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Monday, August 01, 2011

A fresh look at India-Bangladesh ties


IN THE last few weeks Indian policy-makers have been busy (un)complicating relationship with Bangladesh. After Begum Hasina, a traditional friend on India was voted back into power equations within Bangladesh and towards India began to change for the better. But suddenly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his press briefing to editors called Bangladesh a problem. He said that 25 per cent of people in our eastern neighbour were with the Jamat-i-Islami and in the grips of the ISI. Despite withdrawal of the statement and the external affairs minister’s regret and warm visit, the damage had been done.
So what made the PM make such brash statement? Clearly it was no slip of the tongue. But there have been problems. Bangladesh has harboured militants from the northeast; Illegal migration has irked India; the Indian Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifles have frictions on the long border. There has been a dispute in water sharing and management in the Farakha Barrage and now the Taipumukh dam. The former regime used anti-India histrionic. India thinks Bangladesh has not been grateful to India. But despite all this the PM’s statement was not only untrue and undiplomatic but reflected a negative mindset. This is the crux of the problem.

The truth is that Jamat-i-Islami in Bangladesh has never received more than 8 per cent of the vote. Islamisation in Bangladesh was linked to the involvement of the army in politics. But the people in Bangladesh popularly rejected militant Islamic politics and voted in Begum Hasina, known to be committed to the foundational principles of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle where India played a positive role and can still be mentor. Since she returned to power Hasina has sought to undo much of the previous regimes’ Islamisation and change the direction of foreign policy, especially towards India. Internally she set up a commission to look into war crimes during the Bangladesh liberation which were covered up by the army’s dictatorial rule and later by the Khaleda Zia regime.

Hasina has been working to bring back secular institutions in this highly polarised and retributive political system. She has to counter groups and parties like Khaleda Zia’s BNP that oppose reforms and closer friendship with India. In elections the BNP was able to secure only 30 per cent of the vote. The majority in Bangladesh are behind Begum Hasina. It is therefore an opportune moment for India to support, rather than cast aspirations that hurt the Bangladesh sentiment and will be used against Hasina’s efforts.

Migration should be seen as a natural phenomenon, where people move from underdeveloped regions to more developed ones. Indians themselves are one of the most migratory communities to the rest of the world. India is continuously building and securing a long fence with Bangladesh. But this has not been able to curb migration. Tales from the India-Bangladesh border tell how even cows are stamped and given papers to enter from Bangladesh to India and thousands of Indian border security are engaged in dealing with these migrating cows.

To curb migration from Bangladesh, India should work with them towards development because economic, social and political developments are interlinked in south Asia. The underdevelopment of one country impacts the other. A common development paradigm is thus in order. Bangladesh will gain from India’s economic surge and India in return can expand its markets.

Water sharing is particularly sensitive in the region. But here too, it is correct management policies that are necessary. Both countries cannot make it into a threat for mobilising people along nationalist lines. There are various models for water sharing and arbitration that can be used.

Most important is the threat of fundamentalism. All south Asian countries have political parties and non-state actors that use different kinds of fundamentalism to control their own communities and negatively stereotype the other. Mainstream politicians also succumb to such politics. This kind of jingoist nationalism does not help peace or good relations between neighbouring countries and the region. To curb such negative trends India has to work with these countries, not just criticise them.
But Indian foreign policy also has problems that are reflected in our Bangladesh discourse. Indian foreign policy has a Pakistan, China and US obsession. They pay most attention and react primarily to these three countries and often see the rest of the neighbourhood through this lens. The prime minister and dominant sections of the foreign policy elite are obsessed with making India a great power using all foreign policy resources for this single-minded goal. Their interest in Bangladesh lies primarily in its support to India’s UN Security Council ambitions, curbing safe havens for militants, and out manoeuvring Chinese and Pakistani geostrategic ambitions. Bangladesh’s biggest English daily has often written that for India, Bangladesh is only a geographical entity. India must change this perception and see it as a good neighbour and partner in development.

Bangladesh is a small and poor country that borders on three sides with India. It is important for India’s look east policy and stability in India’s east and northeast. But they have their own pride. India cannot afford to show itself as a regional hegemon even if it is one. In international relations states are equal regardless of their size and power. India has often itself felt this when the US or some other big power have made disparaging statements about it. We should be similarly sensitive towards Bangladesh.

So is Bangladesh a problem or ally? Much will depend on how India treats it. If they treat is as a problem it will become a problem. If they treat it as an ally it will move towards closer links with India. In the mean time, Indian policy should be one of developing collective projects with it on environment, water, energy, cultural and educational dialogue and a host of other issues.

The SAARC and its various organisations have moved ahead very slowly, primarily because the countries do not have a south Asian mindset and their elites are too busy outdoing each other. Disputes between SAARC countries restrain it from moving collectively, unlike bodies like ASEAN or even the African Union. India can take a lead to build more confidence in the region.

The PM is to visit Bangladesh shortly. It will be good if India takes steps to have a strategic partnership with Bangladesh and long-term bilateral treaties. Bangladesh is a country in transition. Good relations with India can help it move further in a democratic and multicultural direction. This will help not only Bangladesh but also make it a long-term ally of India.

First published in the Express Buzz of The New Indian Express group, India, August 01, 2011

Anuradha M Chenoy is director, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Email:

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