Friday, August 5, 2011

India's Transit Plan And Security Of Bangladesh

The Economist, in its 30 July issue, noted in an article entitled "Embraceable you", noted how "growing geopolitical interests push India to seek better relations nearer home" with Bangladesh. It reads:

"NOT much noticed by outsiders, long-troubled ties between two neighbours sharing a long border have taken a substantial lurch for the better. Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh, relations with India have blossomed. To Indian delight, Bangladesh has cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India's home-grown terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen, as well as on vociferous Islamist (and anti-Indian) politicians in the country. India feels that bit safer.

Now the dynasts who rule each country are cementing political ties. On July 25th Sonia Gandhi (pictured, above) swept into Dhaka, the capital, for the first time. Sharing a sofa with Sheikh Hasina (left), the prime minister (and old family friend), the head of India's ruling Congress Party heaped praise on her host, notably for helping the poor. A beaming Sheikh Hasina reciprocated with a golden gong, a posthumous award for Mrs Gandhi's mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. In 1971 she sent India's army to help Bangladeshis, led by Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, throw off brutal Pakistani rule. As a result, officials this week chirped that relations are now very excellent. They should get better yet. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will visit early in September to sign deals on sensitive matters like sharing rivers, sending electricity over the border, settling disputed patches of territory on the 4,095km (2,500-mile) frontier and stopping India's trigger-happy border guards from murdering migrants and cow-smugglers. Mr Singh may also deal with the topic of trade which, smuggling aside, heavily favours India, to Bangladeshi ire.

Most important, however, is a deal on setting up a handful of transit routes across Bangladesh, to reach India's remote, isolated north-eastern states. These are the seven sisters wedged up against the border with China. On the face of it, the $10 billion project will develop poor areas cut off from India's booming economy. The Asian Development Bank and others see Bangladeshi gains too, from better roads, ports, railways and much-needed trade. In Dhaka, the capital, the central-bank governor says broader integration with India could lift economic growth by a couple of percentage points, from nearly 7% already."

Contrary to Bangladesh Bank governor's claim of 2% increase in GDP from the transit plan, economists in Bangladesh are by now expressly unsure about the commercial benefits compared to socio-economic costs of allowing a number of additional transit routes to Indian northeast for Indian traffic (India has a stable land and railway route on rocky grounds within its own territory through Siliguri corridor). Transit fees may hardly compensate costs of maintenance of transit highways on our soft soil, and the loss of arable land to this "connectivity venture" which is not at all a priority for our national development. Connectivity grows out of natural trade routes. It is only over a long period of time that strategic routes developed for primarily for emergency connectivity may or may not become a flourishing trade route. The fissure of the Stillwell Road connecting India and China through Myanmar during the Second World War is a case in point. As a matter of fact, there is apprehension amongst Bangladeshi businessmen that they may lose their existing market in Tripura and Assam from the expanded India-to-India connectivity through Bangladesh.

What is more worrisome is the fact that while the mainstream Indian media has picked up the refrain that India now needs its smaller neighbours, particularly Bangladesh, more than the latter may do, to be able to play a balancing role to China in the Asian theatre, the Research and Analysis minders of the Indian Security State are continuing to keep hanging a Damocles' Sword of Indian might over neighbours like Bangladesh. Writing on-line in Daily News & Analysis, Subramanian Swamy on July 16 resurrected the allegation of so-called illegal immigration tide from Bangladesh to India ahead of Sonia visit. He accused border traffic of Bangladeshis of being part of an "Islamic" strategy to "change India's demography by illegal immigration, conversion, and refusal to adopt family planning," and "turn India into Darul Islam" and recommended that as a counterstrategy, India must "annex land from Bangladesh in proportion to the illegal migrants from that country staying in India. At present, the northern third from Sylhet to Khulna can be annexed to re-settle illegal migrants." There is no assurance for Bangladesh in such comments at all about any change in India's domineering mindset.

In fact there is need for Bangladesh to be worried about its own security in ceding to the Indian plan for transit through our territory. As the Economist observes in the same article: "The new transit project may be about more than just development. Some in Dhaka, including military types, suspect it is intended to create an Indian security corridor. It could open a way for army supplies to cross low-lying Bangladesh rather than going via dreadful mountain roads vulnerable to guerrilla attack. As a result, India could more easily put down insurgents in Nagaland and Manipur. The military types fear it might provoke reprisals by such groups in Bangladesh.

More striking, India's army might try supplying its expanding divisions parked high on the border with China, in Arunachal Pradesh. China disputes India's right to Arunachal territory, calling it South Tibet. Some Bangladeshis fret that if India tries to overcome its own logistical problems by, in effect, using Bangladesh as a huge military marshalling yard, reprisals from China would follow."

Whether or not there would be actual reprisals from northeast Indian insurgents or disaffection from China on account of the Indian transit plan through Bangladesh, it would be wise to weigh the security repercussions of "the new transit project" along with economic implications and trade prospects.

The Economist also suggests that India is undertaking the project on slippery grounds: "For India, however, the risk is that it is betting too heavily on Sheikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly autocratic. Opposition boycotts of parliament and general strikes are run-of-the-mill. Corruption flourishes at levels astonishing even by South Asian standards. A June decision to rewrite the constitution looks to be a blunt power grab, letting the government run the next general election by scrapping a "caretaker" arrangement. Sheikh Hasina is building a personality cult around her murdered father, "the greatest Bengali of the millennium", says the propaganda.

Elsewhere, the hounding of Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank who briefly flirted with politics, was vindictive. Similarly, war-crimes trials over the events of 1971 are to start in a few weeks. They are being used less as a path to justice than to crush an opposition Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami. It hardly suggests that India's ally has a wholly secure grasp on power.

"When he visits Bangladesh in September, Mr Singh, the Gandhi family retainer, would do well to make wider contact if India's newly improving relations are not one day to take another big dive for the worse."