Monday, March 21, 2011

Transit to India: Is Bangladesh inviting troubles?

In this age of globalization, when nations, economies, governments and businesses are becoming ever more interdependent and interlinked, and when numerous regional economic blocs connect almost every country in the world, there should be nothing outlandish or extraordinary in Bangladesh government's readiness to grant land-transit facilities through its territory to neighbouring India. Why then, so many people in Bangladesh seem to be troubled so much with the way the transit-cookie is being crumbled? Why then, so many of them apprehend that driven to the short end of the stick Bangladesh is digging canal to invite crocodiles? Why then so many of them are raising concerns that the proposed transit facility may cause havoc to their economy and wreck their sovereignty? Obviously, there is more to the story than what ordinary eyes can catch.
   India's help in '71
   There can be no question that India's role in Bangladesh liberation war was extremely crucial-not only India gave shelter to about ten million refugees, it also trained and armed Bangladesh freedom fighters and allowed its own territory to launch attack on the Pakistani forces. Although Bangladeshi people, by all means, were ready for freedom, India's all-out assistance expedited the day of sunshine. Still the penultimate question hovers on any inquisitive mind: Why did India-being a huge conglomerate of numerous religions, tribes and nationalities, and being itself an incredibly insurgency-ridden country-decide to rub elbows of a separatist movement in a neighbouring country?
   Obviously no single answer will satisfy all. Some, however, see it as an act of "Indian Giving"-meaning India did it for a return, that India's support was predicated upon killing several birds with one stone. First of all, India sought to land a crippling blow on its archrival Pakistan by causing it to disintegrate. Indira Gandhi's statement before Indian parliament, immediately after Bangladesh liberation war, lent credence to this view: "The war with Pakistan and the emergence of Bangla Desh had falsified the two-nation theory and vindicated our principles of secularism" (Indian and Foreign Review, February 1972). But a top commander of India, General Jacob, in his 1997 book Surrender at Dhaka: Birth of a Nation made it crystal clear by asserting that India's assistance to Mujibnagar government was conditioned by: "Guarantee for the Hindu minority, rationalization of enclaves, and transit rights by rail and inland waterways through Bangladesh with use of facilities at Chittagong port."
   For the last four decades, however, Indian dream (or condition) of transit facility through Bangladesh territory never materialized. Neither Sheikh Mujib nor Ziaur Rahman, nor H. M. Ershad or Khaleda Zia, not even Sheikh Hasina last time around, at least in public, responded positively to a transit demand. But if the pronouncements of foreign minister Dipu Moni, in the aftermath of Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's Dhaka visit in August, are to be taken seriously, India will certainly get access to its landlocked Northeast States through Bangladesh territory, and soon "unfettered movement of people and goods will be taking place." Such "unfettered access," according to Dipu Moni, will bring the entire region "under connectivity" suiting the needs of the age of globalization, and it will transform Bangladesh into "a regional hub."
   Dipu Moni's globalisation
   Dipu Moni seems to be using buzzwords of globalization to grant transit rights to India. There is no doubt that the contemporary phase of globalization entails unprecedented momentum towards connectivity and interdependence around the world. Especially economic globalization has opened up floodgates of opportunities for many countries with small population and small domestic customer base. Countries like Britain and France, for example, make more than 50 percent of their GDPs from international sector, and the share exceeds 70 percent for countries like Germany and Canada. Greater openness-greater access to foreign economies and foreign customers-has thus emerged as the mainstay for many small economies.
   But what will Bangladesh export to India? In terms of net-foreign exchange earnings, manpower is the number one export item of Bangladesh. Will India hire Bangladeshi workers? Isn't India a formidable competitor to Bangladesh in international manpower market? The second biggest export item of Bangladesh is readymade garments-will India buy Bangladeshi garments? Then other export commodities of Bangladesh-will India buy Bangladeshi tea, leather or handicrafts?
   It has also been argued that with greater connectivity, Bangladeshi manufacturers will have greater access to vast Indian market. But how can small-scale infant industries of Bangladesh compete with well-established and large-scale Indian manufacturers? If they are capable of competing with their Indian counterparts, how come Bangladesh has already been turned into a huge market for Indian consumer products? Isn't it a fact that Bangladesh's annual trade deficit with India is now running into billions of dollars?
   So, where is the economic benefit of trade with India? Reportedly certain think-tank has come up with estimates of substantial economic gains for Bangladesh from the transit facility-that must be a cock and bull story. Which country in the world has ever achieved economic prosperity by collecting transit fees?
   Connectivity factor
   Then Dipu Moni is also saying that the "connectivity" is aimed at transforming Bangladesh into a "regional hub." But what region exactly the minister has in mind-is it the whole Indian subcontinent or some makeshift regions? If the ESCAP-sponsored Trans-Asian Railway materializes as planned, then, the proposed railway will link Bangladesh with India through the Indian state of Assam, and then it will move to Myanmar, instead of linking Bangladesh with Myanmar directly through Chittagong-Cox's Bazar-Myanmar route. This detour alone will add extra 900 kilometers to the distance between Bangladesh and Myanmar-would it be cost-effective for boosting trade in the region?
   Also, reportedly Bangladesh has already accepted the Asian Highway (AH) in the dotted lines as proposed by India. Under the plan, two of the highways-AH1 and AH2-will enter Bangladesh from India through Benapole (Jessore) and Banglabandha (Dinajpur) respectively, both will converge on Dhaka, and then move on to Tamabil (Sylhet). A third route (AH41), originating at Mongla port will join AH1 around Benapole and AH2 at Hatikamrul (Kushia), and then together with AH1 and AH2 will travel to Dhaka. From Dhaka it will separately move on to Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and Teknaf.
   The network thus will allow North Indian traffic access into Bangladesh, and then, at the other end, out to the Northeast States of India. No wonder some experts are saying it will turn Bangladesh into a grazing land for Indian traffic. Moreover, apparently ESCAP requires a route originating in a country to connect the capital city of the next country of entry, and this will require Nepal and Bhutan to travel through New Delhi before entering Bangladesh. This extra distance and transportation costs will take tools on Nepal and Bhutan for engaging in trading with Bangladesh. Therefore, the only country that stands to benefit from the Asian Highway is surely India-others will be onlookers.
   Political dimension
   The political dimension of the issue is even more troublesome for Bangladesh-how to give a broad-based land-transit facilities to a chauvinistic neighbour who surrounds the country from three sides, but whose security forces shoot Bangladeshi citizens like dogs along its porous borders? Reportedly 700 Bangladeshi people were killed by Indian border security forces during 2000-2007. Even if one assumes that these people are guilty-as-charged, do they deserve to be killed just because they might have thought the other side of the river greener? Thousands of people are trying to cross American borders illegally, how many of them are being killed?
   Then, India is seeking access to Chittagong Port as well. Past performance does not guarantee future performance, but India reportedly had rebuffed Bangladesh leader Sheikh Mujib when he requested access to Calcutta port in the immediate aftermath of liberation war when both major ports of Bangladesh were non-functional. Report suggests that India also rejected Zia's request for just 16 miles of land transit through India for direct trade-link with Nepal.
   India also played hardball with Pakistan when it came to land or air transit facilities through its territory. The united Pakistan obviously was an absurd creation-its two wings were separated by 1100 miles of Indian land. But at that time, given objective realities of the day, it did make sense to the people of East Bengal to join Pakistan. Calcutta Port was so crucial for Bengal at that time that even Jinnah was sceptical of the future of East Bengal without it. Just a year before the partition of India, he remarked, "What is the use of Bengal without Calcutta: They (east and west Bengal) should remain united and independent." After the Partition, when Pakistan reportedly requested access to Calcutta Port for just six months for the sake of East Pakistan, India turned it down.
   India's chauvinistic attitude was no less evident in its dealings with water sharing of common rivers, insurgency problem in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), and disputed enclaves. Who doesn't know how India used Farrakka Barrage as bargaining chip for manoeuvring political events and developments in Bangladesh? Even at the best of times, India behaved like a fair-weather friend-overtly manipulated water flow during lean seasons suiting its conceited interests. Also, although Mujib ratified the constitution following handing over of Berubari, India dragged its feet when it came to returning Tin Bihga and ratifying its constitution. More recently, India's refusal to resolve maritime boundary on the basis of the principle of equity has forced Bangladesh to seek UN mediation.
   CHT peace deal
   And, India has been squarely behind the tribal insurgency in CHT. The tribes never enjoyed autonomous status during the British or Pakistani rule. After liberation they demanded autonomy, but Sheikh Mujib rejected the demand outright, and even told tribal leader Shantu Larma to forget ethnic differences and merge with Bangalee nationalism. All successive regimes maintained the same stance, and intensified military presence in CHT, until Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996. In 1997, she signed a landmark "Peace Accord" with Shanti Bahini, bringing insurgents back from India and paving their way to autonomy. The tribes comprise about one percent of the nation's population but they occupy about ten percent of its territory. Can a tiny land with about 160 million people give up 10 percent of its precious land to less than one percent of its population? Yes, rights of indigenous people should be protected, but did America give up all land that Native Indians occupied before settlers came?
   The naked truth is, lots of bad blood flowing between the two neighbours. How the transit, if eventually given to India, will play out is also largely unknown. Is there any guarantee that India will not use this transit facility for its national security and integrity objectives? If Indian goods and commodities are transported, without giving Bangladesh the right to inspect the shipment, how would Bangladesh ever know what is being transported through its territory? If India moves military and weapons to insurgency-ridden Northeast States using this transit, wouldn't Bangladesh be an accessory to potential manslaughters and massacres? And, how can Bangladeshi people, who suffered from colonial repression and were victims of planned mass slaughter, allow such atrocities?
   Given the history of bad blood between the neighbours, question also arises about the wisdom of bilateral agreements. Is Bangladesh capable of standing up to big-brother-India if the transit agreement is breached, flouted, manipulated or misinterpreted? If India's objective is connectivity and economic welfare, why not pursue the matter under the umbrella of SAARC or SAPTA, involving all its members? There can be no doubt that gains from common water-resource management, energy and electricity generation, trans-border rail and road links, fighting against terrorism, crime and drugs, and poverty reduction through regional cooperation can be substantial for all members. Why then the transit issue is being pushed through opaque bilateral agreements, or under the so-called sub-regional agreements?
   Geo political factor
   The fact of the matter is that the nuclear power India is pushing its defence, strategic, political and economic goals through the throats of smaller, poorer, and feeble neighbours. Pakistan, the other nuclear power of the region, is completely sidetracked, and Bangladesh is being used as the epicentre of the whole scheme. India has been chasing this Rainbow since the 1960s, ever since Pakistan snapped away India's transit privileges through East Pakistan. By now, given prolonged rivalry with Pakistan and the rise of China to global prominence, a transit through Bangladesh territory emerged as an essential and urgent need for India to safeguard its national security and integrity interests.
   For Bangladesh, on the other hand, there exists no urgent or essential need to allow transit to India-it should do so for the sake of globalization, but only if potential gains are well documented, the issue receives threadbare discussion in public forums and in the floors of parliament, and its sovereign right over the transit is well preserved under a more transparent regional or multilateral agreement.