A cold peace
In January 2010, when Bangladeshi prime minister visited New Delhi, our media gave it an extensive coverage. In India, not so much. And here is Diganta’s number crunching, making essentially the same point more generally. As Bangladeshis await the arrival of Dr Manmohan Singh and company, there is once again a blanket coverage of India related topics in the Deshi media. The usual Indophobe crowd is up to the hai hai chorus. And then there is a much bigger contingency of hoi hoi party. Ignoring the hypersensitive vernacular media, let’s focus on the sophisticated lot in the Daily Star. Even there, the India relation is crowding out other issues. And the pieces coming out in that paper make essentially two (not mutually exclusive, but separate) points: it’s India’s turn to give (example: Shahedul Anam Khan), or we’ve got to stop being paranoid about India and do things maturely like it was under Mujib (example: Rehman Sobhan).
Here is a crazy idea: how about a cold peace with India? What do I mean by ‘cold peace’? Let me echo this excellent articulation by Diganta:
I personally think that policy-makers in Bangladesh should not involve in much of ‘friendships’ with India due to the asymmetry between these two countries. Bangladesh built its Garments sector without much help/opposition from India. The rest of the world (may be USA, Europe and Japan) still plays more part in developing Bangladesh than India does. Bangladesh should continue to invest in relationships with these countries.
India is a competitor of Bangladesh in global scale and it has more hungry people to feed. Bangladesh has little to gain by co-operating with India as India has little to complement shortages of Bangladesh – such as infrastructure, industralization or capital. The only area where both might co-operate for a win-win solution is IT/Software – something that’s never talked about.
At the same time, Bangladesh should not enter into a state of enimity too, due to the asymmetry mentioned earlier. Because of geography and difference in size and population, any kind of enimity may come hard on Bangladesh.
However, the political parties in Bangladesh are engaged to color any of India-centric issue with positives of 1971 or negatives afterwards. The problem is – the India-centric issues are ubiquitous – they’ll keep coming – as Bangladesh is virtually surrounded by India. The issue of river-water or killer BSF didn’t arise with other countries, but Bangladesh does not share rivers or borders with any other countries as it does with India (in terms of magnitude). So, more issues might send entire Bangladesh political space into a couple of downward spirals – one smaller positive and the bigger other negative – and every possible move afterwards might be calculated in terms of Indian gain or losses instead of calculating loss or gain of the country itself. Unfortunately, that will let India play even more important role in Bangladesh – something that Indian politicians want and Bangladesh people don’t want. A similar attitude towards India sent Pakistan into dire straits – first it engaged itself in a war in Afghanistan, then tried the same in Kashmir and at the end terrorism is back to Pakistan.
The ideal policy is “you do your stuff, I’ll take care of mine”. The need of the hour is an “easy relationship” with India – issues will be dealt with mostly transparent ways, if required, under International treaties and with suggestions from International bodies. However, I didn’t see any such moves from current Govts towards that direction.
Okay, let’s unpack the above step-by-step.
The first thing to note is how little Bangladesh matters to India.
Ramachandra Guha is one of my most favourite chroniclers of India. And his India after Gandhi is one of the best book on modern India. The book also reveals something quite interesting about which of their neighbours the Indian punditry care about. Bangladesh is mentioned in the book in 15 pages, out of nearly 800, with four being on 1971. Meanwhile, there are 200 entries on Pakistan in its index. Bhutto appears in eight pages, Ziaul Huq in one. Mujib makes four appearances, none of his successors get a mention.
Or consider David Malone’s Does the elephant dance? Contemporary Indian foreign policy — a 400 page book where Bangladesh appears in 20 or so pages, slightly above Afghanistan. And speaking of Afghanistan, here is a comparison of India’s assistance to Afghanistan with the $1 billion lent to Bangladesh (which, in the scheme of things, is hardly a big deal even in Bangladesh).
Any time you hear about the vast Indian conspiracy to subjugate Bangladesh, keep the above para in mind. No one really cares about Bangladesh in New Delhi, except for one subject — security.
During the last decade, Indian foreign and national security establishment did come to care about Bangladesh in a very negative manner. It came to believe, quite justifiably it would now appear, that Bangladesh was either a willing accomplice with, or a passive safe haven to, forces hostile to India’s territorial integrity. There is a very high probability that extremist groups in the Indian northeast had been active in Bangladesh. And some rightwing pundits even go so far as to say that groups like ULFA deserve Bangladeshi support in the same way Mukti Bahini deserved Indian support — the mental gymnastics required for the self-professed defenders of the Bengali Muslims’ separate identity to come to this position given the ULFA’s origin in crass anti-Bengali Muslim xenophobia is a subject of its own post.
However, all that is in the past. The current government has effectively dismantled the militant infrastructure. That was the right thing to do regardless of how it is perceived in India. These militants and extremists have been nothing but trouble for Bangladesh. Good riddance that they are gone. Why don’t we leave it at that?
Of course, security concerns can cut both ways. India did support two insurgencies against the Bangladeshi state. But both the Shanti Bahini insurgency and Kader Siddiqi’s ‘resistance’ after 1975 are long finished. In fact, thanks to Ziaur Rahman’s adroit diplomacy, India abandoned both ventures over three decades ago. If India were to play funny games again, why can’t Zia’s policy be repeated?
So it seems to me that at least as far as security is concerned, a ‘cold peace’ is perfectly fine. What are the other big issues? Trade? Transit? Water?
Diganta’s comment above deals with the trade issue directly. Bangladesh has built a strong export industry without access to the Indian market. Exports held up remarkably well during the Great Recession. And there are further positive signs. Access to the Indian market will be useful. If it doesn’t happen, will it be a big deal?
In fact, given the general indifference towards Bangladesh in the Indian bureaucracy, regardless of whatever piece of paper the two prime ministers sign, I’d expect very little progress on the ground. But again I ask, what will it matter if trade with India is sluggish?
And more controversially, let me contend that a variation of the same basic point holds when it comes to water. India is upstream, it has been unilaterally diverting water away from us. We may sign a deal that gives us something. There is a lot of chatter about a deal on Teesta. Here is a good primer on the subject, which can be used as a benchmark about what’s a fair deal. But whatever deal is signed, given Indian constitution, its implementation will be problematic if
West Bengal Mamata Banerjee is not involved. Meanwhile, China may well build dams further upstream, ignoring both India and Bangladesh, making any deal — fair or unfair — completely redundant. And let’s not even raise the spectre of climate change.
As for transit, well, what’s there to say beyond what I’ve said here — don’t let anyone fool you, it’s not a big deal.
That leaves two other issues — maritime border and border killing. Here is a good primer of the first issue, which is not even going to be raised during Dr Singh’s visit. And that’s probably fine. As Diganta says, if an issue cannot be resolved bilaterally, Bangladesh should take it to international arena. That’s what’s happening with the maritime boundary issue.
The problem, however, is with the person chosen to represent Bangladesh. In fact, much more worrying than ‘the threat to sovereignty from transit’ is the sheer nepotism involved in cases like that Mr Tawfiq Nawaz. And sadly the problem is by no means limited to this case.
But that’s the thing — nepotism and incompetence is endemic in Bangladesh, and it’s not just India policy that suffers.
Which then brings us to the border killing. And here we — private citizens, bloggers, journalists, activists — can play a role. And I’d say that we have been playing a role. Couple of years ago, this issue barely registered anywhere outside the rightwing Bangladeshi media. Now the issue is well acknowledged in western as well as Indian media. And Indian government has been forced into acting.
Again, don’t expect a miracle. People will continue to die. But at least partly through our collective actions, from both sides of the border, the death toll could be kept to a minimum.
It’s interesting that the latest Economist piece on Bangladesh hasn’t caused much storm in Dhaka. Here is what they think is being aimed for:
Both countries are attempting to establish ties that West and East Germany were able to take for granted even at the height of the Cold War: an undisputed international border; only infrequent border killings; and a well-established transit system for trains, goods and passengers—income from which helped the poorer country to pay its bills.
A cold peace with ‘only infrequent border killings’ will be just fine. Let’s stop being fooled by the hoi hoi and hai hai parties, and work towards that.