September 3, 2011

Reciprocal neighbourly gestures

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh is expected to mark a new era in bilateral ties as some long pending issues like ‘border demarcation’ and ‘transit to the seven sister states’ are likely to be resolved.

But has Dr. Singh done his homework? Just over a month ago in a meeting with five newspaper editors, his ‘off-the-record’ comments that “at least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI,” have hurt many Bangladeshis. He seems grossly uninformed about the present day Bangladesh. There is little appreciation of the steps taken by the current Awami League government to revert to a secular constitution.

In the last elections held in December 2008, Jamaat-e-Islami (Dr. Singh got the name wrong) received only 4 percent of votes and won less than 1 percent of seats in the parliament. Moreover, many Jamaat leaders are behind bars now as they are under trial for their crimes against humanity in the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. Dr. Singh’s 25 percent prediction is far off the mark and is actually adding to the apprehension among a growing number of politically aware Bangladeshis about India.

Photo: Lamentables

Photo: Lamentables

Dr. Singh seems to have little idea what really irks Bangladeshis about India. In his remarks, he did not pay heed to the considerable number of extra-judicial killings of Bangladeshis near the international border by India’s Border Security Force each year —an issue which has been flagged by many international human rights agencies. The Tipaimukh barrage issue and the sharing of water of the Teesta and Ganga rivers are hot issues in Bangladesh. Instead of addressing them, Dr. Singh spoke about offering a line of credit of one billion dollars to Bangladesh. This, many believe, is a carrot which is not only relatively expensive, but also comes with the condition that the money will have to be spent on Indian goods and services. Instead of calling it generous, many Bangladeshis are terming it as an expansion of India’s business interests through commercial loans.

Because Dr. Singh’s announcement to visit Bangladesh in early September came after his controversial remarks (which were later removed from the official transcript), it seems more like damage control. It also overshadows the main focus of the tour – to secure the historic Indo-Bangla land pact agreement which will solve the long awaited border demarcation issues and the transit through Bangladesh. This itself should be a landmark achievement for Dr. Singh because it meets India’s long-standing request for overland transit.

The present Awami League government has shown its goodwill to have better ties with India by taking a number of steps, including apprehending ULFA insurgents on Bangladeshi soil and handing them over to India. Historically India has felt comfortable in dealing with the Awami League government. It is unclear whether India is aware that the path of the Awami League government is filled with obstacles. With the growing hunger for energy needed for development, Bangladesh is struggling to improve on its poor infrastructure. The main opposition, Bangladesh National Party has been weakened by the ongoing corruption trial against several of their party leaders including the sons of Khaleda Zia, who are in exile. But it seems ready to take on the Awami League, highlighting the faults of the government including scrapping of the neutral caretaker administration system during the parliamentary elections.

The Hasina government’s biggest threat is the Jamaat-e-Islami itself, which is on the backfoot with most of its influential leaders behind bars, being tried for war crimes under national and international law. Her government has taken a tough stand against terrorism and fundamentalism. The huge inflow of cash from some Middle Eastern countries to the terror breeding madrassas had been stopped thanks to the stern government regulations. But these countries are not giving up easily. Some of them are pressing Bangladesh by threatening to expel its migrant workers, whose remittances are a lifeline of Bangladesh economy.

It has been alleged that Jamaat-e-Islami is spending huge sums of money in Western countries to lobby for release of their leaders by accusing that Awami League government’s trial of crimes against humanity as political repression and violation of human rights. Recent effects of such lobbying are evident from a range of articles in international print media such as The Economist which accused the Awami League of winning the last election through “bags of Indian cash and advice”. Another article claimed that the Indo-Bangla pact on transit through Bangladesh will create an “Indian security corridor” at the expense of Bangladesh’s interests.

Amidst these developments, India has neither publicly refuted these allegations nor publicised that the pact will be an win-win situation for both the countries. A strong opposition in to the pact seems to be growing in Bangladesh. The opposition BNP has threatened to call a strike if the Indian Prime Minister lands in Bangladesh without disclosing the details of the agreement.

If the Indo-Bangla pact is successfully signed, the present Bangladeshi government would have taken a bold step to further the relations between the two countries. But what does Bangladesh get in return except for the line of credit which it doesn’t need? India’s Television channels have unlimited access in Bangladesh. Will Indian people have the choice to see Bangladeshi Television through cable in any Indian city? Will the number of killings at the Indo-Bangla borders (136 in last two years) decrease? Will more Bangladeshi goods have access to Indian markets to counter the trade imbalance? Will Bangladesh have fair share of water of the common tributaries according to the water sharing contracts? Will Bangladesh have transit access to Nepal and Bhutan? These are the questions which many Bangladeshis are asking.

Bangladesh recently awarded Indira Gandhi with its highest state honor – Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona for her “outstanding contribution” to the country’s independence from Pakistan. She took a bold step to shelter 10 million Bangladeshis in distress, helped Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan and traveled across the world to mobilise support for Bangladesh. She was successful in sending those 10 million Bangladeshis home with the help of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972. In contrast, India is unable to handle some alleged border infiltration issues without letting neighbourly relations rot. India and Bangladesh need to work together as friendly neighbours to solve problems.

India has to do much more in giving importance to Bangladesh and address problems in bolstering the ties between the two countries. It is in India’s interest that Bangladesh remains a friendly neighbour and is not used for terror attacks in India. Both the countries can only benefit if the mutual mistrust is quickly overcome.

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