In India’s shadow

Posted in foreign policy, India by jrahman on August 12, 2012

After some of the recent posts, a few regular readers have asked whether there has been any fundamental change in my views about India or history.  There hasn’t.

On history, I am a student, not an expert.  And my views are ever evolving.  But I still maintain that there was nothing inevitable about 1947 or 1971 or any other seminal event.  There were complex socioeconomic factors at play, and key people made fateful choices, and history turned out the way it did.  And I seek to understand those factors and those choices.

On India — or the Indo-Bangla relations, to be specific — I have always been, and remain, skeptic.  I believe there is a lot of heat, but not enough light, on the subject.  And when all is said and done, I still maintain ‘don’t believe the hype‘.  This post bursts the hype around ‘economic integration with India’.  Over the fold, let me tackle the hype of Indophobia.

Just as the benefits of economic integration with India are not as dramatic as some argue, so is the fear of India much over-hyped.  Bangladesh will be better off if 65 years after we parted from India politically, we can get over India mentally.

What kind of Indophobic stories does one hear in Bangladesh?

First there is the good old fashioned tale of the Brahmanic domination.  This is the stuff of thousand year old Hindu-Muslim animosity.  I wish I could dismiss this as fringe views of conspiracy theory nuts.  Sadly, many otherwise seemingly sensible people believe that India is run by a few high-caste oligarchs out to subjugate Muslims (and others).  These people seem to have no clue whatsoever about the reality of India.  And frankly, I have little time or energy to waste discussing India (or anything for that matter) with folks who believe this stuff.

There are, however, a number of other stories that, at first glance at least, appear plausible.

One such is the notion that there is a commitment among the Indian establishment (or the political or cultural elite, or use whatever word you prefer to describe the people who run India) to undo partition, at least when it comes to Bangladesh.  The Indian nationalist project — the one articulated by Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Azad of teeming multitudes chutneyfying into one India; the whole এক দেহে হলো লীন business — stands unfinished as long as Bangladesh remains outside the Indian Union.

Why Bangladesh and not Pakistan?  Well, perhaps Pakistan too.  But perhaps, as Sardar Patel said, Pakistan is the cancerous part of the body that needs to be surgically ‘hacked off’ (to use Shashi Tharoor’s word).  Perhaps the border of India can be drawn at the Punjab plains instead of the Afghan hills.  But Bangladesh — that’s a different matter.  Just look at the map — Bangladesh makes for an uncomfortable hole in the imagination of the India that Pundit Nehru discovered.

If one takes this view seriously, then it’s straightforward that Bangladesh’s very existence is at threat from the Indian nationalist imagination.  Not the Hindutva fire breathing chauvinistic nationalism.  Not any Brahmanic conspiracy.  But the secular, pluralist Indian nationalism of Nehru-Tagore-Azad-Gandhi.

Ironic, no?

There is just one problem with this view — people who run India are more complex and diverse than the Nehruvian vision described above.  In fact, one can argue about the very existence of any one group of people who runs India.  Arguably, Indian state machinery, cultural symbols, corporate sector, foreign and defence policy establishment, political process, civil activism, are not run by any one homogenous lot.  Arguably, there are many players competing to have a say in any one of these many facets of ‘India’.  And very few of these players even believe in the Nehruvian ideals.

Thus, when it comes to Bangladesh, business tycoons of Bangalore or Hyderabad probably have very different views compared with the caste based populist politicians of the Hindi belt.  In fact, arguably none of these people really care all that much about Bangladesh.

Observation, as opposed to a priori theorising or blind prejudice, would suggest that there are two kinds of people in India who care about Bangladesh.  First, there are the ‘national security’ types — of all shades from Congresswallah secularists to Hindutva brigade — who sees Bangladesh as a potential source of instability, either as an exporter of insurgency and violent politics, or as a conduit of Chinese or Pakistani designs.  And second, the regional politicians in Paschim Banga or Indian north east who sees Bangladesh a menacing giant whose very size and presence can be easily demagogued — observe Mamata Banerjee carefully, or follow ethnic politics of Assam, to see what I mean.

This observation supports two other kinds of anti-Indian stories in Bangladesh, while debunks a third one.

Let’s start with the story that’s debunked.  That story goes like this: India wants a captive market in Bangladesh where a reasonably sized middle class will buy its products, but it should never become sufficiently prosperous because then it will be a shining example to Paschim Banga, north eastern states, and others who also want to make it on their own.  That typical politician or opinion maker in these states don’t actually have a friendly attitude to Bangladesh should disabuse one of this story.  The story is also nonsense because Bangladesh is not an Indian captive market, and there is no mechanism by which India (or its corporate sector) can make it one unless we commit economic suicide.

Let’s think this through?  What’s a captive market?  A captive market is where the buyer has no choice in where they get their stuff.  East Pakistan was a captive market of West Pakistan.  In the pre-1971 Pakistan, eastern wing had no control over the foreign currency or import policies.  It had to buy whatever the central government — dominated by West Pakistan — allowed.  Is that the situation in Bangladesh?  Bangladesh buys most of its food stuff from India, consumer goods from China, and capital equipment from the advanced economies.  And this composition of imports make good economic sense — Indian eggs and onions, Chinese TVs, and Japanese factory equipment are actually cheaper for Bangladesh.  And it’s hard to see what the Indian businessmen, even if they so wanted, could do to change this.  Perhaps in 1972 Bangladesh had a risk of becoming an Indian captive market.  But that simply is not the case in 2012.

Right then, two debunked stories.  What about the two other stories that could actually be realistic?

Recall that there are many in India who sees Bangladesh as a source of instability.  And there may well be good reasons for some apprehension about Bangladesh in (some) Indian mind.  But then again, it’s easy to overdo that fear.  And it’s also easy to see how that apprehension among (some) Indians can lead to apprehensions and fears in Bangladesh.  Even if Bangladesh takes steps to assuage Indian fears — by, say, shutting down ULFA camps — not everyone in the Indian national security establishment might be convinced.  That, in turn, could lead to a future Bangladeshi government (of perhaps even Awami persuasion) to restart some old networks and connections.

The problem here is not that the Indian establishment distrusts Bangladesh.  Rather, the issue is that there is no one the Indian establishment — even in the national security sphere — but multiple actors with their own beliefs and agenda, and it’s hard for Bangladesh to convince everyone that it really is no threat.

And this leads to the perhaps most sensible Indophobic — or Indo-skeptic, to be more accurate — story, which is that Bangladesh is just too small to matter in India.  This means that even a well meaning and friendly government in Dhaka will be ignored.  After all, isn’t that the most straightforward explanation of why the current government’s India policy has failed to reap any tangible dividend?

One implication of this story is that even accepting Indian hegemony isn’t a good alternative for Bangladesh, because players who matter in New Delhi aren’t interested in Bangladesh’s welfare.  Contrast this with, say, the West Europeans who accepted American hegemony during the Cold War.

So what does that mean for Bangladesh?

Well, in terms of foreign policy, I maintain that Cold Peace is Bangladesh’s best option.  And in terms of domestic politics, this would mean discarding India as a wedge issue.

As it happens, BNP’s handling of ‘India issues’ give me ample hope that this is exactly what we are heading towards.  BNP’s 2008 election campaign ended up being pretty much about India bashing.  But in the subsequent years, it has developed a far more nuanced stance.  It doesn’t call for supporting ‘freedom struggles’ in India or threaten a march to the border.  Rather, from Tipaimukh to transit to border killings, it has behaved exactly like any responsible opposition in any mature democracy would do — support government stance if national interest can be demonstrated, oppose it on principle otherwise.  I understand Mrs Zia is planning on a trip to India when ‘the temperature is lower in New Delhi’.  Here is to wishing that she ushers an era of Cold Peace.

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3 Responses

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  1. Escaping India’s shadow « Mukti said, on September 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    […] few weeks ago, I wrote about Bangladesh’s place in India’s shadow – the idea that Bangladesh is just too small relative to India, meaning that even a friendly […]

  2. BDAF said, on November 11, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I would add to this that there are many in the “Indian establishment” that can garner support in India (among right-wing Hindu fundamentalists & those surrounding states you mentioned) by actively promoting an anti-Bangladesh agenda. So it’s not merely about convincing everyone that Bangladesh poses no security threat. Because not everyone desires to be convinced.

    • jrahman said, on November 15, 2012 at 9:23 am

      Indeed. Good point.

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