a difference with the subcontinent. Russia aggressively cuts off gas pipelines, threatens NATO missiles and makes open overtures to breakaway regions. India is placatory, overlooking even an estimated 12 to 18 million illegal migrants in our midst.

That does not appease a people who may now have revised their liberation history, but who are haunted by the fear that what was done in 1971 can be done again. That apprehension surfaced within months of Mujibur Rahman’s return to Dhaka, to the disgust of India’s first high commissioner, Subimal Dutt, who was a member of the Indian Civil Service but also from a modest Chittagong family, and culminating in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s visit in August 1974, months before the night of Dhaka’s long knives. Visible linkages like trains do have a place in diplomacy, but mainly to impress and involve the populace in official goodwill initiatives. That counts for little among an effervescent people whose quick changes of mood are woven into my childhood memories of Direct Action Day when it was “Allah ho akbar!” one moment and “Hindu-Mussalman bhai-bhai!” the next.

Even if the next set of elected Bangladeshi politicians retains the present regime’s efforts, there is no guarantee that political exigencies will not tempt them again to change course. Paradoxically, the Bangladesh-India relationship is part of the equation between the two Bengals that is subject to all the emotional vicissitudes captured by Muzaffar Ahmed’s two-hookah analogy compounded by the village-city complex. Dhaka may long ago have far outstripped Calcutta, as rich Bangladeshis never tire of reiterating, but objective fact does not exorcise subjective reaction rooted in the past. If Bangladeshis had not been so mercurial, Inder Kumar Gujral would not have warned, when he was in office, against buying Titas gas direct even from Hasina Wajed’s government, suggesting that only a multinational middleman could absorb shocks. New Delhi’s insistence even now on protecting the train and Mukherjee’s “as deep as it should be” are reminders of strictly limited expectations.

The emotional Bengali public is another matter. Large sections of it imagined in 1971 that Epar Bangla Opar Bangla were about to unite. Even if that hope was belied, they expected free travel without the fuss and bother of passports and visas. That, too, was just wishful thinking, as any Indian who had suffered the indignity of the foreigners’ registration office in Dhaka’s Lalbagh should know. Bangladeshi uniforms have replaced Pakistani uniforms, but the men inside are still the same.

Some caveats must be entered. There has always existed in Bangladesh a substantial, reasonably liberal constituency that harbours only friendly feelings for India. Greater interaction, courtesy Maitree Express and other follow-up forms of communication, may strengthen this lobby and help to dissolve Bangladeshi reserve. On the other hand, too many people from Calcutta, especially non-Bengali traders, may again arouse economic fears. Also, the understandable and unavoidable ambivalence of Bangladeshi Hindus, about 9 per cent of the population, is a permanent irritant. The Maitree Express is an attractive idea, but no one should be surprised if it turns out to be a train to nowhere. #

Sunanda Datta-Ray could be reached at