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The rains have hit again, and so soon after the hurricane. I drive past a scene in our small town. One elderly woman has her car stuck in the mud. I know this woman. Her next-door neighbour is helping push her car out of the mud. I know this man. Everyone in the town knows that these two people hate each other since the man’s dog bit the woman’s son, and the woman petitioned the town to have the dog destroyed.

The incident happened 16 years ago. And yet, there they are. She’s a school bus driver, and this is the first day of school. They’ve buried the hatchet for the greater good — slogging in the mud in his soiled work clothes; the man behind the car has my admiration. It’s hard to make peace after so long a silence.

Halfway around the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making India’s head-of-state visit to Bangladesh in 12 years. Why did it take so long?

As a neophyte to the political intrigues and subplots that define the relationship between India and Bangladesh, I found the fact that no Indian prime minister has set foot on Bangladeshi soil in 12 years to be extraordinary. What sort of importance does India place on its relationship with Bangladesh if it does not officially drop by, except on historically rare occasions?

And what of Mr. Singh’s comments back in early July that at least 25 percent of Bangladeshis is anti-India? Why embarrass a government in Dhaka that is India-friendly? Still, I suspect that his remarks may not have been unintentional.

While most of you all know by now that my affection for Bangladesh doesn’t exactly make me neutral in these matters. Let me attempt to express my understanding (and opinions) about the issues at hand:

Water: This is a main sticking point. The Teesta is an important source of irrigation for West Bengal, and it seems that Mr. Singh does not have the political clout to pull of a deal that would give Bangladesh 50 per cent of the water that would naturally flow to Bangladesh if West Bengal had not dammed or irrigated the upstream portions. As of this writing, a compromise agreement that would have allowed 25 percent of the water to follow its natural course into Bangladesh had been taken off the table. India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers. They have an agreement about sharing a total of one river so far. I would be surprised to see any agreement on this issue, due to the internal pressures Mr. Singh faces in India.

This interesting game of percentages continues in other areas where agreements must be reached. For instance, 15 percent of Bangladesh’s imports come from India, while less than one percent of India’s imports come from Bangladesh. The trade deficit is increasing, favouring further imports from India, and diminishing exports from Bangladesh. Part of this deficit is due to the bureaucracy in India, which forces Bangladeshi exporters to wait up to a month to get clearance from testing labs before clearance is given to import goods.

Like the damming of the Teesta, India’s tendency to dam the flow insures that it receives the lion’s share of advantages in trade. In contrast, the United States, halfway around the world, accounted for 22 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports. It seems odd that our American restrictions do not hamper the flow of exports from
Bangladesh, although product must be shipped as far as it can be shipped on this planet, while archaic practices in India make the flow of goods from next-door unnecessarily slow and unreliable.

And what does India want from Bangladesh? India actually wants to gain easy access to Bangladesh’s roads. Having read about the traffic safety conditions, I find this remarkable. I think that if India does sign any agreement that allows access, it must be accompanied by grants from India which would address safety, infrastructure, and the increased traffic flow. India should pay usage fees that would allow for adequate lighting and policing of these roads. This could actually be the best thing that comes from a treaty, a real modernisation of the highway system along an East-West corridor. The easing of Indian transit through Bangladesh is an opportunity to bring in revenue, but it needs to be accompanied by a parity in ease of border crossings, so Bangladeshis would be as free to enter India as Indians would be to enter Bangladesh.

Just as an aside, I have spoken to Americans who were denied re-entry on a multiple entry Indian visa after having visited Bangladesh. The problem doesn’t seem to stem from some sort of anti-Bangladeshi sentiment on the part of India, but on the organisation of border policies of India in general, no matter the traveller’s country of origin. In any case, from everything I have read, it seems that an agreement on easing transit through Bangladesh will not be accomplished on this visit.

Aside from the water issues, the real impediment to Bangladesh-India relations is the archaic bureaucracy in India which prevents things that should be practical and logical, like treaties, from ever actually happening.

The point is that if Mr. Singh hopes to strengthen bonds between his country and Bangladesh, he will also have to tackle the ponderous obstacles that India’s entrenched and antiquated way of doing internal government business have put in place. If this is his goal, I am sure he’ll encounter opposition.

As I re-read what I’ve written, and review comments that Indian readers have made in the past about the justification for murderous border guards versus smugglers, it occurs to me that perhaps the way the current system exists, smuggling is the only way for struggling Bangladeshi traders to be able to enter the Indian marketplace. Certainly if, as research indicates, goods are sometimes delayed by months from entering India, such illegal end-runs are necessary. Havascope, a black market tracker, reports that the black market trade between Bangladesh and India accounts for $2 billion more in revenue than the official trade between the two nations. I believe that one of the causes of the illegal border crossings that lead to the killing of harmless Bangladeshis is, therefore, the bureaucracy in India.

Who benefits from such ponderous bureaucracy? According to the Swiss Banking Association report (and who knows more about black market banking than the Swiss?) Indian-owned Swiss Bank account assets are thirteen times India’s entire national debt, and India alone has more black-market money than the rest of the nations of the world combined. A survey indicated that at least 45 percent of Indians reported having to pay bribes to get the bureaucracy to act.

Such widespread corruption would be difficult for a prime minister to tackle. If corruption is indeed part of the reason the flow of goods and services is impeded at the border, then Mr. Singh must build up the public will to approve treaties and agreements that may take many people’s corrupt hands out of the pot. In this context, we can better understand the words he “misspoke” back in May, when he claimed that “at least 25 percent of the population swear by Jamaat-e-Islami and are very anti-Indian.”

Perhaps his words were intended as a warning to those who grow fat off the Indian bureaucracy that they face a potential militant backlash unless they are willing to allow him the political room to manoeuvre.

Unfortunately, for the state of the world, an exaggerated threat, no matter how fictitious, can be a powerful bargaining chip. By making the statement he did, Manmohan Singh has invited the Bangladeshi negotiators to play that card. And if I were prime minister of Bangladesh, I would definitely make sure Mr. Singh understands that an effective and advantageous treaty, including border and water rights would go a long way to clip the claws of India’s enemies.

My instinct is that Mr. Singh is well-intentioned and sincerely wants to seize upon a historic opportunity to allow both nations to move ahead and prosper. What he can do is limited in scope by a corrupt political system at home, and the political squabbles that beset Bangladesh, which make it unlikely that the BNP would support any idea, even a brilliant one, if it were proposed by the AL or vice-versa. But hey, after 12 years, at least this is a start.

When I passed the house of my neighbours on my way back from the convenience store, I noticed that my neighbour’s car was still in the mud but that her next door neighbour’s car was gone. Did her neighbour let bygones be bygones and actually drove the woman to work? I would like to believe this is exactly what happened. I’m the sort who believes that when the chips are down, people will act according to their best instincts to their mutual advantage.

For all of our sakes, let’s hope this is especially true when the people (or nations) happen to be neighbours.

Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.

21 Responses to “Between neighbours”


    Sharing of river water has brought disputes in other places too. One of the most recent cases is sharing of the Nile river. Egypt and Sudan have threatened serious action, including an Egyptian veto as per Anglo-Egypt treaty of 1929 on use of Nile waters, against energy-hungry Ethiopia which is building a dam on it and also are at loggerheads with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Imagine the extent of the dispute! There are serious disputes on Amazon and Danube too, among others. Hysterical berating of an “evil” India on everything – transit, river waters, trade, fertilisers, fencing, et al – is not likely to produce results however some may like to believe. Problems need to be solved through discussions appreciating all viewpoints.

  2. Somnath GuhaRoy

    Dear AA,
    It is my sincere belief that Mr. T. Sarkar has indulged in hyperbole about culture, West Bengal, Bangladesh, sex, etc., which in turn has drawn grossly exaggerated reactions from some Bangladeshis.

    From my personal interactions with Bangladeshi friends and Bangladesh through news channels including bdnews24.com, TV shows, etc., I do not think that either of these contentions is right.
    My submission is that conflicts of interest exist between any two or more stakeholders over water. Do you think that there are no differences in perceptions over water allocation between neighbouring provinces/districts/villages/owners of adjacent fields in the same country?

    It goes down all the way up to between residents of the same basti/building, between tenant and landlord. There are local political compulsions which no politician or even states (wo)man can ignore. Therefore we cannot ever admit that this is a case of hostility between West Bengal/India and Bangladesh, Muslim and Hindu, etc.

    Name calling and taking the “other” for the devil himself is of no use. Prime Minister Singh has indicated that a solution will be found, and believe me many on the West Bengal/India side also wish it to be so. Similar are the views of Bangladesh statespersons and the wishes of ordinary Bangladeshis.

    Like so many others, I speak and write pure and excellent Bangla without an English or “urban” accent and “remixing” it with words from other languages. I am good at Hindi and English and a few other languages. I am proud to be a Bangali and would give my life for India, so I understand your pride in Bangla language and in Bangladesh.

    I have not indulged in nor believe in pre-/extra-marital sex, nor do I condemn any man or woman who may have done it for whatever emotional or physical reason and with consent of his/her partner. I have taken drinks only at parties as a social event when my position or the host culture called for it, but never would dream of celebrating a holy occasion of any faith with booze and “babes”.

    I neither know nor understand from where Mr. Sarkar got the idea that “Hinduism” gave such licences. Nor do I like calling women – be they sex-partners – as “babes” as I think it is a derogatory use of the word “babies”.

  3. Syed Imtiaz Ali

    How does Europe believe and practice in “live and let live”? They have so many rivers flowing all over and the lower riparian have no qualms on water sharing.

    The world’s largest democracy is not expected to behave this way with Farakka, Tipaimukh and now Teesta and Feni.

    Dear India, please take responsibility and demonstrate maturity in dealing with neighbours. Being so small, we cannot jeopardise your global ambitions, rather help build the environment for that.

    Dear Frank, very good write-up. Please keep us all informed and help with our sanity in the bigger scheme of issues. Thank you so much.

    Dr. Manmohan has promised to offer help in building Bangladesh. We pray his cabinet believes in the same philosophy, burying the past, to start a new chapter.

  4. T.Sarkar

    Dear Mr. Cipriani,
    Still following this post as I expected some angry responses.
    Yes sir I am young and I do respect women. Sorry, if I have caused any offence. Using a phrase (booze and babes) doesn’t imply that I don’t respect women: used it to simply drive a point that many of us here are relaxed about our habits and beliefs, most of us do not carry any religious baggage or ancient stigma like it’s bad to drink, and it’s worse to have sex outside marriage!

    Now coming to your accusations:

    1) India has conspired to deprive Bangladesh of water: Do you think our corrupt politicians will spend their time and use their superbly wicked brains to conspire anything against anyone that does good to the country? And if such an act does not swell their bank accounts?

    Building dams do provide a lot of scope for corruption, but dams are risky, bring environment activists to the street, take a long time to pay off, so they would rather build stuff like stadiums to loot the country, look what they did in the last Commonwealth games :-).

    And you want me to believe that our corrupt leaders will spend their energies devising some crafty method to destroy Bangladesh, or any other country for that matter? And to what end, providing water to our farmers?

    2) Dams result in arsenic poisoning: Do you know that West Bengal’s southern districts themselves suffer arsenic poisoning, and the arsenic is in ground water, not in surface water, i.e. arsenic comes from the underground sub soil not silt, which is in top or surface soil. So this accusation doesn’t appear to be scientifically sound.

    Regarding your advise on sustainable agriculture: Our agriculture is far more sustainable that many Western nations: at least we do not give subsidies to rich farmers like Western countries just to keep the profession of agriculture alive, and our farmers can keep their own seeds for the next year.

    I really don’t think Bangladesh can claim more than 25 percent water of a river that fore more than 80 percent of its length flows through India. What Bangladesh really needs is to manage with the 25 percent water, now even that is not guaranteed to her. Apart from getting more water, Bangladesh needs to manage herself better, look for other avenues of generating wealth: funny they want to grow their economy, they have a wish list from India, yet they end up jailing their own noble laureate banker. You know this is a novelty, I knew only authors and opposition leaders are jailed in Bangladesh!

    Finally regarding transit: I don’t know why our government (Indian) is so keen. Our governments have been warming up to the Myanmarese army in recent past, and we will be friends to their democratic opposition if and when they come to power. We should instead focus on getting a direct access to South East Asia. All of S.E. Asia hates China (unlike Bangladesh), so this can be done with a lot less effort (than trying to convince a bipartisan Bangladeshi opinion on transit). We can even connect N.E. India to Singapore via train links through Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, skipping Bangladesh altogether. A few years back, our stupid politicians were thinking of building a pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan, just imagine, through Pakistan! I think they will soon see wisdom and get over this transit folly. Today Bangladeshi newspapers are reporting, ‘No Water, No Transit’, at that time we will simply print the conditions in reverse.

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani

      I don’t know if you’re still reading these threads, but I want to thank you for your responses, and ask some questions, and make some comments:

      I don’t think that it is some sort of evil conspiracy that India is practicing to deprive Bangladesh of water, but simply a lack of concern. I mean, I am not from Bangladesh, I have only been aware of issues in Bangladesh for a year now. I have been studying these problems and honestly, as an American, we aren’t so concerned with how what we do effect our neighbours either.

      The transit issues are a big concern. Bangladesh doesn’t have an adequate infrastructure to support its own traffic safety, let alone the safety of added transit.

      I am not aware of Yunus being jailed, simply removed from office.

      As far as the arsenic poisoning is concerned, I am talking about varying water sources. The more sources of water are available, the more dilute the contaminants of any one system will be. The flood plains are very fertile, and I think I wrote about ideas for solutions in the subsequent article I wrote.

  5. kamal

    Thank you Frank for yet another moving piece. You are one of my favourite writers.

  6. hasib

    I am actually very impressed with the way our government handled this Manmohan Visit. Though we did our best to act as a gracious host, we didn’t give in and gave up anything.

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani

      True. I think the real question would be how enforceable a treaty would be anyway. Bangladesh did stand firm. I wrote the piece before the talks fell apart, but I felt like India didn’t have the unity of political will to pull it off.

  7. anamika

    I think there is still hope between India and Bangladesh. There are good and wise people in both the countries and they will come forward and remove the obstacles from us becoming friends again.

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani

      I think you’re ultimately correct. The problems are not going away, and Bangladesh will not get smaller or have less of a demand for water, nor will India have less need of moving from West to East.

  8. Bipul Halder

    Thank you Frank for being a loyal friend of Bangladesh. We really appreciate your stand.

  9. T.Sarkar

    I am an Indian Bengali living in West Bengal. I was following this news story about our chief minister’s (of West Bengal) refusal to join our PM (of India) to Dhaka. Frankly, in my last ten years of Internet use, this is the first time I have browsed a Bangladeshi website.

    Earlier I only read Wikipedia entries on Bangladesh, and still earlier when I was a student read some books on by Bangladeshi authors and newspaper (Indian) reports about riots in Bangladesh and harassment of one of its well known (now exiled) authors.

    I then searched many Bangladeshi news sites to find out the opinion in Bangladesh. I was really surprised to find the coverage given to this news story. In almost all sites (both Bengali and English), more than 50% of the content was devoted to this news, in fact it has been claimed as ‘historic’. When I search Indian new sites, and also TV channels, I found that this news is barely mentioned. Only some TV channels (particularly the English ones) are enjoying branding Mamata as mercurial and gimmick-maker. Note that I am a Bengali living in Kolkata; imagine the interest of rest of India in Bangladesh!

    This is obvious that although historically and ethnically we have a common origin, we are far removed as cultures. The only face-to-face interaction I had with Bangladeshis were cab drivers and restaurant folk in the UK, and in the stalls of Kolkata Book Fair. Speaking of Book Fair, in the first one or two years of my visit, when I was in my late teen years, we were all interested to know about the other Bengal. However, soon my friends and me would joke that Bangladeshi books were mostly either about ‘Muktijuddho’ or about their majority religion. We were bored with the overdose of Bengali nationalism and a conservative religion.

    You see, although most of us in West Bengal are born as Hindus (which is not in our hands), most of us choose to practise less of it. Communism and multi-cultural existence (West Bengal has 25% Muslims, and they are quite liberal) have made most Bengalis on this side of the border indifferent to religion. Hindu religion to most Bengali Hindus is convenient as Hinduism never forces you to pray or do difficult things or follow a common dogma, and you can enjoy all the festivals with booze and babes!

    Many of my Muslim friends are okay to try alcohol and have premarital sex. So you see, culturally the two Bengals really do not have anything in common right now. Aspirations of the youth might be similar in many ways, but that does not mean we are culturally similar. Even if we speak different dialects of the same language, most Bengalis here (of our generation) have no special feeling about Bangladesh. We know too few good things about Bangladesh to keep us interested, a common language can only take you so far!

    I am not sure if my above words are disappointing but this is the fact. In India we have a very troubling image of Bangladesh: A land in constant turmoil undecided about its own identity, where minorities and liberal Muslims are constantly harassed, an exporter of terrorists and illegal immigrants, an ally of Pakistan from which we Indians helped it to get liberated! Is it practical for Bangladesh to expect so much from India?

    Let me tell you, I am no fan of any political leader here, just like most Bengalis of my age in West Bengal. However, I am quite surprised and in fact pleased by the bold stand Mamata has taken (unlike Jyoti Basu, who let us down during the Ganga Water sharing treaty, just as he let us down for most of his tenure as chief minister). Giving away excessive amount of water of Teesta would ruin the lands of Northern West Bengal, and Mamata is no fool: one issue over land had propelled her to victory, now she cannot let an issue over water to damage her credentials.

    So it would be practical for Bangladeshis to accept this reality and the other reality: the two Bengals are no longer similar!

    • Md. Nazmul Hasan

      I am a Muslim and I live in Bangladesh. The Indian PM Manmohan Sing just made a visit to our country. But we the people here didn’t believe that visit will be fruitful at least as regards our country. We didn’t set our hopes high either.

      India is our neighbour and it did help us during our Liberation War. But it hardly ever acts as a true neighbour.

      Md. Nazmul Hasan
      East West University

    • Farid

      What you wrote is entirely political and economic compulsion of West Bengal and Mamata Banergee. Why do Bangladeshis have to accept it?

      Bangladesh and its people have their own compulsion. They have to go by it. Proposed transit would not benefit Bangladesh in any manner rather it will take away market of Bangladeshi products in NE India.

      Certain benefits Bangladesh might avail provided the transit gets linked with Nepal and Butan. Why should Bangladesh give transit to India, if nothing is gained in return?

      Already we have more than three billion dollar trade deficit. What more do you want from Bangladesh?

    • Frank Domenico Cipriani

      Welcome to the polemic. A year ago, I had never read any news from Bangladesh either. Having read the history and having interacted with these remarkable people, I have become a real fan.

      In my university days, I was amazed at how wildly my Indian friends could party. We agreed that these Indian students were some of the wildest on the planet.

      The damming of the rivers that flow to Bangladesh, and the irrigation have conspired to deprive Bangladesh of the water that would naturally flow had the river remained untouched by human hands. What’s worse, the irrigation and backwashing puts arsenic-contaminated silt into the water as it flows towards the border.

      Ultimately, restrictive trade and Indian bureaucracy as well as the diverting of river flows have conspired to deprive Bangladesh of a legitimate means of support and many who cross the border into India have no recourse because of it. If allowing a more natural flow of the Teesta would ruin the lands of West Bengal, then that means the agricultural practices there are unsustainable and dangerous to the environment. It is only a question of common decency that the people upstream of Bangladesh should be good caretakers of the water supply.

      I know Bangladeshis and Pakistanis here who work side by side with each other and enjoy each others’ company. Compared to US culture, they are actually quite similar, despite differences in religion and relative wildness.

      My freind, you sound young. I say “Gaudeamos” while you’re young, but just make sure that in your excess, you treat women with kindness and respect.

      That from the father of three daughters.

    • AA

      You are right man, the two Bengals are no longer similar. We are now an independent company and proud Bangladeshis whereas the other Bengal is one of the states of India.

      People in West Bengal speak in an urbanised Bengali and mongrel Hindi and accented English. Whereas Bangladeshi speaks in an earthy Bengali that carries the smell of the soil. I assert that West Bengal is no more Bengal.

      Mr Sangma the chief minister of Meghlaya in one of his interactions with the press here have asked us to stop looking at West Bengal and have more interactions with the north east states of India. And we should do just that.

    • Noor

      I read your comment and I have found that you have some misconceptions about Bangladesh.

      First of all, I agree with you as regards the present condition of Indian youth. According to me and probably your parents and other Indian people who still believe in family ethics and bonding, it is not a WOW situation.

      The reason that you cannot find Bangladeshi books is because the Indian government do not allow those. Your government of West Bengal only allows books which are written about ‘Muktijuddho’ etc.

      You do not seem to have much idea about the Indian Muslims (epecially West Bengal Muslims). I suggest you visit Furfura Sharif (ফুরফুরা শরীফ). It is a village in Jangipara community development block of Srirampore subdivision in Hooghly District in the Indian state of West Bengal. Your idea of Indian Muslims will be changed after visiting that place.

      You do not know anything in particular about our country because Indian Government does not allow Bangladeshi TV channels and the Indian media never mentions anything except the news on border clash, election, smuggling etc.

      I do not understand why you think that Bangladesh is- “A land in constant turmoil undecided about its own identity” though you know that we (behalf of all the Bangladeshi people) gained our Liberation in 1971.

      Yes I do agree that India helped Bangladesh to gain victory and I salute India for helping us back then.

      If your government wanted transit from Pakistan (assume that) then Pakistan would tell them to give them Kashmir or something like that.

      You mentioned that minorities and liberal Muslims are constantly harassed here. I don’t seem to know anything about Bangladeshi people and culture. We do not have clashes and riots like the one you had over Babri Mosque. InshaAllah we (Bangladeshi people) will never ever resort to anything like that.

      You accused Bangladesh as an “exporter of terrorists”. Indian terrorist ULFA leader Anup Chetia was arrested in our country and we handed him over to your government. Indian extremist terrorists were found in Bangladesh then how you call us the ‘exporter of terrorists’. True we reportedly have quite a few criminals taking shelter in India. But even after Bangladesh government’s repeated requests, your government didn’t take any steps to arrest them and hand them over to our government.

      You shouldn’t have preconceived notion about the Indian youth’s concept of Bangladesh. Visit the urban areas of Assam, Tripura, Bhawanipur, Hasnabad, etc and especially Muslim regions then you will understand what the youth think about Bangladesh.

      You mentioned that you visited that website for the first time. I hope you keep browsing Bangladeshi websites as well as Indian websites then you will get a clearer idea of the present situation of India and Bangladesh.

      I neither want to prove that two Bengals are similar nor want to prove that we are deprived by Indian policy. I just want to say that you should not comment on anything based on vague ideas.

    • Abdur Rahman

      Yes I agree with my brother from West Bengal that the two Bengals are no longer similar. Bangladesh has been an independent country since 1971 (one of the newest nations) with high economic growth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Next_Eleven) whereas West Bengal is one of the poorest states in India.

      Bangladesh has set an example of how different religious people (Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist etc) can live in harmony in the same society. Here we have holidays for all religious festival. No matter if it is Eid, Durga Puja, Christmas the whole nation enjoys holidays for all religious festival.

      My Hindu friend always participates in Eid festival whereas I participate in Puja festival. It cannot be explained how vibrant the life here is in Bangladesh unless you come and see for it yourself.

      Currently, Bangladesh has highest number of UN peacekeeper around world and Bangladesh is called the Land of microcredit, a system that is being followed around the world even in your country. At last but not the least, India and China are competing with Bangladesh for readymade garments market.

      So my brother, please read more and do research before you write this kind of comment. I still hope the two Bengals will work together and remain as a close friend.

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