Dear Manmohan Singh, welcome to Bangladesh. This welcome is not just on behalf of one hospitable people to another but also to the prime minister of the country that matters most to Bangladesh. In 40 years, our relationship has gone from bad to worse to tolerable to smooth to everything else in-between. What it has not been is — matured.
I know it is difficult for an Indian to hear such words from a Bangladeshi but please understand that this is not an accusation but a desperate call hoping that both of us can learn to live together as adult nations. Like you, we too don’t appreciate friendship for itself but I hope we both can realise that we need it more than we want it, whether we like it or not.
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Indo-Bangla relations are like the proverbial marriage between an elephant and an ant. To make it work, both need to remember who they are. While an ant may forget it is an ant and probably ends the marriage but life and marriage both will end for the ant if the elephant forgets that. Nor should the ant pretend that it is an elephant and the elephant shouldn’t even consider the possibility of behaving like an ant. Unless this asymmetry is accepted, this relationship won’t work. Perhaps that is the missing link in Indo-Bangla relations.
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Bangladesh has three main concerns as far as India goes. A. Water sharing. B. Trade relations. C. Border management.
India has three main issues. A. Terrorism. B. Border management. C. Illegal migration and transit which are largely security issues too in application.
As one can see, there is little common space between the two set of priorities. Bangladesh priorities are broader and encompass its entire existence which is natural while India’s dominant concern is security and not much else. For us security is a minor issue because we don’t hate India or Pakistan; we hate each other so much we have no time for others.
For India we are a huge irritant and capable of causing great distress by hosting terrorists and extremists. But I think the present government has greatly appreciated that concern and taken action and the Indians also admit that. The incumbent government has also acted bravely and agreed to transit. These are not ordinary concessions and carry great anxiety generators for all. We are now waiting for India to reciprocate on the issues that matter most to us, our life and death issues.
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The most important issue for us is water sharing and we still await meaningful Indian response on this. Historically speaking, India has a bad record on mutual accommodation on water sharing and Farakka is a high point on that. Post-Farakka water sharing arrangements have been disappointing for us and this is where India will have to show serious commitment if it wants sustainable better relations with Bangladesh.
India has cited its own water needs to dry Bangladesh and there is little evidence that in future it plans to look at rivers as international assets shared between countries. The Tipaimukh dam and other water projects have raised anxiety not just for water sharing but also the near complete lack of transparency in dam/barrage construction related issues much against international practices.
India is a regional power when it comes to anti-terrorism but remains committed to national interest when it comes to water sharing and that’s what the problem is. The Shainshah-e-Hind wants to wear the turban of the Subedar of Delhi. It just doesn’t work and is unfair to both identities.
Let’s both of us face it. India calls the shots on most matters and the smaller South Asians respond to that accordingly. We are not big enough to initiate any action though we like to think that such matters occur between two sovereign countries. Our strength and size dictate our realities though in Bangladesh we live in denial thinking we are at par with India. What we think matters little but India’s focus on national priorities ignoring regional realities causes great difficulties which India has rarely understood. They mean well but are stuck with an early 20th century mentality on nation-state-ism.
Indian security and foreign policy think tanks sound like they are protecting the interest of a hugely beleaguered country surrounded by desperate enemies whose only aim in life is to destroy India. Even the latest stuff that has been generated on the visit of the Indian PM is washy washy and remarkable only for their superficiality. Much of the Delhi analysis is unaware about regional factors and needs, seeing the Indian state and its priorities as a religious truth making practical accommodations nearly impossible to consider.
When India’s best mind produces this kind of narrow analysis, one can understand just why the opposition rants against ‘deals with Bangladesh’ just as Manmohan arrives in Dhaka. The opportunities for a policy that works in the region and not just for India is lost in the fog of typewriter-age nationalism that in the long end doesn’t serve India.
It is this anxiety of the experts which produce negative fantasies like the one that a quarter of Bangladeshis are Jamaat-supporters and serving the ISI. Even Bangladesh’s anti-Indian maniacs don’t manufacture such lines in their crazier utterances but when it comes from Indian experts it becomes a dangerous matter because of policy application implications.
It also makes people wonder what other fantasies have worked in India’s mind in formulating other inter-country policies. Or is it that India doesn’t feel it has to have quality analysis behind policies when it comes to its neighbours?
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Is this what makes Indian border guards treat the Bangladeshi fence crossers as extremist Kashmiri militants out to wreak havoc that creates Felani-death-like-incidents? One Felani has damaged more Indian reputation than a thousand hours of propaganda. India’s problem is that it produces its own bad advertisements and still can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t love its diplomatic products.
Those who cross the border are not terrorists as some Indians claim but mostly poor pathetic Bangladeshis looking for a meal. Why not improve the fences, go for a no shoot policy or hire less trigger happy guards?
End border disputes including the chitmahals and start looking at borders and its people as resources and opportunities rather than criminals. Border is a convenience and not a holy line of demarcation that has haunted some Indian minds for long.
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On matters of trade, India treats Bangladesh as competitors in most cases which is hardly the thing to do with a neighbour whose most common product is political chaos. Bangladeshis are increasingly dependent on trade with India and that’s a good thing. The Indian feeling that it is surrounded by impoverished countries that hate and it is largely true.
But just because that reality is unpleasant for India doesn’t mean it will go away through complaining. One way of making better friends is creating better trade relations — perhaps not just as competitors but as asymmetric partners. Will it cost too much if India scouts for whatever that can be bought from Bangladesh by them pro-actively and work with Bangladesh to ensure quality? But higher mutual trade will be a terrific investment and ultimately a better off Bangladesh can buy more Indian goods and a stake in India’s economy will mean a much less hostile Bangladesh.
A poor neighbour is always a ‘hostile’ one and India needs to deal with it as part of its own better India.
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At this point of time, India acts no differently from Bangladesh, more intent on nationalist sentiments bordering on narrow jingoism and occasional xenophobia than practical regional diplomacy. Like in Bangladesh, bad feelings for the other cut across all classes, social or intellectual. If Bangladesh’s problem is being a state that refuses to be modern, India too struggles with its pre-modern instincts. While for Bangladesh, there is no global responsibility to discharge, for India it is very different. It is by default or otherwise, the regional power, the global emerging power, one of the few countries that matter.
In the region, a prosperous but selfish India left out with resentful neighbours will spell great difficulties for the region but ultimately for India too — something India and Indians don’t seem to realise.
What holds it back from playing its historic role is its own understanding of what that role should be, something bigger than the narrow-minded cries of socio-economic protectionism.
As of now, India is on the brink of both success and failure. One is not sure if India has it to be what history demands from a great power. We are sure PM Manmohan Singh has his own intent, hope and frustrations too. If we both can learn to work and live together in our asymmetry, we both gain from each other.
Best wishes on your visit.
Afsan Chowdhury is a Consulting Editor of bdnews24.com.