SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
Manmohan Singh’s warning about Bangladesh reflected Inder Kumar Gujral’s advice to Sheikh Hasina Wazed in the 1990s to not sell gas direct to India but via an American consortium. “Let them take their 10 per cent,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll both be subject to too much political pressure.” Too diplomatic to be specific, Gujral meant Bangladesh’s Islamic fundamentalists.
S.M. Krishna’s visit confirms the underlying message that neither country can afford to alienate the other. Political shifts and economic growth can change many things but not geography. Bangladesh is surrounded by India with a border of more than 4,000 km and 54 shared rivers. Apart from the Bay of Bengal, its only other outlet is the 193-km frontier with Myanmar. The retired Bangladeshi diplomat who argued in Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper that “geographical compulsion dictates that laying the foundation of friendly relations with neighbouring countries should be the cornerstone” of his country’s foreign policy might have been speaking of India as well.
Of course, both countries can transcend geography in an age of advanced science and technology, as one of India’s most perspicacious high commissioners told the Dhaka Rotary Club as long ago as 1980 when relations were less cordial. But cost and profit effectiveness make it advantageous to make the most of geographical and other complementarities, all the more when one neighbour’s security demands the other’s cooperation. The envoy also stressed that “to a very great extent”, Indo-Bangladeshi problems are psychological and “this psychology is derived from our common past.”
He stopped short of adding what is unfashionable to the point of being unmentionable — that today’s subcontinental politics cannot escape the legacy of undivided India’s Hindu-Muslim equation from which it sprang. Amen to the prayer of the optimistic Bangladeshi who wrote that Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully “for over a thousand years and will have to live in harmony for thousands of years more”. But that expression of hope wouldn't have been necessary if his premise had not been flawed. Despite Dipu Moni’s handsome exoneration, Singh’s comment caused a flutter precisely because it hinted at what is nowadays called identity politics.
The apology that he was not being “ judgmental” is neither here nor there. If the prime minister is to be faulted, it’s that he wasn't sufficiently probing. Hindus there will aver that Bangladeshis don’t have to be “in the clutches, many times, of the ISI” to be “very anti-Indian”. Apart from instinctive communalism, they can also have reason enough of their own. Even Bangladeshis who “swear by the Jamaat-ul-Islami” (Singh meant the Jamaat-e-Islami) can nurse grievances that secular Awami Leaguers share because they concern water resources or transit rights. Not all complaints can be dismissed as anti-liberation communalism.
If 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are “very anti-Indian”, that’s the group Indian diplomacy should focus on instead of basking in cozy camaraderie with the already favourable 75 per cent. But the prime minister’s arithmetic is puzzling, seemingly exaggerating the importance of a minor electoral player whose 32,09,226 votes in 2008 meant only 4.55 per cent of the total and just two members of parliament against the previous 17. Had Singh said 37.39 per cent, it would have been clear he bracketed Jamaat’s senior partner, Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, in the anti-India camp. Some might also include H.M. Ershad’s Jatiya Party (6.65 per cent) for all that he is now Wajed’s ally.
But the 25 per cent isn’t an empirical figure. In fact, Singh might have erred on the side of caution if he fears that a substratum of Bangladeshi society, cutting across party lines, is susceptible to religious propaganda. Wajed’s ultimate refusal (after a tortuous sequence of events involving the courts) to abolish the “state religion” that was Ershad’s handiwork and restore her father’s “four state principles” (democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism) confirmed that Awami Leaguers aren’t immune to populist winds. Islamist protests against the National Women’s Development Policy echoed Ershad saying when he was president that Wajed would never be elected because an Islamic head of government must lead the nation in prayers, which is a man’s job.
These internal matters don’t concern India. But Wajed’s ability to deliver may cause concern if she has to make concessions to the Islamist lobby for survival. Discerning Bangladeshis are not unaware of the problem. The Daily Star has published articles recommending inter-religious and inter-cultural cooperation as an “important aspect” of bilateral relations. The author warned of the danger of politicizing religion and demanded that “state mechanisms must be secular in outlook”.
Bangladesh’s small ruling elite is probably too cosmopolitan to be communal. But the base it rests on isn’t. The latter cannot be expected to appreciate the nuances of various disputes either. It’s easier to invoke the traditional bogey (which impacts on local Hindus) when India’s commitment to provide 250 MW of electricity is delayed than trying to explain that there can be no power without a 100-MW transmission line that calls for a separate purchase agreement and will take two years to build after the contract has been awarded.
Some see Singh’s comment not as an innocent generalization but as a devious bargaining ploy in the context of Krishna’s visit, to be followed (according to New Age, another Dhaka daily) by Salman Khurshid as water resources minister and Sonia Gandhi before the prime minister goes in September. Connecting all these events, they accuse Singh of setting the stage “to seek a number of concessions from the Bangladesh government.” Timothy Roemer’s farewell speech as ambassador saying that the United States of America and India are “working more and more closely on issues such as Bangladesh” added fuel to fire.
This is what the former high commissioner called the “small-neighbour-big-neighbour syndrome” in which every attempt to improve relations arouses suspicion. The danger in his time was of sentimentally attached Indians being disappointed when their high expectations were not realized. The emotional fervour of 1971 still lingered in 1980. But it’s gone now. Bangladesh may sizzle but it sizzles on a back-burner of Indian priorities. Across the border, however, Wajed’s determination to punish her father’s killers threatens to explode into a witch-hunt that can trample on the rule of law and drag India into domestic contention. Even a well-meaning retired bureaucrat’s “We would like India to be our friend as it was during our liberation war” does that.
It’s an involvement India must avoid. But overall cooperation can’t await the resolution of particular problems like the participation of Bangladeshi businessmen in the commerce generated by transit to the Northeast, a $3-billion trade imbalance, the illegal influx into West Bengal and the Northeast or the South Talpatti/New Moore island controversy. If relations don’t improve, they will stagnate, which means worsen. Pakistan won’t be the only beneficiary. In its search for “a compliant, divided periphery” (Henry Kissinger’s words), China is ever ready to offer Bangladesh the market access India can’t, mainly because of domestic textile interests.
India must make some sacrifices and cut some losses in the greater interest of securing the Northeast and its eastern flank as well as of saving an ideal. Krishna expects Dhaka, which has been helpful in tracking rebels, also to liquidate terrorist bases. Self-interest demands that India, with eight times the population of Bangladesh and more than 12 times its gross domestic product (quoting Bangladeshi papers), should be generous.
This was the gist of the Gujral Doctrine which Nirupama Rao reiterated recently (without attribution) by crediting India with adopting “an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal approach” in strengthening the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation “where we are willing to go the extra mile in order to strengthen regional cooperation”. However, that may not be quite as obvious in Dhaka (or Kathmandu, Thimphu and Colombo — Islamabad is another matter) as it is in the external affairs ministry in New Delhi.
Published in The Telegraphs, Kolkata, India, July 9 , 2011
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a journalist and could be reached at email@example.com