The Cold War impacted the Indo-Bangladesh relations in the post-Mujib era up to the end of the Cold War (1975-1990) – While the Soviet Union and its East European satellites favoured India, the West and its Arab allies and Pakistan favoured Bangladesh. 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 20th July 2011 in Chennai “it’s time to lead” and “exercise political influence to match its fast-growing economic muscle” in South Asia, is not re-assuring for Bangladesh and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are also engaged in their proxy war over Kashmir in Afghanistan. Significantly, Bangladeshi political parties are not maintaining positive neutrality towards the Indo-Pak conflict in and around Afghanistan.
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 “pro-Pakistani” BNP-Jamaat coalition government responded favourably to Pakistan against India, the “common enemy”.
Impediments and bottlenecks to good relationship
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. As reported in the media, on 7 July 2011, Indian and Bangladeshi foreign ministers, S.M. Krishna and Dipu Moni, “expressed firm optimism about signing of an interim agreement on water sharing of the common rivers Teesta and Feni, and a framework deal on land border during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka on September 6-7”. We also read in the media that more deals on transit, import of power from India, joint venture power generation, cooperation in security, education, culture, and trade liberalisation, etc. were in the offing; details of which were being worked out, and both countries were expecting to complete the remaining task before the Indian Prime Minster’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011.
During the Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Bangladesh in May 2012, 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 BSF’s shooting down dozens of Bangladeshi intruders into India in the recent past enraged Bangladesh, Mr. 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. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni co-chaired the first Bangladesh-India Joint Commission meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna. The Joint Commission was formed under the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka on September 6-7, 2011. The reports of the Joint Commission noted that under India’s $1 billion credit agreement inked two years ago, Bangladesh bought fifty double-decker buses from India. It is noteworthy that neither the Hasina-Manmohan MOU in 2010 nor the Krishna-Dipu Moni agreement in 2012 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 Northeastern provinces.
However, as of October 2013, excepting the import of power from India and the inauguration of the environmentally hazardous coal-run joint power generation plant at Rampal in southwestern Bangladesh in close proximity to the Sundarbans, there has been no substantial improvement in the bilateral relationship between the two neighbours. On 5 October 2013, Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh jointly unveiled the foundation plaque of the controversial coal-fired power plant at Rampal despite green groups’ protest and bitter criticism of all major opposition parties and civil society in Bangladesh. One wonders if Manmohan Singh did the right thing by jointly sponsoring this highly controversial and unpopular power plant. This move is likely to further embitter the existing acrimonious relationship between the two neigbours. Some top BNP leaders and other opponents of the Rampal power plant single out Indian “vested interest” as the main factor behind the project, as they think, “only India will benefit from it”.
Meanwhile, West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee had raised objection to implementing the boundary agreement signed between India and Bangladesh without her and West Bengal’s approval. As Bannerjee has been intransigent on implementing any boundary agreement with Bangladesh without her consent, so is Jaswant Singh of the Hindu rightist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Singh reveals that the BJP is not willing to amend the Indian Constitution to implement the boundary agreement. Sections of Indian politicians and media are, however, willing to fulfill India’s commitment to Bangladesh to resolve all bilateral issues, including the Teesta Treaty and the Land Boundary Agreement. Interestingly, BJP’s MP Varun Singh supports the Teesta and Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. However, other influential BJP leaders, including Sushma Swaraj, and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal are totally unwilling to concede anything to Bangladesh, which they think would adversely affect the best interests of India in general, and West Bengal in particular. It is noteworthy that in a recent survey conducted by the IBN, CNN and The Hindu, Bangladesh came on top as the most trusted country among Indians, ahead of even Russia. Analysts impute this to the collective guilt of Indians over New Delhi’s “failure to be fair to Bangladesh”. The seven Northeastern states of India, who would benefit most through the transit facilities to Chittagong port, are more pro-disposed to Bangladesh than elsewhere in India. In short, Indian politicians and policy makers in general are least interested in normailising the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. They seem to be totally disinterested neither in resolving the problem of BSF killing of Bangladeshi nationals at the Indo-Bangladesh borders, nor ratifying the Teesta Water and the Land Boundary Agreement. One cannot agree more with a Bangladeshi analyst that: “If India thinks that these two acts [stopping BSF killing of Bangladeshis at the border and punishing the BSF soldier who killed Felani] would be immense favour from her [to Bangladesh] … they [sic] are wrong. India’s Bangladesh policy needs serious revision, pragmatic thinking and a dignified approach”.
As several retired Bangladeshi diplomats have observed, India should do more towards normalising its relationship with Bangladesh. India could have reciprocated Bangladesh’s allowing the transportation of heavy equipments through its territory to build a power plant in Tripura state in 2011 and 2012. Bangladesh has also promised to transship 10,000 tonnes of food grains without any charge under “yet another ‘special transit’ facility” to India. As one retired Bangladeshi diplomat puts it, India has promised a lot to Bangladesh and signed several agreements, which have not yet been fully or partially implemented; and not only that, but India’s promises are also fading. As India has failed to amend its constitution to implement the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement, it has only managed to grant 24-hour access to the Angarpota-Dahagram residents to the mainland of Bangladesh on a temporary basis, which can be withdrawn by India at a moment’s notice. The Teesta Agreement is also unlikely to be implemented shortly. India has done very little to make Bangladesh happy during the last five years, 2008 to 2013. “No step has been taken to address the key issues on which substantive matters can be resolved. These include sharing of the waters of all the common rivers, peaceful management of the border as well as cross border investments” observes on retired Bangladeshi diplomat. In sum, India has lost historical opportunities to improve the Indo-Bangladesh relationship in the last few years. Last but not least, “Bangladesh did the tango with India gracefully and in harmony. But this may not always be the same in the future. In fact, political leaders in Bangladesh would be wary of giving India any leverage without a reciprocating gesture from India. Indian internal politics need to change dramatically to cope up with Bangladesh’s new regional posturing”.
In the backdrop of the unfriendly relationship between India and Bangladesh, which is a by-product of various historical, economic, cultural and political factors, one should not expect rapid normalization of the relationship overnight. Policy makers in both the countries should also realise that any sensitive issue, if not addressed to promote mutual trust, interest and understanding, might backfire to further embitter the fragile relationship. It is essential to keep in mind that it is difficult 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. Then again, it is also not that easy to convince India to divert river waters from the arid lands in West Bengal to Bangladesh. 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.
Again, what is most unfortunate is the political use of both avoidable and unavoidable issues that damage good friendly relationship between the two neigbours, by vested interest groups in both within and outside South Asia. 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-i-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. The age-old cold war between India and Pakistan, especially since the creation of Bangladesh with direct Indian involvement, also adversely affects Indo-Bangladesh relationship, as Pakistan has not totally abandoned the policy of using Bangladesh as its battlefield in its proxy war against India.
Leaders and members of the civil society in India and Bangladesh fail to educate, enlighten and “decommunalize” people for the sake of better Hindu-Muslim understanding and good relationship between the two neighbours. Some of them overtly or covertly play the agent provocateur role 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, for example, 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. It seems, while “Blame thy Neighbour” is the cornerstone of India’s Bangladesh policy since the 1980s, “India Factor” is the most essential element in Bangladesh’s relationship with countries in the region and beyond, especially the U.S. and China.
Bangladeshis in general, including politicians, analysts and members of the civil society, believe that India’s hegemonic attitude is at the roots of its apparent intransigence and stubbornness towards Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshis still consider India a malevolent neigbour, if not an impending threat to their country’s sovereignty and geographical integrity. A re-appraisal of some of the contentious issues, especially what Bangladesh in general thinks about them, is essential for understanding why the Indo-Bangladesh relationship is not on the even keel. What a minister in the Awami League Government (which is broadly known as “pro-Indian” to its predicament) has pointed out in September 2013 is very significant. He said: “India must keep in mind that we too are accountable to our people. Friendship isn’t one-sided. Both sides have to come forward.” This is significant because even some “pro-Indian” politicians in Bangladesh realise that Indian intransigence and unwillingness to normalize the Indo-Bangladesh relationship would further strengthen the anti-Indian Islamist and “communal” forces in Bangladesh, which would be also detrimental to the long-term geo-political and security interests of India, especially in the Northeast and West Bengal. A local English daily editor has rightly pointed out that good relations between India and Bangladesh are fundamental to the prosperity of the two nations. “India should help Bangladesh from a point of view of India’s self-interest, as an economically prosperous Bangladesh will add to the peace and stability of the region and be a more attractive trading partner of India”, he observes.
As bitter historical memories, geographical exigencies, and shifting global politics have adversely affected Indo-Bangladesh ties, so has the inept big brotherly attitude of India towards its smaller neighbours. Kuldip Nayar is quite instructive in this regard:
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.
Last but least, India should realise that good relationship with Bangladesh is mutually beneficial to both the countries. It should pay heed to what retired Indian diplomat-turned-politician Mani Shankar Ayar thinks about the dysfunctional Indo-Bangladesh relationship, which is full of bad experience, mutual mistrust and apprehension. He thinks India has “failed to deliver” what Bangladesh has been expecting since long. He also believes that “benefits will not flow to the North Eastern region [of India] unless Bangladesh becomes a natural country of transit that will connect the region with the rest of India”.
Taj Hashmi is professor of security studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, US.