Indo-Bangla relations — who cares?

Posted in foreign policy by jrahman on February 25, 2011

Not even two months in, this has already been a very eventful year.  The Yunus saga, DSE crash, border killing, municipal poll, the Meherjaan controversy, Arab revolutions, World Cup… so many things to write about, and only so little time to write anything meaningful after you’ve absorbed the information.

Amid the din, the first anniversary of the Hasina-Manmohan summit got crowded out.  I planned to do a longish post in January.  That didn’t happen, and I thought of a series of shorter posts.  That doesn’t seem to be working all that well either.  This is an attempt to change that — second part of a four part series on Indo-Bangla relations.

The short answer to the question in the title is: the foreign policy establishment of Bangladesh does, a lot; but the Indian foreign policy establishment, by and large, doesn’t.   That asymmetry if care is very much rational, and it matters a lot. 

That Bangladeshis in general, the chattering classes in particular, and the foreign policy establishment  specifically, care a lot about India is self-evident.  And justifiably so — there are very few sectors in Bangladesh where it’s impossible to think of a dimension through which things Indian don’t matter. 

But the reverse is not true.  There are only a handful of areas in India where things Bangladeshi do matter. 

Water?  Look at the map.

Trade?  Indian consumers might benefit from Bangladeshi products, or they might not — hardly a decisive factor in quality of life.  But if the borders are closed, Bangladeshi consumers will be hit really hard.

People?  Indian households and businesses gain from cheap Bangladeshi labour.  But India too has a lot of poor people.  Close the borders and the construction bosses in Hyderabad or rich housewives of Mumbai will find their menial labour elsewhere.  Meanwhile, Bangladeshi cities will have to accommodate the surplus labour that now goes across the border. 

Transit?  Now we are talking about something that Indians might care about more than Bangladeshi.  I say might, because even here it’s not straightforward. 

On the economic front, the benefits to Bangladesh does not appear to be as big as first suggested.  How big are the benefits to India?  I don’t know, but given how small the North East Indian market is, I am not sure it will be big.  And in any case, the point for trade or people hold for transit too — India is much too big for marginal changes in its relation with Bangladesh to make much difference, whereas such changes can matter more for Bangladesh.

But there is another dimension to transit (aka connectivity), related to a whole dfferent area, where India probably cares a lot — security.  India has been battling a number of insurgencies in its North Eastern states for decades.  A friendly Bangladesh with defence connectivity (whether in the form of a full-blown defence pact, or through military corridor through Bangladeshi territory, or through military-to-military co-operation or something less formal and more ad hoc) will make a huge difference to the Indian counterinsurgency effort, while a hostile Bangladesh (that actively trains and arms the insurgents, or passively allows others — Pakistan, China — to use its territory) can hamper such effort. 

So surely India cares about Bangladesh’s attitude on this matter.  As it happens, getting involved with the Indian insurgents is a terrible idea for Bangladesh — events of 2004-06 speak for themselves.  Therefore, it’s solid policy for any Bangladeshi government to dissassociate itself with any Indian insugency. 

And that creates a rather perverse outcome.  As soon as Indians realise that Bangladesh is not in the business of allowing its territory to the insurgents  and other powers, India has no interest in resolving any other outstanding issue.  But Bangladesh clearly cannot get involved with the insurgents because the cost has historically proven to be too high. 

To put it bluntly — hard ball (as tried by various BNP governments) don’t work, but nor does softly softly (as tried by various AL governments). 

Indo-Bangla relations — who cares?  Maybe the question to ask is, so what?

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  1. […] Rahman at Mukti comments on a sad fact of India-Bangladesh relation: “as soon as Indians realize that Bangladesh is […]

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  3. Udayan said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Excellent piece. One of the few Bangladeshi viewpoints I have seen which articulate the imbalance so succinctly without wailing about unrequited emotions.

    On security, I would argue that there are other countries – in particular Nepal and Bhutan – that can cause as much – if not more damage to India. So, the equational problem in Indo-Bangla issues still remains – and, even on the security leverage, if BD cares, it needs to figure out how it can be on the radar when there are other equally strong pulls on Delhi’s attention. And on that note, I’m not sure I agree that all in Bangladesh are convinced of the following: “it’s solid policy for any Bangladeshi government to dissassociate itself with any Indian insugency.” I’m not looking forward to 2014.

    • dhakashohor said, on March 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      That “wailing” is ironic right? 🙂 Surely you can see how using attributing irrationality and over-emotionalism to the Other is as old as the Raj, if not older.

      • Udayan said, on March 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm

        Re-reading I can see my comment came across in a way it shouldn’t have. Didn’t mean it to make it sound like BD reaction was the one sided irrational one – my premise is that it’s a response to India’s (unreasonable) behaviour. My point is that BD shouldn’t be “wailing” – wasting hours on “why don’t they treat us respect etc” – if India doesn’t care in the first place (and it should). No offense meant.

      • dhakashohor said, on March 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm

        No offence taken, I assure you. It just didn’t sound like your usual self. I agree with it to a large extent, but BD’s “Look East” policy has not been much of a success. Connecting with east Asians isn’t always easy. I guess most Bangladeshis identify more with the SRK than Tony Leung. 🙂 And, of course, neither Indians nor the Chinese have heard of Manna.

  4. Diganta said, on March 1, 2011 at 3:18 am

    First, I don’t see any reason Bangladesh should also care too much about India relations. Bangladesh has developed their garments sector in last 20 years – without any help or opposition of India. Look East policy to extend relationship with SEA nations should be on higher priority. In short, Bangladesh should enter in multilateral relationships rather than sticking to bilateral ones. Otherwise, being a smaller neighbor beside a huge country will always be disadvantageous for Bangladesh – be they use terror strategies or be they not. This is the right time to show this maturity in foreign relations. The bilateral issues should be put to Internationally accepted dispute resolution processes, similar to what has been done in Maritime boundary case (of course after trying to go bilateral way). I’m not sure the outcome would always be in favor of Bangladesh, but I still think it won’t matter much for them. But in case it goes in favor of Bangladesh, the world would be aware of the issues and would be easy to garner multilateral support for their cause.

    As per terror as a strategy, both India (LTTE) and Pakistan (LET) has burnt their fingers in this way to support terror in neighbors. It’s definitely not the best way to get an attention to an issue. Also, even if it gains a few attention from India, it will significantly damage Bangladesh’s position multilaterally.

  5. jrahman said, on March 5, 2011 at 7:01 am

    All valid points that I plan to cover in a follow up post.

  6. Vishal Mehra said, on March 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Nicely written, good to read things from your point of view


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