Indo-Bangladesh relations have been subject to mood swings ever since the latter’s liberation in which India had a big hand. The tragedy is that there is no apparent irresolvable source of contention between the two countries. For all that they have failed to develop a mutually beneficial and trust-worthy relationship for quite some time.
Bangladesh, it is clear, feels insecure, feeling too close and needlessly too weak with a powerful neighbour. What is worse is that there still exist groups of Islamic fundamentalists in our Bangla neighbourhood like the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh that are hostile towards India. Their very existence reminds one of the gunning down of founder Chief Minister Mujibhur Rehman and most of his family on the night of 14-15 August, 1975.
Many in India have long been sceptical of Begum Khadela Zia, presently leader of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), but following Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011, the impression went round that even the Begum seemed willing to work with India to strengthen bilateral relations.
Following Dr Singh’s visit, India, in addition to a $ 1 billion line of credit had also given quota-free access to its market for 46 Bangladesh textile products and 15 other items. Begum Zia’s week-long visit to India from October 28, to November 3, marks an important advance in India’s efforts to reach out to Begum Zia, widely known to have has a strong anti-India sentiment, expecially noticeable previously in her patronisation of anti-India elements. But during her visit to Delhi she sounded if not repentant, at least wiling to forget the past. She is reported to have said: “This marks a new beginning. Let’s look forward and not look back in the rear view mirror.” Asked whether she would stay the course in improving ties with India in case she was re-elected in the forthcoming general elections in 2013, her answer was the same. On his part, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is known to have assured his visitor that New Delhi is committed to assist Bangladesh in its economic growth and would not take any step detrimental to its interests. It is teresting that Begum Zia decided to visit India closely following her trip to China as head of a party delegation. China, it appears had assured her of financial and technical support for the second Padma River Bridge, development of the deep sea port at Sonadia in the Bay of Bengal, operationalising the Chittagong-Kunming Rail Link and modernising the Bangladesh Armed Forces.
China, it is clear wants to establish a strong politico-military presence in Bangladesh, as it had sought to do in Myanmar. This is a matter of concern for Delhi. There are areas of contention between Bangladesh and India, as in the case of construction and operation of the Farakka Barrage by India to increase water supply to the Hooghly River. Bangladesh has been arguing that it does not receive a fair share of the Ganga water during the drier seasons and gets flooded during the monsoon; when India releases excess water. At the same time Bangladesh wants India to expedite the signing of an agreement for sharing the water of the Teesta River. That Agreement was to have been signed during Dr Singh’s 2011 visit to Bangladesh, but had to be deferred because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s objection to it. Mamata did not even have the grace to accompany Dr Singh to Dhaka. She preferred to sulk. What is little known is that there are more than 300 rivers in Bangladesh out of which 57 are trans-boundary. India and Bangladesh share a 4,096 km land boundary covering five India States, namely, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. This has resulted in large-scale immigration of Bangladeshis into Indian territory, notably Assam – a fact which Dhaka refuses to acknowledge.
The Congress-led government in New Delhi has always maintained a closed eye when it came to Bangladeshi immigrants. As the Guwahati-based daily The Sentinel angrily noted, “the government stand on this – especially that of the Congress-ruled governments – has been that there are no Bangladeshis in the State and that the people who have been identified as Bangladeshis by the people of the State are in fact India citizens” – an act of unforgivable pretence. Asked the paper, reflecting Assamese opinion: “It is not the bounden duty of the so-called mainland India to save Assam – an integral part of the Indian Union?” Good question.
Bangladesh has also been quilty of worse crime in the past. As Garga Chatterjee, a scholar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently noted, as of 1997, through various versions of the Enemy Property Act, 53 per cent of the land owned by Hindus had been forcibly taken over, most of it between 1972 and 1980 which had affected 4 out of 10 Hindu households. Dhaka, of course, does not give it a second thought. No Hindu has received compensation. As in the case of Hindus driven out of Pakistan, Delhi has nothing to say. And our secularists have even less. When it comes to the problems facing the Assamese people, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh sounds dumb-struck. Where our Islamic neighbourhood states are concerned, the approach is one of ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil’. That does not mean that Begum Khalida Zia should not have been invited to Delhi.
Practical politics demands that we keep all political parties in and around our country in good humour. The reception accorded to Begum Khalida must be considered in the context of the likelihood of her returning to power in the 2013 elections, only to play China’s game. New Delhi had been noticeably relieved when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League had come to power in the elections at the end of 2008, but the tendency in Bangladesh has been to vote out the party in power. Possibly, in 2013 the Awami League may be shown the door, and the BNP welcomed back.
One can only hope that Begum Khalida will continue to accept India as a real friend, and mind its concerns. But then, only time will tell. China has the money and the will to keep India surrounded and on tenterhooks. It has bagged Pakistan in the west. Bangladesh can be an easy victim in the East.