Thursday, July 14, 2011

Issues with India -- take the people into confidence

The Indian foreign ministers visit ended with an optimistic note about many deals on the anvil waiting to be struck by the two countries. The issues likely to feature are cooperation in trade, connectivity, water resources management, power, land boundary demarcation, border management, security, culture, education, and people-to-people contact, etc.
It is Bangladesh who should be looking more in anticipation towards all that is likely to come about in the form of agreements during Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in September, for the simple reason that Bangladesh, for its part, has provided almost everything that the January 2010 memorandum had stipulated.
In return it has got, to paraphrase an Indian journalist's comment, a bagful of nothing. It is a matter of satisfaction for people on this side of the border that the Indian opinion makers are not only aware of the deficiency in delivery on the Indian side but do not also hesitate to come down heavily on their government for failing to do so.
It will therefore be a great disappointment for Bangladesh if the commitments were to remain confined to pious articulation only. And it is for the government of Hasina to ensure that we get some thing in the bag and at the same time take the people along in whatever it seeks to do in terms of bilateral cooperation, particularly on issues related to land boundary and transit.
One would, therefore, like to see the Teesta water issue resolved equitably, the question of 6.4 km unmarked stretch of border demarcated finally, the issue of lands as adverse possession (APL) on both sides be amicably settled, the trigger happy BSF restrained through imposing a rigorous regime on them, and the most topical issue of transit be handled in more transparent manner so a to remove all apprehensions that still persist in some people's mind.
Given the reported activities of the survey officials of both countries in the border areas, it seems that the land issues are being addressed on a priority basis. However, it appears that there are misgivings in people's mind in Bangladesh about what is going on and why. And in some areas there is resistance against whatever it is that the two governments are trying to do. And I use the clause, "whatever it is…" quite deliberately to suggest that even the supposedly better informed segment of the society is not fully aware of the goings on.
Certainly, we have not had a progress report, if you like, about the functioning of the joint boundary working group working on APL. For the record, Bangladesh holds 226.81 acres of Indian land as adverse possession APL while 551.8 acres of Bangladesh land is in the adverse possession of India. And as for enclaves, India has 92 enclaves of Bangladesh while 110 of its own are in Bangladesh.
Certainly, there are prickly issues related to the border that need political goodwill on both sides to resolve. And there cannot be any more sensitive matter than the APL, which will involve ours parting with some and getting some amount of land from India and vice versa.
Why this fact is not made a matter of public discourse and why the government machinery is not proactive in informing the public is beyond comprehension. Lack of information or untimely dissemination only leads to speculation. And one is not sure whether the people are fully conscious of the difficulties that are facing the survey groups on the ground.
The issue of transit has been plagued by confusing statements from the advisors and ministers. Latest being on the status of the deal, whether what we have is merely a draft or it has been finalised and waiting to be signed. The foreign secretary, reportedly terming it a draft, seems to suggest that not everything has been ironed out as far as Bangladesh is concerned. And indeed there are many things that need to be clarified to the public. And when one talks of transit there are the bilateral and the regional/international aspects of it.
It appears that we have lost our sense of history when it comes to bilateral transit. Bangladesh had, in fact, agreed to accord "transit" facility through the signing of the Indo-Bangladesh Trade Agreement on March 28, 1972. Article V of the Agreement provided for "mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, railways and roadways for commerce between the two countries and for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other." This was renewed in 1986 and, notably, in 2006 with the above mentioned clause still in place. One therefore finds BNP position on the issue rather disingenuous.
The government must let the people know that the idea of transit has joint ownership. What should be done is to devise ways to get the maximum dividend from what is a very strong strategic asset for Bangladesh.

Sarmila Bose and bad arithmetic

Revisionist history is what Sarmila Bose gives us. In Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, she begins her search for the truth on a false premise: that Bengalis seceded from Pakistan in 1971 and that what happened in that year was a clear case of civil war between the two parts of Pakistan. In 1861, states in the south of the United States decided to secede even as Abraham Lincoln prepared to take over the presidency. And what followed was four years of civil war as both Union troops and Confederate soldiers struggled for supremacy. The struggle ended with Robert E. Lee's surrender to the Union army in April 1865. In 1967, Odumegwu Ojukwu's Biafra seceded from Nigeria, to spend the next three years waging war against the Nigerian army in defence of its land. Biafra collapsed in 1970.
In 1971, the province of East Pakistan did not secede from Pakistan. It was not until the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight that Bangladesh's independence was formally proclaimed. And once that was done, it was a state of war between two nations. There was no civil war, for a civil war pits the people of one part of a country against people from another.
In 1971, people in West Pakistan stayed well clear of the conflict zone. It was their army that went into committing genocide against people who had been their compatriots till the last minute of 25 March. Sarmila Bose's research thus runs into roadblocks right at the beginning. And it stumbles all along. She makes, and repeats, the preposterous notion that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained involved in negotiations till the end because his goal was to take over as prime minister of Pakistan. His call for freedom on March 7 and yet his careful staying away from an outright declaration of independence are for Bose a "double game of public incitement and private negotiations."
This is poor historical research. Sarmila Bose is blissfully unaware of the bigger realities leading to the collapse of the March talks. She thinks the Yahya Khan regime and the Awami League remained engaged in negotiations till March 25. That is another place where she slips. After the talks on the morning of March 24, the Awami League leadership waited for a response to its proposals on a projected confederal arrangement from the regime. No response came. In the evening of March 25, Yahya Khan surreptitiously flew out of Dhaka, leaving Tikka Khan to let the soldiers loose on the restive province.
Bose loses the argument by her reliance on comments and documents patently biased toward Pakistan. She notes Raja Tridiv Roy's reference to the "violence and threat of violence by (Mujib's) armed Awami League cadres" in the course of the non-cooperation movement stretching from March 1 to 25. That is poor analysis, given that Tridiv Roy, having found refuge in Pakistan, cheerfully served as minister and then as ambassador for his adopted country after the war.
Bose frequently refers to the "White Paper" published by the regime in 1971 as a way of pointing to the "crimes" that Bengalis themselves committed against non-Bengalis prior to the military crackdown. That further mars the quality of her work.
Bose speaks to a number of Pakistani officers who served in Bangladesh in 1971. Predictably these men deny the charges of murder against them. Many profess to be surprised at Bengali attitudes toward them. Bose gives you the impression that these are honourable men, in contrast to the Bengalis whose sense of "victimhood" gets in the way of a true presentation of history.
Reading her account of the exploits of Jahanara Imam's son Rumi, you would think the young man made no particular contribution to Bangladesh's freedom, save what his mother remembered of him. She sympathises with Syed Sajjad Husain in his post-December 16 plight, but mentions nowhere that it was on his watch that teachers of Dhaka University were abducted and murdered. Bose does not know that Husain was one of the pro-Pakistan Bengalis to claim abroad in 1971 that no intellectuals had been killed by the army in Bangladesh.
She notes Zahir Raihan's disappearance on January 30, 1972 and quite rightly supposes that the disappearance could not be linked to the Pakistanis, by then POWs in India, or the al-Badr death squads. And yet the fact escapes her that the Biharis of Mirpur (and Raihan was their kill) put up concerted resistance to Bangladesh's forces till the end of January. Raihan was not recovered, but Mirpur stood freed on the last day of January 1972.
A trivialising of Bangladesh's history is what runs through Dead Reckoning. Sarmila Bose notes the Pakistani soldiers' poor argument that it was the resistance of students at Jagannath Hall that prompted action by the army. Again, could it not be that the Bangladesh authorities made no move to exhume the dead from the Jagannath hall mass grave because among the bodies would be those of non-students who might have been around on the night of March 25? Bose is perturbed that Amartya Sen neglects to mention in his work Identity and Violence the killing of non-Bengalis by Bengali nationalists.
Her defence of non-Bengalis, of Biharis, of pro-Pakistan Bengalis runs its full course through her work. Evidence to back up her arguments is paltry. She notes the rebellion by 2 East Bengal Regiment in Joydevpur on March 29 and the killing of West Pakistani officers by mutinous Bengali soldiers. Is Bose surprised? After what the Pakistanis did in Dhaka on March 25-26, did she, did anyone, expect Bengali soldiers of the Pakistan army to go docile? The rules of war, sir, the rules of war!
Sarmila Bose's work carefully avoids any mention of the Mujibnagar government and its operations, its proclamation of independence. To her, the only invading force in 1971 was the Indian army. She quibbles over numbers. Only 26,000 Bengalis were killed by the Pakistan army (read the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report); and (she quotes General Niazi) it was not 93,000 Pakistanis taken prisoner but only 34,000 soldiers and '11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel, a total of 45,000 men'.
Men like David Irving once denied the Holocaust. Now Sarmila Bose denies the genocide in 1971. Her book does not change anything. It is wobbly scholarship, a disturbing misreading of history. You lose nothing by not reading it.