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15 July 2011, Gateway House

The Bangladesh bilateral: Looking to the future

The constant engagement between India and Bangladesh in the recent past has garnered a more suitable political atmosphere for enhanced bilateral relations. Looking beyond political blunders and focusing on socio-economic cooperation is at the advantage of both nations.

Director, Gateway House

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An astonishing level of misunderstanding has been a constant affliction of Indo-Bangladesh relations. The two countries have spent most of the past 40 years since the emergence of Bangladesh as independent countries talking past each other even when they meant well.

Therefore it should be no surprise that in this fortieth anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, it should be our mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has offended the Bangladeshis by remarks made precisely as he sought to commend the Sheikh Hasina government for its cooperation in apprehending “anti-Indian insurgent groups who were operating from Bangladesh for a long time and hence, India has been generous and has offered a credit of one billion dollars.”

In the preliminary remarks made at a confidential briefing to senior editors last month, which were available briefly on the Prime Minister Singh’s website before being taken down in embarrassment, the Prime Minister is reported to also have said that “we must reckon that 25% of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamaat-ul-Islami (JUL) and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI); so a political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time. We do not know what these terrorist elements, which have a hold on the JUL elements in Bangladesh, can be up to”

As a prelude to a series of visits to our eastern neighbour by Indian dignitaries, from Sonia Gandhi – who is to travel to Dhaka later this month to participate in an international conference – to the just- concluded one by the External Affairs Minister, to the Home Minister, the water Resources Minister and the PM himself in September, the timing of the gaffe could not have been worse.

Unsurprisingly the JUL reacted first slamming the remarks as “baseless” but seeming even more put out by the suggestion that they were not only close to, but controlled by, Pakistan’s ISI. They alleged that the Indian PM had been misled by his Intelligence Agencies.

Indian commentators have reacted critically, pointing out that Prime Minister Singh was just “repeating tired old tropes” and that the JUL has never won more than the 8.61% of the vote it captured in 1966 to usher in the first and short lived Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government of Khaleda Zia. But it is worth remembering that all political parties, including the ruling Awami League, have at one time or another wooed the JUL prior to elections.

One has only to look at the liberal democracies of Western Europe to confirm that political influence can far outpace voting percentages. Not only have small extreme parties in France, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden driven the agenda of the centrist parties rightward by their own racist, anti immigrant ideologies, they have also forced the governments to adopt harsher policies towards immigration by virtue of being critical to the formation of coalition governments.

So consider: about a third of the voters are secular Awami Leaguers, the third which back the BNP see themselves as nationalistic and prone to being anti-Indian, about 10% who are supporters of the JUL are proudly antagonistic to India. The remaining 20% who are opportunistic could be neutral or antagonistic depending on the prevailing political mood. That could add up to more than the hard-core 25% referred to by Prime Minister Singh. The opportunistic 20% are also the swing vote which determines which party will lead the government as seen in the BNP sweep of 2001 and the Awami League’s overwhelming victory of 2008.

The complexion of a government matters almost more than people’s inclinations. In the second Khaleda Zia government – which lasted from 2001 to 2006 in which the JUL was a powerful coalition partner – the political rhetoric was anti-Indian and there was no positive movement on the ground in bilateral matters. This bears out Prime Minister Singh’s remark that “the political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time.”

That the ISI has worked against our interests from neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal and possibly Sri Lanka is well known. It is also not news that they have had the assistance of the JUL, which had fought and committed horrendous atrocities alongside Pakistani troops to prevent the very emergence of Bangladesh, and would again be a willing partner of the ISI. In fact the terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Kolkata in 2002 and the shooting that killed a professor at the Indian Institutes of Science in Bangalore in 2005 were traced to terrorists trained and infiltrated from Bangladesh.

There is no question that this time, Sheikh Hasina has moved with courage and conviction to restore the secular character of the constitution and the ethos of Bangladeshi society and government. But it too stepped back from removing the word ‘Islamic,’ inserted by General Hussain Ershad in 1979, from the name of the country.  However by trying and punishing those convicted of the murder of Sheikh Mujib-ur-rahman and his family, the country can close a painful chapter in its history. It must also move with equal resolve to take other measures to enable the essentially tolerant nature of Bengali society to flourish without the overbearing pressure of religious dogma manipulated for political purpose.

These moves bode well for our bilateral relationship. Fortunately the External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna’s visit (July 6-9) went off well at least partly because of the maturity shown by the Bangladesh government which took the position that the brouhaha was over and it preferred to look ahead. Not only did Krishna’s counterpart honour him by receiving him at the airport, she also brushed off a pointed question about the Prime Minister’s remarks saying “such things happen.” The ministers signed two important agreements, one pertaining to the Promotion and Protection of Investments. The significance of the second, ‘Standard Operating Procedures for the Movement of Bhutanese vehicles plying between India and Bangladesh,’ should not be lost as another step in opening up the long-dormant, critical issue of transit among the four countries – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.

Notwithstanding Bangladeshi graciousness, here is something to ponder: Are we being a trifle too hasty in dismissing the Prime Minister’s remarks, to put it mildly, as “unfortunate” and “undiplomatic?”  Although context may not be everything, it is important. In his off-the-record briefing to senior editors where the Prime Minister commended the government of Bangladesh for its anti-insurgent assistance – despite continuing anti-Indian sentiments amongst a significant population of Bangladeshis – he may have been setting the stage for India to reciprocate generously to several bold, far sighted initiatives taken by Sheikh Hasina, including the handing over of hardcore ULFA terrorists and opening up discussions on transit.

This fraught issue is being dealt with more imaginatively by our neighbour in a regional framework of transit to benefit Nepal and Bhutan and not just bilaterally for India and Bangladesh. India is responding in talks on the sharing of water from common rivers, demarcation of the remaining 6.5 kilometers of boundary between the two countries, including the transfer of enclaves and adverse possessions in each other’s territories. Trade in which India should provide maximum access to Bangladeshi exports and the status of projects under the billion dollar credit line announced last year, will also figure in the upcoming summit meeting of September 2011.These are welcome steps from India where feelings towards Bangladesh are generally favourable but we have not, in the past, been generous on issues of trade or prompt in delivering promised aid.

Could it be that despite India’s blunders with Bangladesh, our eastern neighbor now has a more sophisticated understanding of its self interest? In a well-researched article in the Daily Star as far back as May 6, 2005 entitled “The India Question,” the then young journalist Zafar Sobhan had pointed out that a large part of the his country’s population was persuaded by its obscurantist leadership to express anti-Indian sentiments for years, so that no government dared to act in the interest of Bangladesh, if it also happened to benefit India.

Now, however, that may be changing to the advantage of both.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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