Saturday, September 10, 2011

SOUTH ASIA: Summitry And Solidarity

Six months after the Indo-Pakistani war that created the new nation of Bangladesh, the two principals—India's Indira Gandhi and Pakistan's Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—will hold a long-anticipated summit meeting this week in the Indian mountain retreat of Simla, north of New Delhi. At issue between them is the question of an international boundary line in the disputed state of Kashmir, which has been about equally divided between the two countries since 1949. Mrs. Gandhi will likely propose that the cease-fire line that existed in Kashmir before the December war continue as the boundary with some adjustments to permit India to retain strategic salients captured in the struggle. For his part, Bhutto is under considerable domestic pressure to bring home the 75,000 Pakistani P.O.W.s still held by India. The two leaders will also probably discuss restoration of diplomatic relations, which were severed in December. 

But affairs on the Indian subcontinent cannot be fully put in order without Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who has declined to attend the summit until Pakistan recognizes his country. Bhutto last week may have been preparing the way for recognition when he observed that Pakistan would become "odd man out" at the United Nations this fall if it still refuses recognition to Dacca. 

Indeed, Bangladesh has not only achieved independence but is also gradually recovering from the war and showing signs of success in winning the peace. So far, there has been no widespread famine, as was feared, thanks to large grain shipments from India and the U.S. and others purchased by the United Nations. The crowded Bihari ghettos are still hotbeds of tension, but there has been no massacre of the non-Bengalis, who frequently sided with the Pakistani military during the nine-month siege last year. 

Economic Stability. More than a million homes have been rebuilt, and all but a hundred or so of the 561 more important bridges in the riverine delta region have been repaired. Jute exports, the prime source of foreign exchange, have also begun to flow from the ports. 

Still, it will probably be another two or three years before the new nation achieves economic stability. Many of the returning refugees from India still have no materials with which to build houses or plant crops. Rice has doubled in price. "Mujib" has announced a broad program of governmental assistance. Low-paid civil servants and employees of nationalized businesses will receive monthly cost of living allowances of $2 to $3.30. Small farmers who till eight acres or less will be exempt from rent arrears, interest and taxes. Mujib also raised the minimum wage from 100 takas to 150 takas ($20) a month. 

"I inherited an empty godown [warehouse]," the Prime Minister told TIME Correspondent William Stewart recently. "I am very happy about the progress my people have made, but every problem is a crisis." A big problem is the lack of skilled management personnel to help get both governmental and industrial machinery rolling again. For most of the past two decades, the best-educated Bengali civil servants were routinely sent to West Pakistan to work. Bhutto has been unwilling to allow the 400,000 Bengalis caught in the West during the war to return home. 

For all the sheik's good intentions, his own party, the Awami League, has become plagued by corruption. Some officials have reportedly commandeered relief supplies, and then sold them at a profit. In one village near the Indian border, an Awami League official was beaten to death by villagers who charged that he had been smuggling rice into India. Mujib has taken a tough stance against hoarders and racketeers, even threatening them with execution. 

Perhaps inevitably in a country so deeply indebted to a powerful neighbor, there has been a marked rise in anti-Indian sentiment. Some Bengalis fear that they will fall into economic thralldom to Calcutta, and find in India a handy scapegoat for their own economic ills. Mujib lashed out at critics of India in a speech earlier this month: "India stood by us in our most difficult days. When my people were being killed and driven out of the country, these critics of India did not utter a single word against the oppressors." 

Two weeks ago, the two nations agreed on a $275 million program of Indian economic aid to develop, among other things, paper and fertilizer industries in Bangladesh to supply the Indian market. The agreement came on the heels of a military pact under which India will assist in training the Bengali armed forces. The accords were interpreted as a demonstration of solidarity between the two countries in preparation for this week's meeting—a solidarity that will shape the view both Mrs. Gandhi and Bhutto take of their Simla summit.