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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 25 New Delhi June 13, 2015

Bangladesh: India Rectifies a Policy Deficiency

Saturday 13 June 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

For decades, diplomats in South-East Asia approached New Delhi for forging closer relations with India and were in turn ignored by the latter. Their governments were in turn left wondering why India, the only conceivable counter-weight to China in Asia, was so unwilling to play its due role. That India has since woken up to the reality in South-Eastern Asia is another matter altogether.

By comparison, Bangladeshis must have been a far more bemused people when considering how they had been treated by their greatest benefactor, India, since the birth of their nation. Bangladesh is the only nation that fought for freedom on the issue of preserving its language, a language and its corollary, culture, that it shares with India.

But Banagladesh is also a Muslim country with an overwhelming Muslim majority in its population. Of the two countries that emerged out of British India in August 1947, India chose to be a religion-neutral and secular country; Pakistan became a Muslim country because that was the basis on which it was formed. The two-nation theory, however, failed to be vindicated by the birth of Pakistan because a huge number of Muslims chose to stay back in India as did many Hindus, Christians and Buddhists in the newly-formed Pakistan.

The two-nation theory failed a second time when East Pakistan revolted against the discrimi-nations it had been suffering at the hands of Rawalpindi. The Bangladesh liberation war was fought in 1971 on the issue of preserving the Bengali language and culture.

It may not be too much of a digression if we take a glimpse of how East Pakistan changed dramatically once the revolt against Pakistan erupted, for this may help us appreciate better how much a truly cooperative relationship with India means to Bangladesh.

G. M. Mohiuddin, the Rawalpindi correspon-dent of Dhaka’s Observer Group of Publications, recounted: “I somehow managed to reach Dacca by March 23 (1971). It appeared that Dacca was not a part of Pakistan. Wherever I looked, I found the green-red-golden coloured flags of Bangla Desh (that was how the name was spelt at the time) fluttering. I didn’t see the Pakistani flag anywhere. I heard that the Pakistani flags flew only in the cantonment areas. Listening to the Dacca Betar Kendra and reading the newspapers minutely, I imagined that day when I was a free citizen of independent Bangla Desh. (Life With The Generals: A Bangla Desh Journalist Recounts His Experiences, Vidura Anthology, Bangla Desh Special Number, Vol. 8, No. 4, September-October, 1971)

However, language and culture or even the question of sharing power with the Bengalis of East Pakistan did not lead to the break-up of Pakistan. The economic colonisation of the East by the West also lay at the root of the Bengalis’ disaffection with the Punjabis. According to the Planning Commission of Pakistan, an estimated $ 2. 6 billion worth of East Pakistan’s resources were transferred to West Pakistan between 1948-49 and 1968-69. In 1959-60 the per capita income in the West was 32 per cent higher than in the East but it grew phenomenally to 61 per cent by 1969-70. On the other hand, during 1950-70 East Pakistan accounted for 50-70 per cent of Pakistan’s export earnings but received only 25-30 per cent of the imports. (Ibid.)

Bangladeshis have since felt that irrespective of the history and assuming that the liberation occurred in a different country altogether, India, as the first country to have earned its freedom from the colonial masters since World War II and, to boot, the largest democracy in the world, would surely have rallied behind them as a worthy cause to support.

However, with all the history behind India-Bangladesh relations and the enormous disparity in every aspect of statehood, Bangladesh cannot fathom the traditional indifference with which Indian diplomacy has treated it. This has been reflected in many ways in various policy statements of its government.

Quite clearly, the euphoria and general appreciation of the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during June 6-7 by the political class, media and the people reflect an optimism that the days of inexplicable nonchalance are finally over.

Perhaps the most comprehensive representation of the way Bangladesh looks at the Modi visit is available in the Daily Star editorial published on June 8 and this deserves some elaborate quotation.

While appreciating the outcome of the Modi visit, the newspaper made it clear that the true test of India’s avowedly benevolent neighbourhood-first policy will lie in effecting a “positive discrimination” in favour of Bangladesh. Its message is that all the talk and action on building connectivity and infrastructure should not deteriorate into yet another expansion of India’s market in Bangladesh but in bringing about the necessary benefits to the poorer neighbour like helping it to expand its global trade by investing in infrastructure. “Herein lies the case for ‘positive discrimination’ and the true test for Modi’s neighbourhood first policy,” the newspaper said. “Will it be to exploit the neighbourhood first or one to help them scale new heights of economic prosperity is the question. We believe that PM Modi’s position is the latter.”

“There is nothing on Teesta (the dispute over an equitable sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers flowing between the two countries,a truly emotive issue in Bangladesh, added), yet we have agreed on all forms of transit in the name of connectivity. This outcome is not an evidence of the persuasive power of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in the sense that he, like his predecessor, has also failed at least for the time being to persuade West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee agree to the draft Teesta Water Sharing Agreement which as a result must once again be kept pending, added). To be fair to Mr (Manmohan) Singh, he did most of the preparatory work.” (The reference is to 2011 when Ms Banerjee cancelled her visit to Dhaka along with Mr Singh at the last moment causing avoidable embarrass-ment to New Delhi because she did not wish to be seen collaborating with the Indian Government in the matter. This time, she joined Mr Modi but the Teesta issue remained unresolved.)

The “no holds barred” welcome extended to the visiting Prime Minister saw the Bangladesh Government making every effort while “all political parties literally fell head over heels to meet Modi. The Bangladesh National Party (the main Opposition party) and Jamaat-e-Islami (the main Islamic party) went public to say how they were never anti-Indian in their policies.”

The media went all out with full, uncritical and extensive coverage of the Indian Prime Minister’s maiden visit. “In fact, this paper (Daily Star, Bangladesh, the largest selling English daily) itself went much further than it did ever before.”

Explaining the phenomenon, the newspaper said: “All of this is both due to our emotional nature and an intuitive belief that PM Modi will deliver where others have failed”, noting that the belief was based on two things, the delivery of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement and “more crucially and impressively”, the manner in which he was able to bring about the crucial (Indian) constitutional amendment without a single vote of dissent.

Lauding Modi for his policy of “neighbourhood-first” policy, the newspaper commented tellingly: “No Indian Prime Minister ever said nothing other than being very attentive to her neighbours. But, unfortunately, ’neighbours’ usually meant Pakistan and occasionally China. All this will be changed by Prime Minister Modi, we hope, and we in Bangladesh must encourage him to do so and do so fast... then Bangladesh will naturally emerge as India’s most important neighbour, keeping China aside for the moment. If that happens—and we do not see why not—then the sky is the limit for our bilateral cooperation.”

Coming to the crucial point that Bangladesh apparently wishes to emphasise to India, the editorial said that eventuality the impressive number of 22 agreements and Memoranda of Understanding signed by the two countries should lead to major material gains for Bangladesh and not just bring further riches to the bourgeoning Indian economy.

Pointing out that there was already a “massive” rise in Bangladesh’s global trade, the newspaper said that this had raised the country’s needs for foreign direct investment (FDI) many times over, an area in which Indian investors would be expected to play a major role. And, central to rising trade was the development of infrastructure which lay at the heart of connectivity for which a significant number of MOUs had been signed by the two countries.

However, (and this is where Bangladesh will primarily expect India to pay attention to), connectivity without a serious policy guideline of benefit to Bangladesh will mainly help India to sell its goods to Bangladesh and through Bangladesh to India’s North-Eastern States, and its bigger and stronger economy will give quicker and faster benefit to India.

Therefore, two tests lie ahead for India to successfully pass. One is of course the coming to fruition of the draft Teesta and Feni river water sharing agreement. The other is a visible availability of multiple benefits to Bangladesh as a result of the various concessions that the country has so willingly granted India. Bangladesh already stands to gain considerably from the agreements and MOUs. But it has other demands which it expects India to meet now.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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