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India-Bangla Relations - Can be more than Bilateral

Paper No. 5531                                       Dated 22-Jul-2013

By Bhaskar Roy

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Ms. Dipy Moni will be in New Delhi on July 25, 2013 on a three day visit.  It is expected to be a preparatory one paving the way for Prime Minister Sk. Hasina’s official visit in August at the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Ms. Dipu Moni is well regarded in India for her professionalism, and promoting Bangladesh both with India and internationally.  This time, however, she has a difficult job because detractors and critics back home are focussed more on difficult issues than on the doables and what is being done.

At the end, however, it is not Ms. Dipu Moni, but Prime Minister Sk. Hasina who will be questioned by the opposition on two important issues – Teesta river water agreement and ratification by India of the 1974 Indira-Mujib land boundary accord.

General elections in Bangladesh is less than six months away.  The political situation within the country is not exactly stable currently because of other issues.  But the bottom line in foreign relations for the Bangladeshi opposition from the very beginning of the Awami League led government has been anti-Indianism.  The opposition led by the BNP and its Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia and partner Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) saw everything wrong with the new initiatives in India-Bangla cooperation.  Their position reflected late Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto’s impassionate rant that, “Pakistan will have the (nuclear) bomb even if we have to eat grass”.

Bangladesh has been especially fortunate where quality manpower is concerned.  The women of Bangladesh who come out and work against Wahabi and Salafi Islamic interpretation of Islam which the JEI and their allies are trying to impose on women, earn the bulk of the country’s foreign exchange in the garment industry which these obscurantist’s feed on.

For Islamist fundamentalists like the JEI who dream of creating an Islamic Emirate of Bangladesh much after the Taliban model, and also want to establish a federal relationship with Pakistan, India is anathema.  India is seen by them as a Hindu country, and responsible for breaking up Pakistan in 1971.

The BNP generally follows a pro-Pakistan and anti-India line, and is willing to hunt with the JEI.  Reports are coming out, (though not doubly corroborated) that the late President Zia-ur-Rehman, who fought against the Pakistan army in the 1971 war of liberation, was a deep plant of the Pakistani army.  Existing evidence is that Zia as President of Bangladesh cleared the black listed JEI to resume political activities in Banlgadesh despite their anti-liberation role in the freedom struggle.  He also helped bring back JEI Amir Golam Azam to Bangladesh after Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975.  There is more on Zia.

As Prime Minister Sk. Hasina prepares to come to New Delhi, the opposition has tried to divide the nation into believers in Islam and “non –believers”.  The secularists like those engaged in the Shahbag movement (Pro janmo chatter) are labelled by them as anti-Islamist.

The opposition is tending to a position where anyone who opposes Sharia law is anti-Muslim.  And they have succeed to a significant extent.  The Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh was created and funded by the JEI and BNP for this purpose.

Prime Minister Sk. Hasina calls the shots in the Awami League’s “great alliance” government.  From past experience she must understand that giving these right wing forces “an inch” will allow them to extract a “mile”, and the young people who support her and her secular politics will be dismayed and weakened.

It is amazing, however, that Sk. Hasina did not prevaricate for a moment to bring the 1971 war criminals to justice.  She even put aside the trials on the assassination attempts on her life to bring to justice the assassins of her nation.  In that sense she is her father’s daughter – self last, nation first.

Sk. Hasina is coming to India with the enormous burden of a million knives out for her.  She still has to fight foreign forces who want her out.

Hence, what can Sk. Hasina get from India, and what can India give her to take back, given the fact that both she and Indian stand almost at the same place?  India’s stated foreign policy is that the government of India is a friend of the Bangladesh people and wants to help them to develop in tandem.  But today, India has some issues which include wide security interests.  It may be recalled the BNP-JEI led four party alliance government (from 2000 – 2005) did everything to assist anti-India separatists and terrorists.  Even then, India was patient.

To start with, Prime Minister Sk. Hasia promised to eradicate terrorism from the soil of Bangladesh and support all counter terrorism efforts.  She kept her promise against all odds.  India is especially grateful to her and her government.  But to subdue Islamic terrorism totally is a very difficult task.  Terrorists have solid support inside Bangladesh, and support from outside too.  Some major anti-terrorism powers view Islamist right wingers in a different political angle and project that they are not anti-Muslim.  At least, India-Bangladesh cooperation against this variety of terrorism will help both countries.

The Teesta water deal is undoable at the moment.  West Bengal Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Bannerjee, who pulled the rug on this agreement in 2011, is in no mood to cooperate with the central government.  The boundary agreement can be taken to the next level if the Indian political parties agree to amened the constitution on the overall border territory issue.  It can perhaps, be done in the monsoon session of parliament starting August 05, 2013.

But there are other areas of cooperation moving forward which need to be explained to the people of Bangladesh.  There is very little reference in the Bangladesh media to the one billion Indian aid to Bangladesh at the lowest interest rate.  Of this 200 million has been converted into a grant.  India has given duty free access to all 46 categories of garments manufactured by Bangladesh.  The Bangladesh garment industry is only second to that of China’s, and India is also a garment exporter.  India’s policy will help Bangladesh’s garment industry to an extent after the US and the European Union imposed restrictions on Bangladeshi importers.

According to the Land Port Sub-committee Chairman of Indo-Bangladesh Chamber Matiar Rahman of Bangladesh, opening of multiple visas has facilitated many Bangladeshi traders, and movement of Bangladeshi medical patients to India for treatment.  This has also facilitated tourism between the two countries and people-to-people contact.  Traditionally, India remains a destination for Bangladeshi students, and this is poised to improve.

A critical element in Bangladesh’s economy in the social sector is the huge shortfall in power.  Indian supply of 250mw of power should be implemented in September, this year.  It is not a huge amount of electricity but every bit helps.  There are opponents to this in Bangladesh on the inexplicable grounds that the power will be purchased from “India”!  Such narrow minded attitude from a small group of educated Bangladeshi politicians, intellectuals and media has held hostage a number of development projects which could help boost the Bangladeshi economy and create jobs.  These projects include the India proposed land corridor and in the sector of sea ports.

Geographically, Bangladesh has an advantageous location.  It shares land boundaries with both India and Myanmar as a gateway between South Asia and South East Asia.  India is already working on connectivity with Myanmar (the Kaladan multi purpose project) and on to Thailand.  From here, other countries in the region like Vietnam are looking forward to the new Asian trade route.  Bangladesh could be accommodated.

The other project on the board of discussion is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) economic, trade and tourism quadrangle.  When the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India earlier this year he supported this project.  It is still a work in the making, but has potential.

Similarly, full connectivity from Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh through India is waiting to happen.  Power from Nepal and Bhutan can be transmitted through Indian territory.  Unfortunately though, road blocks are always put up.  There is huge potential in an India-Bangla partnership.  Dhaka can ride piggy back on India to beyond a bilateral relationship. 

All these, however, needs mutual trust.  No major Indian political party is against developing relations with Bangladesh.  There are certain questions which need to be ironed out and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is already on the job.

But from the JEI and the BNP, however, India is perceived as the enemy that broke Pakistan, and not as the country which helped create an independent Bangladesh.  Even Pakistan is beginning to change its attitude towards India, save for the ISI and right-wing religious parties.

India-Bangladesh relations will be dogged till these anti-Indian political parties can exorcize these ghosts and devils from their genes.

Given some mindsets existing in Bangladesh towards India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a huge task on his hands, and so do other political parties in India like the BJP and, especially, West Bengal Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Bannerjee.  To repeat, with general elections less than six months away in Bangladesh, it is the moral responsibility of India to ensure that Bangladesh remains a secular and democratic country, devoid of the cancer of terrorism, and a responsible power in the region.

(The writer is a New Delhi based Strategic Analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail