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Bangladesh and India: Time to build a synergy in security


Paper 1117                                                    16.09.2004

Guest Column-by Col R Hariharan, VSM (retd.)

We hear of a silent generation, more concerned with security than integrity, with conforming than performing, with imitating than creating. –Thomas J Watson

A field day for terrorism

At the first summit meeting of the BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) held in Bangkok in July 2004, the member countries took a pledge not to allow terrorist groups to use their territories for launching on friendly countries. They also took a decision to set a Joint Working Group on counter terrorism. As though to vouch the validity of this decision came the August 21st terrorist attack on Sheikh Hasina and the Awami Leadership in Dhaka. This has shaken Bangladesh polity and public, leading to a lot of introspection and plain speaking. Though the casualties in the attack were not huge, the audacity with which it was carried out may make it Bangladesh’s own 9/11. The event may well become a watershed of the future of democracy in Bangladesh. With the North East India festering, a Bangladesh disturbed by terrorism and internal strife is the last thing Indian security needs now. It will pry open the long and porous borders with Bangladesh and give a fillip to militancy in seven of the eight states in the North East. 

Apart from the well-intentioned common initiative at the BIMSTEC, there is an urgent need for both India and Bangladesh to take a serious re-look at their existing lukewarm relationship to build a strong and mutually supportive security strategy to crush the growth of terrorism and militancy in both countries. Even the cynical, traditionally anti-Indian Weekly Holiday of Dhaka had to acknowledge that “For the sake of peace and progress, and in the interest of regional security, Bangladesh must initiate at a high level a threadbare review and frank dialogue with India to address the latter’s threat perceptions, real or imagined. The common destiny of these two countries is tied by history and geography. That simply cannot be ignored.”How true!  Time has come now for both the countries to bury their non-existent hatchets and get down to effect security cooperation on a broad scale both at the policy and operational levels. Otherwise terrorists of all hues will have a field day in both the countries.

Understanding Bangladesh

Bangladesh evokes strong feelings in India. This is not merely because of the historically close religious, linguistic and cultural affiliations but because Indian soldiers fought and sacrificed their lives alongside their Bangladeshi brethren to liberate Bangladesh. Considering that Bangladesh as erstwhile East Bengal was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 was a historical turnaround. Thus it is not surprising that there is a love-hate relationship between India and Bangladesh not only because of the very closeness of intertwining ties but also due to India’s near total geographical domination of Bangladesh’s almost entire land borders (except for 193 Km with Myanmar).

 The relationship between the two countries has a troubled history. Basically, lack of sensitivity on the part of India to the ground realities in Bangladesh politics has not assuaged Bangladesh’s feeling of insecurity borne out of its identity conflict and suspicion of Indian hegemony and domination. In India’s foreign policy spectrum Pakistan occupies a huge horizon to the detriment of its relationship with its other neighbours. Thus the relationship between the two countries has not been repaired with enough attention.

Bangladesh is a product of Bengali nationalism overtaking the Islamic identity. It is also an example of the failure of two-nation theory that justified the partition of India in the belief that Muslims formed a single united entity. Even after three decades of independence, intellectuals within Bangladesh are still debating whether it is a ‘failed state’ or a ‘dysfunctional state’. They are doing so for very good reasons. The young democracy bought with sweat and blood of the people in 1971 had not been allowed to bloom in full, thanks to the Army’s periodic foray to grab power (probably a vestige of its Pakistan Army parentage). Self-centered politicians leading power-broking political parties have stifled the focussed growth of democratic institutions. Thus democracy in Bangladesh is still a potted plant, subject to the whims of Army (luckily now in a low profile) and the two major political entities – the rightwing ruling coalition and the center-left alliance in opposition.

A predominantly Muslim nation, Bangladesh is neither wholly Islamic nor totally secular. Gen Ziaur Rahman seized power in the turbulent aftermath of the massacre of the ruling Awami League leaders including the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve his own distinct identity he wooed the Islamic fundamental elements for political reasons at home and the Islamic countries of the Gulf and OIC for economic reasons. As a result Bangladesh, which was a secular socialist state on independence, became an Islamic socialist republic. The national dilemma had been whether to go along with other frontline Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or to reinforce its nationalist credentials as a secular Bengali speaking democratic Muslim nation, somewhat on the lines of Turkey.  Its population is buffeted between these two cross currents. Bangladesh can be said to suffer from a national split personality.

The U.S-led global war on terrorism against jihadi terrorists led by Osama Bin Laden has pushed this dilemma a little to the background, because Bangladesh dare not offend the sensitivities of the Americans. However, there is a strongly entrenched fundamentalist element nurtured over the years of ‘hate India’ propaganda from the Pakistan days. Translated into democratic polity these elements stress the fundamentalist Islamic identity, however much sanitized. They identify themselves with ultra conservative elements that are closer to the Islamic ‘jihadis’ (whatever be their affiliation) fighting the U.S. and their allies the world over. With India figuring in the jihadis list of “rogue nations” the threat to India from these elements in Bangladesh is going to be a permanent feature, whether Bangladesh recognizes it or not.  But the silver lining is that the two fundamentalist parties in the ruling coalition in Bangladesh – Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) – command an average of ten percent of the voters only.

It is this entrenched segment that has influenced Bangladesh attitude towards India in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways. Allowing a number of ethnic insurgent movements of India’s North East to establish their sanctuaries and hideouts in Bangladesh soil is conspicuous manifestation of this attitude. [In fairness, this phenomenon started before Bangladesh came into being; it’s a creation of its earlier incarnation as the Eastern limb of Pakistan]. This extreme rightwing nexus has also blocked a healthy and natural growth of India-Bangladesh relations whether it is commerce, development, and people to people contact or cultural interaction under the bogey of Indian hegemony. The Bangladesh Army also has in its fold elements, which carry the seeds of anti-Indian attitude thanks to its Pak legacy. Other than these segments, the Indian hegemony line has large takers across party lines. Thus a number of ordinary problems between the two countries, like transit facilities for Indian goods, problems of lower riparian, trade imbalance to the detriment of Bangladesh, sale of Bangladesh energy resources to India, illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India and sanctuaries to anti-Indian elements in Bangladesh etc have not been solved due to shrill political overtones on both sides. While India cannot ignore or wish away the influence of anti-Indian segments, it could take pro-active actions to contain their influence.

But the healthy sign is the existence of a silent majority of Bangladeshis who value their Bengali identity, tempered by enlightened Islamic beliefs. Though they are a little suspicious of India due to historical reasons, they would like close ties to be developed between the two countries, naturally to the advantage of Bangladesh.  It is this constituency that forms of the bulk of the population. Unfortunately, the activities of fundamentalist or Islamist elements have earned a bad name for Bangladesh.

Apathy in building a win-win relationship

It is not that Indo-Bangladesh relations have always been strained after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bilateral relations warmed in 1996, due to a softer Indian foreign policy and the new Awami League government. A 30-year water-sharing agreement for the Ganga was signed in December 1996, after an earlier agreement had lapsed in 1988. Both nations also have cooperated on the issue of flood warning and preparedness. Another thorn in their relations was removed when the Bangladesh government and Chakma tribal insurgents signed a peace accord in December 1997, which allowed for the return of tribal refugees from India. They had had fled to India in 1986, to escape violence caused by an insurgency in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. [However, the implementation of all parts of this agreement has been stalled, with the army maintaining a strong presence in the area.] However, much of the goodwill was lost when BNP came to power on strong anti Indian-hegemony rhetoric.

Both India and Bangladesh are guilty of not working to build a win-win relationship due to both internal and external political ‘compulsions’. India’s major preoccupation had been Pakistan. Now building a viable and strong economic relationship with the U.S. thanks to the opportunities offered in the wake of globalisation has become its foreign policy priority. Bangladesh had not been figuring high on India’s calendar for building better relationships. This is partly due to the fact that political parties (except Awami League) in Bangladesh had come to power flaunting Indian hegemony as an election issue. Thus their utterances when in power do not sound sincere to India, more so when they do not attend to India’s national security concerns with the consideration they deserve.      

India has not made studied effort to build its constituency across the political spectrum in Bangladesh due to its close identification with Awami League. While the special relationship that Awami League enjoys in Indian eyes is understandable as a historical legacy, this affinity should not cramp India’s style in dealing with Bangladesh as a nation.  Seen in this context, the Home-Secretary level meeting of the two countries scheduled for this week comes not a day soon.

Building a Security Synergy

There is no doubt that both Bangladesh and India need to build a synergy in the security tie up against terrorists of all hues including insurgencies of all brands. This is more easily said than done. In the true diplomatic fashion so far the contentious issues have been used by both sides more to score brownie points than build a lasting and trusting relationship. This is an attitudinal problem that cannot be wished away. Both the countries appear to be conscious of this.

But security link up between India and Bangladesh specifically to combat terrorist threat does not appear to have been pursued with sufficient vigour. In view of the growing terrorist threat in the region time has come for the top leadership in both countries to defer all other issues to the backburner and evolve of a working security relationship. They will have to workout a plan to sell the idea to public in both the countries. Once the minds at the top are made up in both the countries, then handling the existing contentious issues between the two will become a lot easier. Here are a few pointers where the two countries could look for such a security and law and order synergy to make the borders secure. (Many of them may not be new or original, but in a terrorism scenario they become more relevant now than ever before):

1. Imparting vigour to border security: There is talk of closer coordination of operations between BSF and Bangladesh Rifles to curb movement of terroristsThis by itself may not be adequate. As a greater show of force both sides can deploy their troops instead of paramilitary to build a cordon sanitaire to impart vigour to their counter-terrorism initiative. This would send a signal to militant groups that both countries are determined to cooperate and coordinate their security.

2. Information and intelligence sharing: This suggestion may look naïve, as Bangladesh had been a long-time host (unwittingly or otherwise) to a number of insurgent groups targeted at India. But history of intelligence is replete with even stranger situations.  If such exchange of intelligence on narcotic traffic or flood control can take place why not on terrorists? This could extend to pooling their expertise also.

3. Building common communication assets for security: Both sides can build communication network between security forces so that at a working level they can assist in each other’s operations against the movement of terrorist groups on a real time basis. They should also meet at regular intervals to exchange information and follow up on leads. Holding such meetings for the sake of form rather than content will be meaningless.

4.  Blocking sources of finance: Terrorist groups need money to recruit train and operate and train. The two countries will have to honestly implement a vigorous check and pool information on suspicious financial transactions.

5. Curbing ISI initiatives: Bangladesh needs to be convinced to carryout a house cleaning to weed out ISI implants in its body to put an end to its third country operations. In the long run, Bangladesh politicians should realize that Pakistan has no interest other than using their country as a springboard to launch operations against India.

6.  Breaking narcotic and arms smuggling rings: Narcotic and arms smuggling is rampant in the North East. The terrain of Indo-Bangladesh border lends itself for such smuggling. According to a report there were as many as 53 consignments of illegal arms imported into Bangladesh. There is a lumpen-political nexus in this racket (in India too).

7.  Restoring rule of law and law and order: Both Bangladesh and Indian states bordering them have become the refuge for lumpen elements of society who commit crimes and get away with it, using the vulnerability of the terrain to slip across the borders. With progressive criminalisation of politics, law and order situation along the borders leaves much to be desired. Both countries need to overhaul their law and order enforcement more effectively and make apprehension and handing over of criminals smoother. Of course, much of these suggestions will be meaningful only if both the countries make up their mind. As both the countries are making great efforts to improve the lot of the people, it makes economic sense to evolve and enforce a security synergy between the two countries. That is where maturity of a country comes in. Setting aside their differences both countries should work together to make their countries safe for everyone, otherwise their own democracies would be in jeopardy even though the terrorists may not belong to their own country. Let us hope they do; after all as Norman Cousins said, “Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.”

(Col R Hariharan is a specialist in counter-insurgency intelligence. He had seen active staff and field service in counter-insurgency operations in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab,Tripura and lastly in Sri Lanka with the IPKF