When the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in an informal meeting with a few editors, made the remarks that ‘twenty-five per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islam and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches of the I.S.I’, the insinuation was seen as an insult to the pride of a nation.
Bangladesh came into existence on the basis of its linguistic identity and not on it’s Islamic identity, and which has a consistent history, which Pakistan lacks, of fighting the fundamentalist forces.
Recently the Bangladesh Supreme Court banned the abuse of religion for political purposes, thereby paving the way for a secular country as envisaged in the Constitution framed by the founding fathers back in 1972. For any Bangladeshi, identifying with Pakistan is an attack on their distinctiveness.
Our Prime Minister made this unpalatable comparison that gnaws at the pride of people who made the first dent into the idea of Pakistan by revolting and separating from Islamabad. Mihir S. Sharma in Indian Express wrote that the Prime Minister’s statement “betrays a fatalism about Bangladesh’s future”, and shows New Delhi’s apparent lack of understanding of how dynamic the situation is there.Jamiat-ul-Islam has been a Pro-Pakistani Islamic group that opposed the creation of Bangladesh on the basis of its secular and linguistic identity. Its electoralacceptability to our eastern neighbour is not more than two per cent if one takes into account the 2008 elections. Even at the pinnacle of its success, the radical group could not go beyond eight per cent.
Many Bangladeshis feel that India and Indian people don’t understand the neighbour with which it shares the longest international border on the eastern front.
Times of India quoting Major (retd.) Shamsul Arefin, the author of the magnum opus, ‘Bangladesh Elections’, says that “we are a Bengali nation and we value our Bengali heritage. We are a nation of believers but we broke off from Pakistan because we were not like them. Many Indians though, especially in the far right, feel we are another Pakistan. And that is a great tragedy.”
This has been a real problem of the Indian establishment, to look at Bangladesh from the prism of Pakistan. Obsession with Faiz’s poetry has pushed Rabindranath Tagore’s “Sonar Bangla” to the margin of New Delhi’s mind space. Cultural similarities between the two sides of the Indus are emphasised so much that we forget that on the eastern border across both sides of the Ganges, we share great cultural, religious, linguistic, and attitudinal oneness.
“So fixated is New Delhi on the western border, that the benefits of looking east are continually forgotten: not just access to natural gas reserves, or to electricity for the power-starved belt of eastern India, but also the possibility that India’s Northeast, long short of routes to the outside world, will gain affordable transit rights to the sea, completely transforming its economy. For the rest of India, too, longed-for integration with the markets of Southeast Asia cannot happen if we have to go around Bangladesh to get there,” says Mihir S. Sharma in an article titled ‘The Delhi-Dhaka Distance’.
Former Union Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar also laments this distance. A couple of years ago when he was releasing a book on the North-East, ‘Troubled Periphery’ by Subir Bhoumik, he said that “it is the biggest failure of India to retain the initiative gained after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Economic relation with Bangladesh is worse than what it was with East Pakistan and this has affected the economic interest of the North-East and this is one of the reasons why the region remains a prisoner of its frontiers”, and a “golden bird remains completely caged.”
It was expected that after Sheikh Hasina’s landmark visit to India in January 2010 where she unveiled a bold bilateral agenda of co-operation against Islamic terror, electricity generation, solution to the boundary dispute, and trade transit, India would follow it up with some urgency.
Nothing has moved since then. The boldness Bangladesh was expecting on lifting the trade tariff has been missing. Dhaka could get only a minor hike in the textile quota when it was expecting much more. Similarly on the security front, our neighbour showed great boldness by handing over the North-Eastern insurgent groups taking shelter there, but we could not even return the gesture. We never fail to taunt Bangladesh on the illegal migration issue but fail to control the killings at the border.
The late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, signed a framework agreement on the boundary in 1974, but in four decades we have been unable to sort out the issue.
No wonder the lack of initiative and proper interaction with Bangladesh has over the years bred anti-India sentiment. Dhaka based columnist Zafar Sobhan echoes this sentiment when he says that “if he (Manmohan Singh) is referring to Bangladesh resentment against what is perceived to be India’s looking down on Bangladesh and its supercilious and condescending attitude, then the sentiment is well-nigh universal inside the country.”
Another problem is India’s failure to develop a solid bipartisan foreign policy -vis-a-vis Bangladesh. Our ties with the eastern neighbour swings with the change in regime. We promote the Awami League and do not develop a working camaraderie with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main Opposition party. This also fuels anti-India sentiment among large sections of the Bangladeshi society.
In the last week of July, Congress President Sonia Gandhi will be going to Dhaka which would be followed by the visit of the Indian Prime Minister in September, the first ever visit by any Indian head of the state in the last twelve years. Many key agreements, like, the sharing of Teesta waters and the removal of tariff barriers on Bangladesh products, are likely to be signed during Manmohan Singh’s visit.
David M. Malone in his book on Indian foreign policy, ‘Does the Elephant Dance’, says that “she (Sheikh Hasina) will have to overcome conflicted feelings among Bangladeshis towards the larger, more powerful and economically more successful neighbour” and “one means of achieving greater harmony would be to hitch Bangladesh’s economic prospects more clearly to the rising economic stars of India.”
No doubt deeper economic relationship with the eastern neighbour will go a long way in sorting out the problems of perception.
New Delhi will have to recognise the rapid economic rise of Dhaka and its important role in the success of the ‘Look East Policy’. At a time when we are giving a new direction to our foreign policy, Bangladesh, occupies an important strategic place in our scheme of things.
Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi-based journalist, who covers national and international politics and trends.