Thursday, September 15, 2011

India Is A Corporate, Hindu State: Arundhati Roy

Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. At the end of a week when the Maoists have been on the front pages practically every day, we present a completely different perspective to that of the government's. My guest today is an author, essayist and Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy. 

Karan Thapar: I want to talk to you about how you view the Maoists and how you think the government should respond, but first, how do you view the recent hostage taking in Bihar where four policemen were kidnapped and kept kidnapped for eight days, and one of them - Lukas Tete - murdered?
Arundhati Roy: I don't think there is anything revolutionary about killing a person that is in custody. I have made a statement where I said it was as bad as the police killing Azad, as they did, in a fake encounter in Andhra. But, I actually shy away from this atrocity-based analysis that's coming out of our TV screens these days because a part of it is meant for you to lose the big picture about what is this war about, who wants the war? Who needs the war? 

Karan Thapar: I want very much to talk about the big picture. But, before I come to that, let me point out something else. In the last one year, the Maoists have beheaded Francis Induwar and Sanjoy Ghosh; they have killed Lokus Tete. They have kidnapped other policemen. There have been devastating attacks in Dantewada, there has been the sabotage of the Gyaneshwari Express. In your eyes, does it amount to legitimate strategy or tactics, or does it detract from the Maoist cause? 
Arundhati Roy: You can't bundle them all together. For example the train accident. I don't think anybody knows who did it yet. 

Karan Thapar: Everyone's convinced that the Maoists...
Arundhati Roy: Everyone can be convinced. But it is not enough to be convinced. You got to have facts and the facts are unravelling every day. 

Karan Thapar: What about the Dantewada, the beheadings, the kidnappings?
Arundhati Roy: This thing is that now what's happening is that there is a situation of conflict, of war. So, you have set out a litany of the terrible acts of violence that have taken place inflicted by one side and left out the picture of what's going on the other side, which is that you have two hundred thousand paramilitary forces closing in on these poorest villages, evicting people, burning people. Of course, all violence is terrible but if you want to get into what actually is going on, we will have to discuss it in slightly more detail. 

Karan Thapar: So what you are suggesting is that we have a spiral of violence where what one side does to the other justifies the response and, in a sense, you don't want to blame one or the other. You see them both as equally guilty? 
Arundhati Roy: No I don't. I don't see both as equally guilty and I don't want to justify anything. I see a government breaking every sort of law in the Constitution that it has about tribal people and assault on the homelands of millions of people and some, there is a resistance force that is resisting that. Now, that situation is becoming violent, becoming ugly. And if you start trying to extract morality out of it, you are going to be in a mess. 

Karan Thapar: But one thing that is crystal clear from what you said is you see the government as the first person, the first party, at fault. The bigger fault, the first fault, is the government's, you see the Maoists as just responding.
Arundhati Roy: I see the government absolutely, as the major aggressor. As far as the Maoists are concerned, of course, their ideology is an ideology of overthrowing the Indian state with violence. However, I don't believe that if the Indian state was a just state, if ordinary people had some minor hope for justice, the Maoists would just be a marginal group of militants with no popular appeal. 

Karan Thapar: So the Maoists get support and strength from the fact that you don't believe that the Indian state is just. 
Arundhati Roy: Let me tell you, forget the Maoists. Every resistance movement, armed or unarmed, and the Maoists today are fighting to implement the Constitution, and the government is vandalising it. 

Karan Thapar: So the real constitutionalists are the Maoists and the real breakers of the Constitution is the government?
Arundhati Roy: Not only the Maoists, all resistance groups. 

Karan Thapar: Let's focus for the moment on the Maoists because they are the ones that have been in the news all this week. The prime minister sees the Maoists as the single biggest security threat to the country. I take it that your perception of them is completely different. How do you perceive the Maoists?
Arundhati Roy: I perceive them as a group of people who have at a most militant end in the bandwidth of resistance movements that exist in the cities, in the planes and in the forests. 

Karan Thapar: But what are they seeking to do? What is their justification?
Arundhati Roy: Well, their ultimate goal, as they say quite clearly, is to overthrow the Indian state and institute the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is their ultimate goal but... 

Karan Thapar: Do you, Arundhati Roy, support that goal?
Arundhati Roy: I don't support that goal in the sense that I don't believe the solution to the problem the world is in right now will come from an imagination either communist or capitalist because... 

Karan Thapar: That I understand but do you support any attempt to overthrow the Indian state?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I can't say I do because they will lead me from here, in chains. 

Karan Thapar: That technicality apart, it sounds as if you do.

Arundhati Roy: However, I believe that the Indian state has abdicated its responsibility to the people. I believe that. I believe that when a state is no longer bound, neither legally nor morally by the Indian Constitution, either we should rephrase the preamble of the Indian Constitution which says...
Karan Thapar: Or?
Arundhati Roy: Which says we are a sovereign, democratic, secular republic. We should rephrase it and say we are a corporate, Hindu, satellite state. 

Karan Thapar: Or?
Arundhati Roy: Or we have to have a government which respects the Constitution or we change the Constitution. 

Karan Thapar: Let me be blunt. It sounds very much to the audience as if you are trying to find a clever, subtle way of saying that you do support the Maoists commitment to overthrow the state but you are scared to say it upfront because you are scared that you would be whisked away to jail. 
Arundhati Roy: If I say that I support the Maoists' desire to overthrow the Indian State, I would be saying that I am a Maoist. But I am not a Maoist.
Karan Thapar: But you sympathise with them.
Arundhati Roy: I do sympathise with all the movements. I am on this side of the line with a group of people who are saying that here is a State that is willing to bring out the Army against the poorest people not just in the country but in the world. I cannot support that. 

Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you. You sympathise with the Maoist cause, but what about the tactics that the Maoists use? The problem is that the Maoists want to trade a new democratic order not by persuading people, not by winning legitimate elections but by armed liberation struggle. To many, that is tantamount to civil war. Do you go that far with them?
Arundhati Roy: There is already a civil war. I don't believe that a resistance movement that believes only in violence will lead to a new democracy. I don't believe that. Neither do I believe that if you doctrinally say you must only be non-violent, I believe that is a twisted way of supporting the status quo. I believe that has to be a bandwidth of resistance and I certainly believe that when your village is surrounded by 800 CRPF men who are raping and burning and looting, you can't say I am going on a hunger strike. Then, I support people's right to resist that. 

Karan Thapar: But put this to me. If you support, no matter what qualifications you add, the right of the Maoists to resist with violence: whether you call it armed liberation struggle or whatever.
Arundhati Roy: You keep on going to these Maoists. 

Karan Thapar: If you support that, no matter with what qualification, how then can you deny the State the right to resort to arms to defend itself?
Arundhati Roy: The State doesn't have to defend itself. The State is supposed to represent the people and defend the people. 

Karan Thapar: But if the State is under attack, it is the people that are under attack and...
Arundhati Roy: It is not under attack. The State is perpetrating the attack. That is what I am trying to say. The State is going in violation of its own Constitution and perpetrating an attack. If you look at the recent report, the censured chapter in a recent report by the Panchayati Raj, it says so clearly: the State is being completely illegal in its actions. What do you suggest people should do when an army, a police, a paramilitary, an air force is going to start making war on the poor? Do you suggest that they should leave and live in camps and allow the rich and the corporates and the mining sector to take over? 

Karan Thapar: So you are saying that the Maoists and all the other resistance fighters are left with no option but to fight back?
Arundhati Roy: What I am saying is that if a State respects non-violent resistance as has been the case in years, but if you ignore non-violence, by default you privilege violence. 

Karan Thapar: But are the Maoists actually pursuing their goal, which you share, non-violently, or are they pursuing it with violence? That's the problem. There is a real issue here that the end seems to justify the means. The question is: do they?
Arundhati Roy: You are not listening to me. I am saying that there is a juggernaut of injustice that has been moving forward, displacing millions of people. Why do we have 836 million people living in on less than Rs 20 a day? Why do we have 60 million displaced people? Because the government refuses. For the last 25 years, it has refused to listen to non-violence. 

Karan Thapar: So you see the Maoists as victims?
Arundhati Roy: I see the people as victims of something. If you look at the ideology of the Maoists, they don't think of themselves as victims. But that ideology is getting purchased among people, in the popular imagination because of the incredible injustice that is being perpetrated by the Indian State. 

Karan Thapar: In short, the fault is almost entirely on the government’s side?
Arundhati Roy: It is. 

Karan Thapar: You say that boldly and bluntly?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. 

Karan Thapar: I want very much to talk about the prospects of talks but first, let me ask you about Azad. In May, it emerged that the home minister had asked Swami Agnivesh to facilitate talks with the Maoist leadership, and in turn he established contacts with the Maoists leader Azad. But in July, in an unexplained police encounter, Azad suddenly died. Do you believe that was a deliberate ploy to bring Azad into the open and then murder him?
Arundhati Roy: Yes I do. 

Karan Thapar: You really mean that? The government laid a trap to murder Azad? 
Arundhati Roy: That's what, from all the facts that are emerging, that's what it seems to point to. 

Karan Thapar: Why did they do this? Why would they kill the one man with whom they have rational expectations of talks?
Arundhati Roy: I have been saying this for few months now that you have to understand that the government needs this war. It needs this war to clear the land, to hand over, to actualise these MoUs that have been signed. If you read the business papers, they are very clear about that. 

Karan Thapar: If the government wants war, how do you interpret the government's attempt to have talks? One is contradictory to the other.
Arundhati Roy: Yeah. It needs the war but it needs to keep this smiling benign mask of democracy. So, it offers talks on the one hand and undermines it on the other. 

Karan Thapar: But even if you accept this strange theory that the government is Janus-faced, two-faced, why would it destroy that mask by killing Azad? Why would it destroy itself?
Arundhati Roy: Because if you look at what was happening, Azad was beginning to sound dangerously reasonable. 

Karan Thapar: To whom?
Arundhati Roy: To all of us. 

Karan Thapar: On the basis of one interview to The Hindu, you have come to the conclusion about Azad sounding reasonable? 
Arundhati Roy: Come on Karan, we all know about Azad. He has been around for years. He has written a lot. 

Karan Thapar: You may but people surely don't. To them, Azad is a mystery.
Arundhati Roy: No, not at all. For example, the piece that he wrote in Outlook, it was published after his 
death but it was sent around before. 

Karan Thapar: But even if one accepts your theory that the government killed Azad because he was beginning to sound and look reasonable, that would only have made him a credible interlocutor and fit in better into their mask. Surely, that in a sense makes it even more ridiculously contradictory to kill him.
Arundhati Roy: Why would it be. Let's say there are two sides at war, there are more than two but everyone wants to make it binary so, for the sake of argument, accept it. When one side sends an envoy and the other side kills them, what does it mean? That one side does not want peace. That's what it means. That's a reasonable assumption. 

Karan Thapar: So this is a duplicitous government?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. 

Karan Thapar: In which case, let me come to the critical issue which I want to discuss. What are the prospects of talks? The government has repeatedly said that it would be willing to talk provided the Maoists abjure violence, not even asking the Maoists to lay down arms, and many people believe that that's a reasonable and perhaps, even a generous offer. How do you view the government's position on talks? 
Arundhati Roy: I think that if you were to go down to those forests and see what's going on, when you have these two hundred thousand paramilitaries patrolling the tribal villages, the cordon and search operations are on, the killings are on, the siege is on, what do you mean to abjure violence? If you say that there should be a ceasefire, mutual ceasefire, which is I think the most reasonable thing, then we can be talking. But if you say you should abjure violence, what does that mean? 

Karan Thapar: So one sided abjuring of violence is not what you think will be acceptable, but a mutual ceasefire on both sides?
Arundhati Roy: I think it's absolutely urgent that there should be a ceasefire on both sides. 

Karan Thapar: Simultaneous?
Arundhati Roy: Yes. The government reports have said that these MoUs should be re-examined. Chidambaram himself promised in an interview that he would freeze them. Why doesn't he do that? 

Karan Thapar: He is probably waiting for a sign from the Maoists that they will respond. He doesn't want to do it unilaterally.
Arundhati Roy: They responded in writing now; Azad responded in writing. 

Karan Thapar: Azad is no more. Let me put this to you. You are beginning to suggest in this interview steps, which if they were taken simultaneously by both sides, will actually in some way facilitate talks. Would you be prepared, since you know the Maoists and trusted by the Maoists, to act as a mediator?
Arundhati Roy: Look, if you studied the peace-talks process in Andhra, you see that this business of picking one person and announcing it on the media, both sides have done it. Chidambaram has picked arbitrarily Swami Agnivesh. Maoists arbitrarily announced on the radio that we want this one or that one. That's not how it works. In Andhra, it took almost a year for this committee of citizens to form themselves as responsible people. It should not be one person. 

Karan Thapar: Swami Agnivesh, who you say was arbitrarily picked, almost succeeded in bringing Azad to some talking point, except for the fact that as you say, he was killed. But he almost succeeded. So I come back, since you are trusted by the Maoists and since you speak a language, that at least in English, the government can understand, would you be prepared to act as a mediator?
Arundhati Roy: Look Karan, I don't think it should be one person. I think there should be a group of people who are used to taking decisions collectively. 

Karan Thapar: Will a committee?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. That's what happened in Andhra. There was a committee of persons. 

Karan Thapar: Isn't that a mess?
Arundhati Roy: No, it is absolutely vital. 

Karan Thapar: Would you be a part of it?
Arundhati Roy: I don't think I am good at it. I am a maverick. 

Karan Thapar: Would you be prepared to be one of that committee?
Arundhati Roy: Not really. I would not like to be because I don't think I have those skills. But I think there are people who would be very good at it. 

Karan Thapar: In June, writing in The Hindu, Justice Krishna Aiyar publicly called on the Maoists to unconditionally come forward for talks. Would you make a similar statement?
Arundhati Roy: No. Not when there are two hundred thousand paramilitary forces closing in on the villages. I say unconditionally both sides should say there should be a ceasefire. Then you can see. 

Karan Thapar: But you are not prepared to facilitate that being a mediator or, even part of the committee. 
Arundhati Roy: I'll try. 

Karan Thapar: Try! So suddenly you are changing your position.
Arundhati Roy: I don't know how to think about this. 

Karan Thapar: If pushed and persuaded, you could accept.
Arundhati Roy: Look, you talk to me like you talk to politicians - will you stand for elections? 

Karan Thapar: No, I am simply trying to get you to give me a clear answer. What I sense is that you are tempted but you are uncertain. 
Arundhati Roy: I feel that all of us should do what we can but certainly, I don't feel that I'll be very good at it. But, I think there should be a committee of people with experience in negotiating, with experienced people like BD Sharma, who has such a long experience. 

Karan Thapar: Let's come to a different issue. The government, particularly the home minister, often look upon people who are sympathetic to Maoists' cause as collaborators, sections of the press even call them traitors. Number one in that category is bound to be Arundhati Roy. How do you respond to such branding?
Arundhati Roy: Well, this is an old game. 

Karan Thapar: But it continues forcefully every time.
Arundhati Roy: I think the reason they were also unnerved, the government as well as most of the press, which is clearly on one side in this, is that from being people who are marooned in the jungle in one sense, when operation Green Hunt happened, a number of activists, a number of intellectuals came forward and said look, it is not acceptable to us. And that undermined the position of this open and shut case that was going on all this time. 

Karan Thapar: So the certainty of the government's position was weakened and undermined by the intellectuals who supported the government which is why the government branded them collaborators?
Arundhati Roy: Again you are saying the Maoists. 

Karan Thapar: But that's why the government called them collaborators?
Arundhati Roy: What has happened is that the government has expanded the definition of Maoists to mean everyone who is disagreeing with it. What people like myself have done is to complicate the scenario. Say it's not that simple. Of course it doesn't upset me because I like to say what I think very clearly. I am not worried about being called names. 

Karan Thapar: And in a sense the government calling you a collaborator is proof that you actually made the government uncomfortable. 
Arundhati Roy: I am proud if I made the government uncomfortable because it should be bloody uncomfortable with what it's doing. 

Karan Thapar: A pleasure talking to you.


Friendship Down The Waters Of The Teesta

The Prime Minister of India Dr. Monmohon Singh visited Bangladesh for 30 hours between sixth and seventh of September 2011. This was a visit in return for the visit by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to Delhi in January 2010. Since the relations between the two countries had not been as sweet as it should have been, the visits by the Prime Ministers were looked upon as being instruments of improving friendship. Theoretically, improving friendship means, removing the bottle necks or obstructions towards friendship.

The ground to that end was paved to a great degree in January 2010 and it was expected to be consolidated in September 2011. Alas! It has been a visit which could not achieve the stipulated objectives. Columns in newspapers, short as they are, cannot describe everything. This column therefore will also describe only a few things.

First aspect to be questioned is the role of two advisers of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. As I write this column for ‘the independent’ at 2:30pm on Tuesday 13 September 2011, I can not avoid looking at the headlines of today’s ‘the independent’ in the first page and others pages.

There is a headline in page-1 thus: “Advisers draw flak for Teesta fiasco”. Indeed they have been drawing serious flak from the whole of the country irrespective of the political divide. The system of government that Bangladesh follows is the parliamentary system. Here not only the cabinet of minister is responsible to the parliament collectively, but every single minister is also responsible to the parliament for his or her ministry.
Every minister has the additional or dual responsibility of answering to the prime minister because the prime minister is the head of the cabinet and head of the government.

In Bangladesh, a fundamental deviation from practice in other countries, has been noticed. In Bangladesh importance and functions of the ministers has been marginalized by the prime minister. The prime minister of Bangladesh now has appointed six advisers.

They have not taken any oath of allegiance or of secrecy like the ministers. The ministers are answerable to someone or the other; they advisers are answerable only to the prime minister. As the very name goes, the advisors are supposed to advise the prime minister only.

The advice of the advisers is in addition to the advice and suggestions of the respective ministries. For example, the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi as an advisor on foreign policy or on international relations is supposed to be complementary or supplementary to the role of the foreign minister of Bangladesh.

On ground, or in real life practice, we have seen the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi to be all-encompassing and devouring the foreign ministry. Surprisingly, the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi has even devoured the functions and role of the ministry of water resources or the ministry of commerce.

The role of the economic adviser to the prime minister of Bangladesh Dr. Moshiur Rahman has also been negatively prominent. But for the strong personality of the finance minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Mashur Rahman could have become more damaging.

Together these  dignified advisers of the prime minister of Bangladesh have handled all major matters related to the visit of the prime minister of India. Together they have contributed the to the less-than-optimum outcome from the visit. Together, these dignified advisers have insulted the democratic pattern of governance in Bangladesh.

All leaders in the government who were democratically elected  collectively accepted the humiliation rendered upon them by the two unelected dignified advisers of the prime minister .

What is the role of prime minister of Bangladesh in this fiasco? As the top-most decision maker of the country, she gambled in favor of the advisers. She did not win. She has to pay for it either by a coin or by a high value currency note, what ever be it.

The present prime minister of Bangladesh has worked hard over the last 30 months or so to improve  relations between India and Bangladesh. She has another 26 months or so to galvanize everything. As a citizen of Bangladesh I wish her success but with caution.

It is rather sad that sharing of the Teesta water and agreement on transit have been mixed up or have been linked to each other. It is wrong to link them. Let me talk about the rivers first.

South Asia is criss-crossed by rivers. Obviously rivers originate from higher grounds or hills and mountains. More obviously, rivers fall into seas or oceans. Bangladesh is a deltaic plain. This deltaic plain has been formed by the major rivers called Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputtra (Jamuna)
and Meghna and their tributaries.

Fifty four rivers, big or small, flow into Bangladesh from India in the North of Bangladesh, India in the East of Bangladesh and India in the West of Bangladesh. Waters of these rivers are to be used by inhabitants by the river side in India as well as in Bangladesh.

Formally speaking, India and Bangladesh both have a claim on the waters of these rivers. There are international laws, international protocols, international traditions and international precedence to guide India and Bangladesh in sharing the waters of these common rivers.

However, as the English language proverb goes, much water has flown down all these rivers over the last few decades but little goodwill flowed down the channels of foreign and external affairs of these two countries. It is a question of survival for Bangladesh.

Without water and reasonable water, Bangladesh will soon complete the process of becoming a desert. A citizen of Bangladesh whose age is 65 years and another citizen of Bangladesh whose age is 35 years, but both living in Rajshahi or Kushtia district of Bangladesh, will have two different descriptions of their area in the rainy season and dry season.

The older between the two had seen the rivers of his area before 1970 or 1965 or 1975 and is seeing the same after 1990 also. The younger between two is seeing only after 1990. The difference in the terrain and ecology caused due to the withdrawal of waters in the upstream of the common rivers will be visible to the elder person only.

The younger is likely to assume that today’s Bangladesh is the natural Bangladesh or the Bangladesh given by nature; in reality it is not so. It is the inalienable right of Bangladesh to have equitable share of the common rivers.

As for Teesta, early in the life of Bangladesh, a barrage was constructed at a place called Dalia in the district of Niphamari, little down-stream from the international border for facilitating irrigation in greater Rangpur district. But the barrage could never become functional because supply of water from upstream was never regular.

I have gone to great length only to emphasis the fact that Bangladesh must get equitable share of water from the common rivers for its survival. It is the right of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is surrounded by India. There is a big chunk of India called North-East India. There are seven provinces of states in the North-East called seven sisters. Among these seven five have common borders with Bangladesh.  These  are Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Indian state or province of West Bengal (presently called Paschim Banga) lies to the west of Bangladesh and little-bit to the north of Bangladesh in the extreme North West. The extreme North West point of Bangladesh is about 20 or 21 miles away from the nearest border of Nepal. This thin territory of the province Paschim Banga is called Shilliguri-corridor.

This narrow strip of land connects the huge land-mass of India to the West of Bangladesh and the smaller land-mass of India to the North-East of Bangladesh. The territory of North-East India is also larger than the territory of Bangladesh.

It is not so that India is separated into two parts geographically by Bangladesh. India is of course one land-mass but the Shilliguri corridor is too thin to sustain all requirements of North-East India. As a result communication between India to the West of Bangladesh and India to the North-East of Bangladesh is difficult, time consuming, strenuous and susceptible to sabotage activities by Indians unfriendly to the central government of India.

Therefore, a shorter route between India to the West of Bangladesh and India to the North-East to the Bangladesh is a dire necessity to India. Talking about the difficulties of North-East India alone, they do not have easy access to the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal.

So far their easiest and nearest access was through the port of Calcutta (presently called Kolkata). Should Bangladesh allow Indian goods to travel from West to East or vise versa over the land territory of Bangladesh, it will reduce the distance by more than seventy percent and the cost by more than eighty percent.

Should North-East India be able to use the ports of Mongla and Chittagong, they will save time and cost by almost similar percentage. The figures of percentage I am quoting are not absolute or infallible.
To gain the friendship of India, to repay the gratitude of 1971, and to be current with international tendencies and expectations, it is wiser for Bangladesh to let India use our territory and our ports. In lieu, Bangladesh must gain economically and politically.

How much Bangladesh can gain depends on the home work that Bangladeshi political and economic leaders do. The facilities which may be given to India are called facilities of corridor as well as facilities of transit.
India must pay for them politically as well as financially. What pains me is the eagerness on the part of few Bangladeshi high profile persons to give these facilities to India almost free or just on the asking without optimizing the benefit of Bangladesh.

India had never said that it wants the facilities free, India is ready to negotiate. Bangladesh seems not to be ready for the negotiation, unfortunately. To have these facilities is not an inherent right of India, it is a political request which Bangladesh may grant. 

Whatever protocols or memorandums of understanding have been signed between India and Bangladesh on the afternoon of 6th September 2011 are welcome. Most of these did not justify or necessitate the presence of  the prime minister.

People of Bangladesh expected an agreement on sharing of the waters of Teesta; the expectation was not met. Who is responsible for this debacle? Dr. Monmohon Singh and many others in India may point the fingers towards Momota Banerjee the recently elected popular chief minister of the state or province called Paschim Bango with whom Bangladesh shares the entire Western international border.

We in Bangladesh must search our souls and carry out self critique to find out where lies the fault. The two advisors have to share the major brunt; the foreign minister, the water resources minister and the prime minister will be lesser partners.

Come what may, we need equitable share of the waters of the common rivers. And we want to be a friend of India; friendship based on mutual respect and mutual benefit—never one way.

Admiral Stephen Decature while offering a toast during a dinner at Norfolk in the state of Virginia in the United States on an evening in April 1816, reportedly said: “Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!” Both India and Bangladesh may have to disagree with the admiral now in the year 2011. 

Source : Syed Muhammad ibrahim.

The writer, a Bir Protik, is a freedom fighter and a retired Major General. 

Didi’s Silence Rang Out Loud All Over India

While Rizvi sang on the banks of the Teesta extolling the upcoming success of the government on the water deal, Mamata Banerjee aka Didi maintained an eerie silence contrary to her usual firebrandish cries that toppled Buddadeva Bhattacharjee and his 34 year old Communist rule of Pashimbanga. That silence could be so loud as to rock the whole of the sub-continent was beyond the imagination of the two PMs who were to have their much hyped historic meeting. Meanwhile, Rizvi kept on singing his rock band until the arrival of Dr Manmohan Singh and until it was clear that there would be no water deal which was uttered like a refrain in the adviser’s BBC interviews. Rizvi has proved that he is an outstanding scholar, perhaps a great one, but scholars don’t always make great diplomats. Like words, silence too is an art and one has to make use of it in dealing with sensitive political issues. Look at Didi making use of silence. It was announced earlier she was coming with Manmohan along with other CMs of the seven sisters. We did not hear it from the horse’s mouth. She maintained her silence. An Indian MP announced the share of Teesta water being 25% and 75%. Mamata kept her silence.

The Bangladesh Foreign Minister in her euphoric style claimed the sharing would be 50: 50. Mamata still kept mum. The last song Rizvi (or was it the Foreign Secretary) sang was that the deal would be finalized within 3 months. Another diplomatic blunder.

The negotiators on the Bangladesh side hardly cared to go through the political biography of Mamata. They took her for granted – racially a Bangali, why should she go against the interest of Bangladesh? They forgot the basic fact she is a seasoned politician and more importantly an Indian. In one great sweep of silence, she has risen to the high pedestal of all India adulation comparable only to the recent Anna Hazare high comedy.

Mamata has always chosen to steal the limelight no matter which side she was on. She joined politics as a college student in the 1970s and once in a frenzy jumped up and danced on the hood of Joyprakash Narayan’s car. She had been a Union minister under several governments and became particularly famous for upholding the interest of West Bengal and women’s rights. In 1996 while she was a part of the government, she grasped the collar of Amar Singh MP of Samajwadi Party in the well of the Lok Shava. Mamata threw her shawl at Ramvilash Paswan in Parliament for ignoring West Bengal in his railway budget and in a shrill voice announced her resignation. In 1997 she quit the Congress and established her Trinomul Congress because she wanted a ‘clean’ Congress. The rest of her career has been one of shouts and cries and protests against the Communist rule in West Bengal. And Buddadeva Bhattacharjee’s fatal decision to acquire farm land for a chemical hub and a nano car project at Nandigram and Singur gave her the golden moments of her political career. Her voice rent the skies of West Bengal, indeed the whole of India, and that signaled the end of the Communist rule West Bengal renamed Paschimbanga.

So this lady clad in a white sari, with a cotton bag slung from her shoulders and wearing a pair of rubber sandals is an exceptional personality, who by now has proved by her actions that she has the strength of character to fight corruption in India. A lady who as Union minister for Railways could introduce 19 new trains (2000-2001) is not just a political demagogue.

So what explains the mysterious silence of Mamata on the water treaty? She knows the sentiment of the average Indians who feel Bangladesh has been ungrateful for the sacrifices they made in 1971 for the liberation of Bangladesh (there is no mention of our freedom fighters fighting along side the Indian army in their school textbooks – for the common Indians it was a war between India and Pakistan). More importantly, she would never sacrifice the interest of West Bengal in spite of the adulation that is showered on her by the ruling party members.

Also, the south block is divided in its attitude towards friendship with Bangladesh. Too many cultural exchanges and camaraderie may not be in the interest of India in the long run. So part of the South Block would like to see religious fanaticism to grow in Bangladesh and I would not be surprised if the RAW provided funds to politico-religious institutions through their Middle East partners.

Because when you take 50 years within your future planning, the best thing that would keep the barbed wire fencing in place is religious fanaticism. A moderate, liberal and secular Bangladesh and increased exchanges between the people of the same race may, they apprehend, lead to the collapse of the barbed wire fencing like the Berlin Wall. India’s hands are already too full of insurgencies both in the West and the East. She would hate to add another to the list. So, business profits gained through ‘friends’ is much cheaper and wiser in the long run.

Mamata has an eye on Delhi. If silence takes her there, why give out a cry? Silence they say is golden. I can visualize Didi still in her white cotton sari taking oath as the prime minister of India some day in the distant future.

How Good Is The Half-Full Glass?

In spite of the fact that Mamata Banerjee's about face had diluted the significance of Manmohan Singh's visit, dissection of the 30-hour Dhaka trip is likely continue for a long time. It is only but natural. And that is primarily because the expectations created by the interlocutors on our side which were put out through the media were not matched by the outcome. And the disappointment has been made even more acute by an advisor to the Bangladesh PM accusing our media of blaming them for the failure. People in the top rung of the administration seem to forget that success has many claimants of paternity, nobody owns failure. 

And what was implied in the statements of the advisors, post Manmohan visit, quite clearly was that Bangladesh was left high and dry by India and they could do precious little about it. Well, the nature of their jobs is such that they must take the bad with the good. Would they have credited India only if everything had gone as we had expected and got everything that was promised? We do not want to look at the glass as half full, as one of the advisors has accused the media of doing, but what good is a half-full glass if that contains undrinkable water? 

Even the Indian Prime Minister has acknowledged, not in so many words though, that the Mamata spanner was not only unexpected, the lack of outcome regarding Teesta admits of no excuse on the part of India. I think we, as a nation, are used to disappointments, but when that occurs due to other countries taking us for granted, and failing to reciprocate our actions and goodwill, it is hard to swallow. However, disappointments aside, it is time to take a dispassionate look and see if really the glass is half-full in spite of us getting nothing of the Teesta! And, as for today, we shall look at a few aspects only of the bilateral issues. 

Teesta is a good point to start. I for one take Mamata's U-turn on Teesta with a pinch of salt. Serious observers of Bangladesh-India relations couldn't have but noticed the absence the water resource ministers in any preliminaries, though the foreign ministers and the home ministers had met in Dhaka before the visit of the Indian premier, enough indication of things to come. However, since we have no details of the aborted Teesta agreement we do not know how much we lost; thus it is futile to spend effort on it. All we can do is to ask the government to tell us what exactly we missed and what will be our lot should the Teesta treaty be signed, may be in three months as our finance minister has suggested. We are getting different figures and different calculations. And one gets confused when one hears both the terms, "equal" and "equitable" applied by the advisors and foreign minister in this case. Are they fungible? 

On sharing of the common river waters, it is for Bangladesh to worry, even more now that the chief minister of the Indian state of Bihar says that the Ganges Treaty has been a "gross injustice" to his state and has called for its review. 

Let us look at the land issues. Sheikh Hasina had expressed her deep appreciation of the government of Bangladesh for facilitating 24-hour unfettered access to Bangladesh nationals through the Tin Bigha Corridor. While this is certainly an improvement from the status of restricted access to the two enclaves, and would have a "significantly positive impact on the lives of the people of Angarpota-Dahagram," one wonders whether thanks are a bit premature. Is not the corridor to be leased in perpetuity to Bangladesh? Has the long pending promise been really fulfilled as stated by our PM in the Joint Statement? 

The two prime ministers may have expressed deep satisfaction at the conclusion of the Protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement, but how much that will pave the way for settlement of the long pending land boundary issues given that the demarcation, which was first agreed to be completed by no later than March 31, 2012, has now been tagged with the exchange of enclaves, which has been left open-ended. 

As for transit, the most topical issue, it would be remiss to tag it to the Teesta water sharing. These are two different issues and linking them would be a strategic folly on our part, and one would hope that that was not the intention of the government when it dropped the matter entirely after being shortchanged on Teesta. For Bangladesh there was no other alternative. But there is an arrangement of corridor of sorts, with the ODC going to Palatana power project in Tripura. However, Article 41 of the joint statement of the prime ministers which directed that necessary formalities for the use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports for movement of goods to and from India through water, rail and road be completed urgently, is seen by many as the next step towards granting corridor to India. 

BY :  

Where Did India-Bangladesh Talks Go Wrong?

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into Air India One at the end of his visit to Dhaka last week, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her entire Cabinet lined up on the tarmac. There they waited not only until the plane began taxiing for take off, but until it had completely disappeared from view.
Only hours before, the Bangladesh National Party, Ms. Hasina’s major political opposition, had blamed her for not adequately preparing for the Indian prime minister’s two-day visit and described it as a “diplomatic failure.”
The accusation hurt, not only because it was partially true–a breakthrough agreement on sharing of river waters between India and Bangladesh had collapsed at the last minute–but also because Ms. Hasina’s special friendship with India goes back to 1971 when her father, Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, accepted Indira Gandhi’s help in midwifing the new nation of Bangladesh.

Ms. Hasina’s prolonged presence at the airport was “a huge relief,” a senior Indian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, adding that it “gave teeth to her statements that despite everything, both countries would always remain firm friends.”

Ironically, the Indian diplomat admitted, the breakdown in the river water talks did not happen because of differences between Delhi and Dhaka, but between the federal government in Delhi and the West Bengal government in Kolkata.

Dhaka was notified by Delhi only in the late night before Manmohan Singh arrived on the morning of Sept. 6, a Bangladeshi official told India Real Time. The government was so incensed, the official added, that it decided to cancel its offer of allowing Indian goods to transit through the much shorter and cheaper Bangladesh route to India’s northeastern states, the Business Standard newspaper reported.

Even after Bangladesh became independent following the India-Pakistan war in 1971, it did not restore the trade and transit privileges for India that had been shut down by Pakistan after its 1965 war with India.
Meanwhile, a historic land boundary agreement between the two sides–allowing for the demarcation of the remaining 6.1 kilometers of the 4,095-km-long border for the first time since partition in 1947, as well as the adjustment of 166 enclaves and several adverse possessions, where people had continued to live on each other’s lands even though the territory belonged to the other country–had seemed in serious danger until the last minute, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes confirmed.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. According to officials in both capitals, India would give in to Dhaka’s long-standing demand to dismantle a prohibitory trading regime in textiles, in return for the transit privileges it had long hankered after; old trading routes that were shut down after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, would be opened, restoring ancient relationships.

Meanwhile, the water treaty would allow both countries to share water on a 50:50 basis, the officials said.
“With Pakistan fast becoming a failed state, Afghanistan in the throes of Al Qaeda, Nepal still unstable, Sri Lanka in the process of reaching out to the Tamils after the end of its civil war, and even tiny Maldives battered by a combination of Islamist and authoritarian forces, the new India-Bangladesh relationship was supposed to become a model for India’s vexed relationships with other countries in its neighborhood,” a second Indian diplomat said in Delhi.

“Unfortunately, Delhi missed the big picture,” said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka. A new template between Delhi and Dhaka would have stimulated both economies and boosted Ms. Hasina’s political standing.

Instead, Mr. Anam said, Delhi’s failure in getting Kolkata on board the water issue not only  compromised Manmohan Singh’s authority with a foreign country, in this case Bangladesh, it also gave Ms. Hasina’s chief rival and former prime minister, Khaleda Zia of the BNP, a political shot in the arm.

“If Khaleda comes to power in the 2013 elections, India will have played no small role in the matter,” said a BNP leader in Dhaka, on condition of anonymity.

South Asian foreign policy experts in Delhi, like former high commissioner to Bangladesh Deb Mukharji, agreed that “inadequate communication” between Delhi and Kolkata, not between Delhi and Dhaka, lay at the root of the problem.

According to Mr Mukharji, “Delhi should have ensured that there was no scope for misunderstanding on the part of West Bengal.”

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s consent was not only imperative but necessary before Delhi finalized the water deal with Dhaka, because under the Indian constitution, water resources are a state subject, the second Indian diplomat added.

Instead, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, a party in alliance with the Congress party both in West Bengal and at the center, was shown the prospective water deal with Bangladesh only two hours before it was intended to be discussed in the Cabinet on Sept. 2, a Trinamool leader told India Real Time.

The Trinamool leader said he requested Manmohan Singh to amend the draft in keeping with the party demand that the water share for Bangladesh be capped at 25%. But all he got in return was a lecture and a scolding on the state’s duties and the center’s responsibilities by finance minister and Congress stalwart Pranab Mukherjee.

According to the Trinamool leader, Mr. Mukherjee said it wasn’t possible at this late stage to amend the water treaty and that foreign policy was the preserve of the Centre, not the state.

“I had to tell him, you have no right to rebuke me, I am duty-bound to represent my state’s interests,” the Trinamool leader said, adding: “The federal government may have the right to run the country’s foreign policy, but the state has the right to protect its assets.”

“If Delhi could show us the draft treaty on the land boundary ahead of time, which we had no problem with, why didn’t they do the same with the water treaty? I think Delhi was trying to hoodwink us,” the Trinamool leader said.

Deb Mukharji pointed out that as the polity became much more federal and “provincial parties became much more assertive, it was clear that Delhi would have to go the extra mile to keep them on board in achieving larger foreign policy objectives.”

As India picks up the pieces from the Bangladesh debacle, officials say they have begun to prepare for its negative impact in the rest of South Asia. “India’s image has suffered a great deal,” a senior Indian official with responsibility for negotiating with the neighborhood said. He said he feared trade concessions during Pakistan Commerce Minister Mohammed Amin Fahim’s visit to Delhi in late September would be in jeopardy.

 But Mr. Mukharji believed otherwise: “Most other countries in the neighborhood would be sad to look at India, the largest country in the region, to have been damaged in this way. These countries realize that India is a well-wisher as well as the only nation which can provide real opportunities for their own economic growth.”

BY : Jyoti Malhotra .  

Creation of Bangladesh: Shining Moment Or Strategic Blunder

“DURGA ASTRIDE A TIGER”. This is how Atal Behari Vajpayee described Indira Gandhi immediately after India’s lightening victory in the 1971 war, which resulted in creation of Bangladesh. Ironically and now in retrospect, correctly, he led a protest march against Shimla Agreement in 1972. In the best tradition of the Indian State, whatever was won militarily has been thrown away at the negotiating table time after time.
Although creation of Bangladesh was hailed as a defining moment in the history of the sub continent at that time, it is turning out to be a strategic nightmare now. Bangladesh would have been created, perhaps of its own steam, sooner or later. But by our intervention we have created a problem for us with serious strategic disadvantages. 

With Bangladesh as its Eastern Wing, Pakistan was always unbalanced. With its severance, Pakistan is now a viable and cohesive entity with its Armed Forces much more capable of not only defending her territory but carrying the war into India as per its doctrine of ‘Offensive Defence’.

By creating Bangladesh, we have made an implacable enemy of Pakistan for whom Balkanisation of India by whatever means has become an article of faith. Even if Kashmir problem is resolved to Pakistan’s satisfaction, its hostility towards India is not going to come to an end. It will find some other means to continue its strategic aim – break up of India. This fact is not understood by many peaceniks and those who believe that people to people contact and mouthing of platitudes will resolve all problems between India and Pakistan. 

Bangladesh in the meantime has reached the other extreme. Not only its history has been falsified to eliminate Indian Army’s role in the creation of Bangladesh, it is firmly in the Pakistani camp – lock, stock and barrel. It is indeed tragic. West Pakistan always treated East Pakistan with contempt. It was a strange case of creation of a nation with its two wings thousands of miles apart held together only by a tenuous link of religion. Bangladesh has conveniently forgotten how inhumanly its citizens were treated by West Pakistanis when it was a part of Pakistan. To put things in correct perspective. It may be relevant to quote a passage from C-in-C Bangladesh, General MAG Osmany’s letter to Lt Gen Gul Hassan Khan, C-in-C Pakistan Army in 1972 after the creation of Bangladesh.

“The seventy five million people of Bangladesh were subjected to the most inhuman form of genocide, rape, repression and arson by Pakistani Armed Forces who exhibited not the slightest hesitation in killing their Bengali brother officers and men, unarmed and in cold blood – all aimed at denial of human rights guaranteed by United Nations Charter. Indeed history does not have a single instance of inhuman acts which can equal the bestial treatment meted out to our people between night 25/26 March 1971 to the day before surrender. History’s most ignominous defeat in which some 93,000 professional and very well equipped soldiers led by their officers including a substantial number of General Officers bowed to lay down their arms and were stripped of their badges of ranks is therefore the justice meted by God such as he has always done and promised to do”. Forgetting all the above, Bangladesh is now cozying up to Pakistan compromising even its self respect in the process.

Bangladesh is becoming a safe heaven for all militant groups of North East but it consistently denies existence of militant camps even when presented with irrefutable evidence. Pakistan ISI is also having a field day in Bangladesh carrying out anti India activities in collusion with the militant groups based there. Infiltration from Bangladesh has become alarming with all North Eastern States swamped by Bangladeshis. In future Bangladesh may well claim North East to be an integral part of Bangladesh. A few years ago, when the author was undergoing National Defence College course in Delhi, he discussed this issue with the Bangladesh officer, his colleague on the course. The Bangladesh officer told the author that actually India is mistaken. It is Indians who are infiltrating into Bangladesh in large numbers due to stark poverty in India and are creating law and order problem there. Never before such pearls of wisdom were heard. 

Bangladesh has created formidable armed forces, far in excess to its needs, which could well collude with Chinese, should a war with that nation come about in the future. 

Instead of we treating Bangladesh Rifles as the rag tag force they are, they are treating our Border Security Force with contempt. Every day there is firing on the borders and abduction of personnel who are then killed in the most inhuman fashion. Even when we wish to erect fence within our territory to check illegal infiltration, Bangladesh takes an offence to it and the worst part is we pause to ponder over their protests. And now they have the temerity to try to stop construction of border fence by firing. And the mighty Indian state with visions of becoming a world power only watches as a disinterested bystander. 

Day in and day out, Bangladesh accuses us of diverting Ganga water into Hoogly to save the Calcutta port thereby causing unprecedented drought in that water logged country. The logic should beat anyone but the result is that we have not been able to harness waters of any of the river of North East including the mighty Brahmaputra for irrigation or electricity generation. This is even when a river water sharing treaty was signed with Bangladesh in 1975 when Sheikh Mujib was still alive and subsequent unilateral concessions were given by the Gujral govt to Bangladesh. 

Hindu minority in Bangladesh receives the worst treatment, even worse than in Pakistan. No Govt in India has had the inclination, or courage to take it up with the Bangladesh govt. The Indian state is treated more or less like a banana republic by its neighbours. They fear China but have only contempt for us.

Why have things gone wrong? Political handling of the aftermath of 1971 was strangely naïve to say the least. This has been so both with Pakistan as well as Bangladesh. While with Pakistan we missed the golden opportunity to sort out the Kashmir problem, with Banglaesh we were much too generous without an iota of reciprocity. A few legitimate concessions should have been obtained from Bangladesh. First and foremost should have been the treaty of trade and transit across Bangladesh from North Eastern States. The time to cover the distance from Agartala to Kolkata would have been reduced to six hours instead of four days it takes at present. Incidentally such an arrangement existed between India and Pakistan till 1965 war when it was arbitrarily withdrawn by Pakistan. We should have also sorted out the problem of ‘Chits’ or the enclaves of both countries in each other’s territory. These have become an unending headache. Perhaps Siliguri corridor should have been widened with concession elsewhere. Ironclad guarantees should have been obtained with regard to utilization of river waters. This has become an intractable problem now. Bangladesh should also have been asked to give guarantee that its soil will not be used for anti India activity. It was possible at that time since Sheikh Mujib was still in power and Bangladesh was grateful for Indian help not only for creation of their nation but bearing the burden of ten million refugees for eight long months.  

What is the way ahead? We need to introspect. Why is it that despite our size, population, economic strength and armed might, our smaller neighbours do not fear us as they do the Chinese. A case in point is the recent case of sabotage of SAARC Summit in Dacca by Nepal. At the instigation of China or perhaps in order to spite India for its stance on restoration of democracy in Nepal, the King insisted on inclusion of China as an observer. The King knew very well that SAARC Charter does not have such a provision. Yet he linked this issue with admission of Afghanistan as a member of SAARC. Thus what we thought was a open and shut case turned out to be a fiasco. Even Bhutan with whom we have a treaty, is conducting negotiations with China on boundary issue keeping us in dark and may well spring a surprise on us to our strategic disadvantage. The case of Bangladesh, specially is sad indeed. It is one of cutting your nose to spite your face. Our foreign policy mandarins may do well to look into their backyard instead of chasing mirages like a seat in the UN Security Council.

Every election time, Bangladesh goes through convulsions. Same is the case now. The two Beghums have reduced the whole election process to a farce. In no democratic country, executive powers are handed over to someone else to conduct elections. Hopefully better sense will prevail and election process, however farcial, will be gone through. We also need to seriously reexamine our policy of investing in individuals rather than institutions. We have learnt nothing from the past. In 1972, Indira Gandhi thought that by making concessions to Bhutto, she will earn his goodwill. What we got instead is a nuclear Pakistan. Similarly in Bangladesh, we put all our eggs earlier in Sheikh Mujib’s basket. With his assassination, we lost all our bargaining power. Thereafter it was Sheikh Hasina’s turn. The result is that whenever Beghum Khalida Zia comes to power, anti Indian forces gain upper hand. Unfortunately in our country foreign policy has been made an exclusive preserve of the ruling party. What we need is greater transparency and greater debate – both within the Parliament as also out side in the media and think tanks. But perhaps it may be too much to expect. 

Blame Thy Neighbour: Perspectives On Indo-Bangladesh Relations

INDIA has never been in good terms with its immediate neighbours except Maldives. The Indo-Bangladesh ties have always been strenuous due to various factors. Although immediately after the emergence of Bangladesh—with direct Indian help and military intervention—the Bangladesh government officially portrayed India as Bangladesh’s Bandhu Rashtra or ‘friendly state’, most Bangladeshis were not enthused about the short- and long-term prospects of having the mighty India as a neighbour. To them, India was not a benign neighbour but a hegemonic and expansionist power, determined to turn their country into a subservient ally and a market or, even worse, into a protectorate.

Ever since the 1975 military takeover in Bangladesh, the government and people in India have serious misgivings about their Muslim-majority neighbour in the east. India not only considers the country a source of illegal immigrants but also as one in league with Pakistan, allegedly a promoter of Islamist terror and a sanctuary for ethno-national separatists in India’s northeast. Then again, contrary to Manmohan Singh’s belief that around twenty-five per cent of Bangladeshis who are anti-Indian belongs to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, thanks to Indian hegemonic behaviour towards Bangladesh, much more than twenty-five per cent of the Muslim population in the country are avowedly anti-Indian and they do not necessarily only belong to certain Islamist parties as they do not represent more than five per cent popular support in the country.

Let us look at the historical roots of the problem as to why India and Bangladesh behave to each other as they have been since months after the emergence of Bangladesh. Historically, it is not correct to assume that Bangladesh came into being due to the bulk of the East Bengali Muslims’ quest for a secular Bengali identity; and that its emergence in 1971 signalled the departure of their Muslim identity, nourished and nurtured for at least a hundred years before the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. There is no reason to assume that East Bengali Muslims, who played the most important role in the creation of Pakistan, all of a sudden discarded anti-Hindu communalism (main sustainer of and rationale for Pakistan) and joined the bandwagon of the so-called secular Bengali nationalism. East Pakistan’s transformation into Bangladesh was not inevitable. Pakistani military crackdown leading to an indiscriminate killing of Bengalis in East Pakistan and Indian intervention played the vital roles in the creation of the country. Most importantly, for the bulk of Bangladeshis (Muslims), 1971 just transformed their political not religious identity. They were/are still predisposed to anti-Indian (anti-Hindu) communal propaganda.

While the Bangladeshi Muslim psyche was still vulnerable to communal/anti-Indian mobilisation, Indian highhandedness and inept foreign and trade policies towards Bangladesh, especially its dumping of substandard goods into Bangladesh and coercing the latter into signing a ‘friendship treaty’ (on unequal terms) with India in 1972 to last twenty-five years, alienated many Bangladeshis. Meanwhile, by early 1972 supporters of Islam-oriented political parties that remained proscribed in Bangladesh for more than three years up to the military takeover in 1975 for collaborating with the Pakistani occupation army in 1971, pro-Chinese leftists and others having strong reservations about India joined the anti-Indian camp under Maulana Bhashani. After the bloody overthrow of the Mujib government in 1975 (people generally considered the regime pro-Indian), anti-Indian movement got further momentum due to various factors. Ever since 1975, lots of contentious issues between the two countries have further embittered the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. India’s harbouring, arming and training pro-Mujib militants under Kader Siddiki who continued attacking Bangladeshi border outposts in 1975-1976 and the Chakma insurgents (Shanti Bahini) for two decades up to 1996; and Bangladesh’s providing sanctuary to ULFA rebels for years, allegedly in collaboration with the ISI, may be mentioned in this regard. Last but not least, India’s unilateral decision to activate the Farakka Barrage across the Ganges—to the detriment of Bangladesh—has been the last straw.

Consequently, very contentious issues like India’s withdrawing water from the upstream of the Ganges in the north of the Farakka Barrage and the proposed Tipaimukh Barrage have remained the main bones of contention between the two countries. While Farakka has turned parts of north-western Bangladesh very arid and infertile, the proposed Tipaimukh Barrage on the Barak, would adversely affect agriculture, and create environmental and navigational problems for more than thirty million people in north-eastern Bangladesh. Again, ignoring Bangladesh’s demand, India has not stopped unilateral withdrawal of water from the upstream of the Teesta Barrage of Bangladesh in northern Bangladesh, which has posed a serious threat to agriculture in greater Rangpur district of Bangladesh.

While water is a very big issue between the two neighbours, which is likely to aggravate further in the coming years as India will need more water for its dry and populous state of West Bengal, the lack of mutual trust, and most importantly, the lack of resolve to resolve the problem on both sides, are the stumbling blocks towards bringing the two countries closer to each other. The perpetual sense of deprivation and helplessness on part of Bangladesh vis-à-vis Indian highhandedness will not do any good to the parties. Tense Indo-Bangladesh relationship is at the roots of many transnational security problems in the sub-region.

There are several bilateral, sub-regional and global issues hindering the onset of normal relationship between the two neighbours. The bilateral issues include border security, boundary demarcation, trade, and transit rights, water management, travel and tourism. During the recent visit of Indian foreign minister SM Krishna to Bangladesh, two accords were signed between the two countries. One was on the transit rights to Bhutanese vehicles to Bangladeshi ports through India; and the other one was on the ratification of the Indo-Bangladesh agreement on promotion and protection of investments. As Indian Border Security Force’s shooting down dozens of Bangladeshi intruders into India in the recent past enraged Bangladesh, Krishna assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that in the future India would not shoot at Bangladeshi intruders and would only use ‘non-lethal weapons’ to deal with border intruders from Bangladesh. What is noteworthy that neither the Hasina-Manmohan memorandum of understanding in 2010 nor the Krishna-Dipu Moni agreement in 2011 has resolved the more pressing issues dogging the Indo-Bangladesh relations besides the issue of granting transit rights to India through Bangladesh to the former’s north-eastern provinces.

As indicated at the beginning of this article, India is apprehensive of the influx of illegal immigrants, Islamist terrorists and Muslim protagonists of ‘Greater Bangladesh’ from Bangladesh to destabilise the northeast and West Bengal. Bangladesh is also worried about the long-term design of India-based Bengali Hindu extremists who want to carve out several south-western Bangladeshi districts to create the so-called Swadhin Bangabhumi (Free Bengali Land) to settle Hindu Bengali refugees (and their descendants) who left East Pakistan/Bangladesh for India during the last sixty-odd years. Many Bangladeshis are apprehensive of another unlikely event, Indian annexation of their country, very similar to what happened to Hyderabad, Kashmir, Goa and Sikkim, which could lead to the return of millions of Hindu Bengali refugees and their descendants to Bangladesh to reclaim their abandoned (or sold at nominal prices) and stolen properties from their present Bangladeshi Muslim owners. Bangladeshis also do not want to compete with the better-educated Hindu Indians in the not-so-competitive job market in Bangladesh, which they apprehend would be the outcome of an Indian annexation of their country.

In the backdrop of some of the major contentious issues between India and Bangladesh, which are by-products of historical, cultural, geographic and natural phenomena, there are several avoidable political factors as well. While it is time consuming to get rid of the historical hangover induced by the age-old communal antagonism between Hindus and Muslims and the bitter memories of the Partition on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border, it is also not that easy to convince India not to divert river waters to irrigate its arid lands in West Bengal. It is equally difficult to contain the outflow of the illegal immigrants from the border districts of Bangladesh where the land-man ratio is gradually becoming untenable for the sustenance of the landless poor. Then again, what is most unfortunate is the political use of both avoidable and unavoidable issues to the detriment of any Indo-Bangladesh understanding. Communally motivated politicians on both sides of the border make capital of the imaginary Hindu-Muslim fault-line. Thus, the BJP and members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar in India and their counterparts in Bangladesh, such as the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and their ilk, love to play the communal card or the Muslim and Hindu bogeymen for political leverage, respectively. It is quite surprising that some so-called ‘leftist/progressive’ leaders on both sides of the border also use the communal card for sheer political benefits.

As leaders and members of the civil society in India and Bangladesh fail to educate, enlighten and de-communalise people for the sake of better Hindu-Muslim understanding and good relationship between the two neighbours, some of them overtly or covertly promote agent provocateurs to tarnish the image of their neighbouring country out of political expediency and communal prejudice. The promotion of Taslima Nasrin and her controversial fiction Lajja by sections of the Indian politicians, media and intellectuals was simply counterproductive. Given the opportunity, their Bangladeshi counterparts would not shy out from promoting turncoats from India for political gains and communal gratification. Thus ‘blame thy neighbour’ has become an important component of the domestic and international politics of India and Bangladesh.

Last but not least, as the Cold War impacted the Indo-Bangladesh relations in the post-Mujib era up to the end of the Cold War (1975-1990)—Russia and the West (and its Arab allies) favoured India and Bangladesh, respectively—the emergence of the ‘Neo Cold War’ between America and China (and its clients in the Muslim World) is fast polarising the Muslim and the Western worlds. America’s promoting India as a bulwark against China—and against Pakistan in the long run—has direct bearings on the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. Hillary Clinton’s telling India on July 20 in Chennai ‘it’s time to lead’ and ‘exercise political influence to match its fast-growing economic muscle’ is not re-assuring for Bangladesh and Pakistan. America’s quest for a pro-Indian government in Bangladesh while India and Pakistan fight their proxy war over Kashmir (and river waters) in Afghanistan will further alienate the average Bangladeshis from both America and India. America’s and the Israeli Lobby’s not-so-hidden agenda to de-nuclearise Pakistan may be considered a catalyst in the new big game within and beyond Afghanistan. Thus, Bangladesh has become a not-so-insignificant pawn in this game and has also become a battlefield of the Indo-Pakistan proxy war.

While Pakistan has been keen on promoting Bangladesh as a destabilising factor for India by its surreptitious support of Indian insurgents, Bangladesh under the ‘pro-Pakistani’ BNP-Jamaat coalition government responded favourably to Pakistan against India, the ‘common enemy’.

Although geopolitical factors and global politics (both during the so-called bipolar and unipolar worlds of the Cold War years and in its aftermath, respectively) and the Indian and Bangladeshi governments’ positions vis-à-vis the global alignments are important catalysts in Indo-Bangladesh relations, Indian intransigence and myopia have been mainly responsible for the prevalent less than warm relations between the two neighbours. India’s over-reliance on the Awami League to have a working relationship with Bangladesh is anything but myopic. The Awami League barely represents around forty per cent of popular support in Bangladesh while its archrival BNP, which is traditionally soft on Pakistan, represents another forty per cent of popular support.

The Islamist and some left-oriented parties in Bangladesh are also avowedly anti-Indian. It appears that Manmohan Singh’s singling out the Jamaat-e-Islami as the only anti-Indian party in Bangladesh could be a politically expedient under-statement as he possibly deliberately avoided mentioning BNP in this regard, as it is potentially the next ruling party of Bangladesh.

In the backdrop of the prevalent mutual lack of trust and understanding between the two neighbours, quite surprisingly India and Bangladesh seem to have come closer to some understanding to resolve some of its age-old problems, including disputed border and water issues between the two countries. India has already promised to give duty-free access to some Bangladeshi products and the two neighbours are going steady towards finding a solution to the transit issue, which actually amounts to grant India a corridor to reach its hinterland in the northeast through Bangladesh. One is not sure if Bangladeshi road network is capable of handling thousands of Indian cargo vehicles passing through Bangladeshi territory every month. Bangladeshi people are also not aware of what their country would receive as transit-fee from their mighty neighbour. Meanwhile, the balloon of hope and expectations for a better deal from India for Bangladesh has already been pricked by India’s refusal to discuss the Teesta water sharing issue, as the Pashchim Banga chief minister is unwilling to share the river on a fifty-fifty basis with Bangladesh. In view of this disturbing development, one is not sure if Manmohan Singh’s visit will soothe Bangladesh, which has more than one reason to be annoyed with its powerful and not-so-trustworthy neighbour.

In sum, as bitter historical memories, geographical exigencies, political advantage and shifting global politics have adversely affected Indo-Bangladesh ties, so has the inept big brotherly attitude of India towards its smaller neighbours. There is no harm in hoping against hope that India is going to learn that poor relations with its immediate neighbours would never allow India to emerge as a superpower. Then again, as the Economist surmises, ‘India lacks any kind of vision’. Kuldip Nayar could be quite instructive in assessing that:

India needs to reflect on why all the neighbouring countries have distanced themselves from it. No doubt its size deters them. But more than that, their feeling is that New Delhi is becoming increasingly conscious of itself as an emerging world power. It tends to throw its weight about in such a manner that the neighbours are having doubts about its bona fides.

 BY : Taj Hashmi.