Sunday, January 25, 2009

India has a chance to rebuild its relationship with Bangladesh

ASHOK MITRA

THE COUNTRY has a new minister for home affairs, one shoved off the ministry of finance. The earlier home minister had a reputation for passivity. The fresh incumbent has evidently taken upon himself the task of removing traces of the infamy his predecessor was the cause of. The ardour of activism can, however, sometimes have disastrous consequences.

The ministry of home affairs is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the country’s internal security. Such security, the new minister has concluded, is impeded by the inflow, from across Bangladesh, of agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and of other saboteurs. The minister has seemingly no doubts regarding how to take care of the problem. Too many visas, he has growled, are being issued to Bangladeshi citizens. He wants to do something about it. Slash the quota of visas for Bangladeshis, and, hey presto, a dramatic improvement is sure to take place in our internal security.

Do our cabinet ministers operate on their own, or do they occasionally talk to one another on matters, which involve concurrent jurisdiction? For instance, did the home minister bother to discuss with the minister of external affairs before he unburdened himself of the issue of visas for Bangladeshis? Consider the awkwardness of the situation. After a long, long while, Bangladesh has a government whose architects have been, of all political formations in that country, the most favourably disposed towards India. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the presiding deity of the Awami League, is Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s daughter. The league as well as she personally have had friendly relations, at both official and non-official levels, with Indian personalities. In fact, during the campaign for the just concluded elections in Bangladesh, one main charge hurled against Wajed by her opponents was that she was India’s stooge. Her installation in the prime ministerial office in the neighbouring country is certainly a great slice of luck coming India’s way.

This development should be — and still could be — the forerunner of happier possibilities. What is called for from the Indian end at this juncture is cool watchfulness and sobriety. India’s intelligence agencies may have their worries about the nature of infiltration — either actual or prospective — from across Bangladesh. Instead of airing them openly and on a high pitch, wisdom demands that these concerns be tucked in for the present and confidential talks arranged between representatives of the two countries. Other options would always be available in case these meetings prove infructuous from New Delhi’s point of view.

Patience is not the strong point of our minister for home affairs though. He has, on the contrary, chosen the path of bluster and name-calling. In case he is not exactly speaking out of turn and has the prime minister’s backing, raising a few further questions becomes unavoidable. Now that the nuclear deal with the United States of America is a reality, is it New Delhi’s view that India is the cock of the road in south Asia and has therefore the prerogative to treat all its neighbours as dirt?

Or is it henceforth New Delhi’s established policy not to give any quarter to any country, which has a population with a Muslim majority? Nothing could be more disastrous in the long run than this genre of sectarianism. Given the state of our uneasy relationship with Pakistan, the uncertainties in Nepal and pervasive speculation over the implications of China’s resolve to be the most powerful nation in the world next to the US, would it not on the other hand be prudent to exercise some restraint while dealing with other strategically placed nations such as Bangladesh? The opportunity to rebuild the relationship with Bangladesh would never be greater than what it is today. And that opportunity might not be long-lasting. For despite the Awami League’s entering office after winning a convincing majority in democratic elections, the shadow of the military would not be quite dispelled from the Bangladesh sky. Those in charge of the armed forces there have for the present bestowed their favours on the Awami League. But the circumstances could change fast. If the provocative remarks of our home minister lead to an outburst of anti-India hysteria in Bangladesh and embarrass Wajed and her regime no end, the ISI would have the last laugh.

The home minister’s nervousness over the large number of visas issued to Bangladeshi citizens, in fact, betrays his ignorance of some of the ground realities. Yes, quite a few Bangladeshis have tended to visit India in recent years. More than 90 per cent of them come on short visits, mostly to West Bengal. These visitors could well include an infinitesimally small number of espionage masters. The bulk of them are, however, householders visiting relatives in India, students, university and college teachers, singers, film personalities, poets, writers and suchlike. Why deny it, the bond of language and culture persists between the middle classes in West Bengal and the neighbouring country in the east. This may not be to everybody’s liking, but to try to thwart the tide of natural urges would be altogether foolhardy. What is much more relevant, close cultural relations between the peoples of Bangladesh and West Bengal make a positive contribution to the cause of Indo-Bangladesh amity, and is therefore an effective instrument for combating the machinations of species such as the ISI.

Another matter is worth a mention too. Not as famous or as strategic as the Silk Route from China to Europe, there was, at least, for 3,000 years, a long winding Cattle Route in existence, starting in Baluchistan, travelling all the way across the northern terrains of India, and finally terminating in Bengal. Cattle of the finest stock bought in Quetta would be disposed of in Sindh; cattle, a shade of a lesser quality, but still of excellent breed, bought in Sindh would be sold off in Punjab, the local stock in Punjab would be brought for sale to Rajasthan, from Rajasthan the route would proceed to locations like Indore and Gwalior, and then turn north into Bulandshahr and Oudh. Selling and buying cattle would proceed uninterrupted at each centre, the quality of the cattle steadily deteriorating until the route reached the Bihar-Bengal border. By then the cattle offered for disposal had gone down precipitously in quality, but the rickety lot would still have some demand in Bengal, either for purposes of agriculture or for meat, and would fetch a respectable price. Bengal, however, would pay for the cattle not by offering a ricketier breed — none was available — but by barter, exchanging foodgrains, textiles and locally produced pots and pans against the cattle that were bought.

The Cattle Route was rudely disturbed by the partition of the country in 1947. And yet, the upheaval in political geography did not quite finish it off. Rickety cattle continue to be smuggled across from West Bengal into Bangladesh in exchange for grains, utensils and textiles. This often takes the shape of small-scale, informal activity, otherwise known as smuggling. However determined the Border Security Force might be, to crush this relic of a great historical route is not that feasible a proposition. Visa or no visa, people will travel between Bangladesh and West Bengal, as much for reasons of culture as for the sake of livelihood.

The home minister of the country has recently acquired the habit of shooting from the mouth. That can cause the country a great deal of trouble. The nuclear agreement notwithstanding, the US administration, it is now more than obvious, would not play favourites between India and Pakistan. We therefore badly need friends in the region to buttress our security. A minister who creates obstacles in the search for such friends is a bit of a menace. #

First published in the Telegraph, January 19, 2009

Ashok Mitra is a former Finance Minister of West Bengal state in India and a former Member of Rajya Sabha . He was minister in communist government led by Jyoti Basu but resigned from the ministership during the late 1980s following a difference of opinion with the Jyoti Basu and the party leadership