India has never been in good terms with its immediate neighbours, except Maldives. It is possibly the only country in the world, which has bad to very bad relationship with all its immediate neighbours. The Indo-Bangladesh relationship has always been strenuous. 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”, yet most Bangladeshis were not enthused about the short- and long-term prospects of having 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. India’s mistrust of Bangladesh intensifies whenever the “pro-Pakistani” and “Islam-loving” Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is in power in the country. India’s demeanour changes substantially – it apparently becomes friendly towards Bangladesh – whenever the “pro-Indian” and apparently “secular” Awami League is in power.
Then again, contrary to what Manmohan Singh believes that around 25 per cent of Bangladeshis who are anti-Indian belong to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and “are in the clutches of the ISI”, thanks to Indian hegemonic behaviour towards Bangladesh, much more than 25 per cent of the Muslim population in the country are avowedly anti-Indian and they do not necessarily belong to any Islamist party as Islamist parties do not command more than five per cent popular support in Bangladesh.
This write-up is an appraisal of the real and imaginary issues dogging the Indo-Bangladesh relations in historical, political, psychological and geo-political perspectives. It also aims at exploring the possibilities of a durable understanding between the two countries in an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Historical roots of the problem
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 the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 signalled the departure of East Bengali Muslims’ 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 Bangladeshi Muslims, 1971 just transformed their political not religious identity. They were/are still predisposed to anti-Indian (anti-Hindu) communal propaganda.
Most importantly, the post-Liberation Awami League Government’s failure to address the problems of mass hunger, poverty, unemployment in the backdrop of mismanaged and corrupt ways of running the country, with reliance on India for its domestic and foreign policies, did not augur well for the Indo-Bangladesh friendship and understanding. While Bangladesh was apparently turning into the Kissinger’s nightmarish “Basket Case” during the Mujib era, the vast majority of Bangladeshi Muslims started believing in all the conspiracy theories, such as: a) “India taking away their country’s meagre resources”; b) “India created Bangladesh not only to weaken Pakistan but also to turn the country it helped become independent into an Indian market and colony”; and c) “Under Indian influence, the Mujib Government was working for a formal merger of their country with India”. Renowned Indian journalist Basant Chatterjee, as an eyewitness gave a vivid account of the prevalent anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh soon after its emergence in 1971. He rightly pointed out that Bangladesh in 1973 had already become “Muslim Bengal”, where the bulk of the Bengali Muslims blamed India for all of their problems, and were fast becoming pro-Islamic and anti-Indian, if not pro-Pakistani. The psyche of the average Bangladeshi Muslim has not changed much in 2013 with regards to their anti-Indian sentiment.
While the Bangladeshi Muslim psyche was still vulnerable to communal/anti-Indian mobilization, 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 25 years, alienated many Bangladeshis. Meanwhile, by early 1972 supporters of Islam-oriented political parties – 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 (most Bangladeshis considered the regime pro-Indian) anti-Indian movement got further momentum due to various factors. What had already started soon after the emergence of Bangladesh in early 1972 – many pro-Bangladeshi and anti-Pakistani secular and liberal democratic politicians and people fast turned anti-Indian due to various factors – got further momentum after the overthrow of the Mujib. India’s alleged plundering of Bangladeshi assets and its hegemonic foreign policy to keep Bangladesh subservient turned the average Bangladeshi into anti-Indian and anti-Mujib. Thus when Khondokar Mushtaque Ahmed, a senior minister in the Mujib Cabinet, became the President of Bangladesh after the August coup of 1975, Bangladesh came closer to Pakistan and through it to the Muslim World. Mushtaque would have declared Bangladesh an “Islamic Republic” but he is said to have refrained from doing so because of his apprehension of Indian military intervention. This is what one finds in some declassified State Department Documents.
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.
India decided to build the Farakka Barrage across the Ganges in 1951, which came into operation in 1975.
India’s unilateral decision to activate the Barrage – to the detriment of Bangladesh – alienated the bulk of the Bangladeshi population from India. Consequential to the Barrage, Bangladesh loses around 40,000 cusecs of water per year. The Indo-Bangladesh thirty-year agreement on water sharing signed in 1996, has not substantially improved the situation for Bangladesh. There is no guarantee clause in the agreement for minimum amounts of water to be supplied to Bangladesh. From the findings of water and ecology experts across the world, it appears that due to the barrage, there has been increased salinity of soil and water in northwestern Bangladesh. There has also been decline in soil quality and crop yields, shrinking fish population, decline of mangrove forest, increased erosion rates and sedimentation in the Ganges, more severe flooding in northern Bangladesh during the monsoon. Experts estimate the total damage to Bangladesh economy due to the Barrage at $3 billion per year.
While contentious issues like India’s withdrawing water from the upstream of the Ganges in the north of the Farakka Barrage has been a big impediment to good neighbourly relationship between India and Bangladesh, the proposed Tipaimukh Barrage has emerged as another bone of contention between the two countries. The proposed Tipaimukh Barrage on the Barak, would adversely affect agriculture, and create environmental and navigational problems in the Surma and Kushiara rivers, adversely affecting more than thirty million people in northeastern 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.
Indian ambivalence towards solving the border demarcation problem, and India’s Border Security Forces or BSF’s alleged unprovoked killing of Bangladeshi nationals on the border, especially the killing of 15-year-old Felani, a Bangladeshi girl on 7 January 2011, have further embittered the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. The acquittal of the BSF soldier, alleged to have killed Felani, disappointed and angered many in Bangladesh.
India is apprehensive of the influx of illegal immigrants, Islamist terrorists and Muslim protagonists of “Greater Bangladesh” from Bangladesh to destabilize 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 southwestern 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. The Swadhin Bangabhumi Andolon, a separatist movement to create a Hindu country out of southwestern Bangladesh started in 1973 in India. In an interview with the BBC in 2001, Chittaranjan Sutar, who was an Awami League MP and the main organiser of the movement, denied any existence of the movement at that time. The movement became active again in 2003 when it declared the independence of Hindu Republic of Bangabhumi. Hindu extremist groups in India, especially the VHP, championed the cause of the Bangabhumi.
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. Thousands of Indian professionals have already been working illegally in the private sector of Bangladesh, especially in the garment, NGO and IT sectors.
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 also at the roots of many transnational security problems in the sub-region.
Surprisingly, there are some minor issues that have been dogging the relationship between the two neighbours for decades. One may mention the issue of the Bangladeshi enclaves in India at Angarpota and Dahagram. Although Bangladesh transferred the Indian enclave of Berubari in Bangladesh to India in 1974 by linking it to the Indian mainland, India has not yet reciprocated the same rights to the Bangladeshi nationals in the enclaves of Angarpota and Dahagram. Despite so many “agreements”, India has not allowed free and uninterrupted 24-hour access to the Bangladeshis in the enclaves to the mainland of Bangladesh. There is a narrow corridor of Indian Territory called “Tin Bigha” that links the enclaves to the mainland of Bangladesh. India does not allow 24-hour access to the corridor. Consequently the Bangladeshis in the enclaves do not get access to law enforcers, hospitals, shopping centres, schools and other facilities in Bangladesh. They live in abject poverty, without access to gas and electricity. Then again, apparently there was a breakthrough as India and Bangladesh came to some agreements on the boundary agreement (over the enclaves) and India promised that no unilateral actions would be taken to deprive Bangladesh from its due share of Teesta water in 2011.
–(To be continued)
Taj Hashmi is professor of security studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, US.