In a long time, although not for the first time, an Indian prime minister will be visiting Bangladesh. For reasons understandable, there is a lot of interest in it. Bangladesh is a country which policy-analysts have called “India-locked”. On all sides we have one neighbor and that is India. Even in the South, across the Bay of Bengal, lies the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India. (Only in the south-east we share a small patch of territory with Myanmar without any significant population or urban centres, but then with a fair, or perhaps disproportionate amount of problems too). Yet it is not the only reason why people are interested.
Geo-politically, Bangladesh, occupies the heart of eastern India. Once again, it is a foregone conclusion that the development and peace in the Indian north-east largely depends on what happens in Bangladesh. However, that is an understatement: large parts of eastern India, including West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and as far away as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh also have its fortunes entwined with Bangladesh.
It is not only security which is at stake; prosperity and poverty also have a way of seeping across international boundaries. But then it is true without resolution of political issues the ambience of development will never be created.
Bangladesh and India share a common history, ethnicity, and culture. Before the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, we were one single country and after that – 24 years later in 1971 during our Great Liberation War – a new chapter was written with the common blood of the people of Bangladesh and India. Over ten thousand Indian soldiers perished alongside our freedom-fighters and civilians. Many more were paralysed. The hardship of sheltering almost ten million of our people, at a time of great economic hardship, was no mean feat either. Said briefly, India risked everything to see us free, safe, and secure.
But then states, like people, have a way of evolving in very unpredictable ways. For us it has been even full of twists and turns. After the brutal assassination of country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ironically on India’s Independence Day in 1975, the clock in Bangladesh went the other way. The blood-bond with India too, went downstream. Since then, we have recovered. And a government that believes in peaceful negotiation of disputes has consolidated itself. Bangabandhu’s daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in resonance with her Indian counterpart restored the historic bond once again.
Winds of change
India too has changed. Prime Minster Narendra Modi will be the first Indian premier to visit Bangladesh early in his term. This is interpreted and we believe, quite rightly, as an indication of the incumbent’s desire to put its relations with its immediate neighbors on a high pedestal. This gives us hope. We believe that for any country to prosper a peaceful neighbourhood is a sine qua non.
There is no point denying that neighbours all over the world have common issues to resolve. We also have ours with India. Common river-waters, boundaries, power and energy, business, use of seas, and security problems call for further discussion. And in these areas, we also know our likes and dislikes. But we must learn to share our virtues and suppress our vices. Because one can change many things in life, but not one’s neighbours. Therefore, we have to master the art of living amicably with them.
To quote Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen `In politics, as well as in private life, the surest method for resolving conflicts, however slowly, is dialogue.’
No problem persists, if both countries have the desire to resolve it. Like our Joint-Victory against the Pakistani forces in 1971, we signed the Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty and the Land Boundary Agreement was brought to force. In the same vein other issues can also be resolved. All we need is the political commitment and the mindset to understand each other’s problems and challenges. We have to shake off the `inimical high-adrenaline game’ with our neighbours and proceed on the road of blood-soaked friendship created at the birth of Bangladesh. Let us look forward in this perspective where all resolutions will come on the basis of equality.
Sitting idle on unresolved bilateral issues and lingering disputes would affect the fortunes of both countries and fuel the “tension balloons” fomented by conspirators. It is better that the contentions be taken up, one at a time, and resolved, to the satisfaction of both sides. Only a relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity could deactivate the subversive elements lurking in our midst. The two neighbours must not allow any third party to encroach on any element of their sovereignty.
We have a tendency to say `yes’ to globalisation but `no’ to regionalism. But it is regionalism which acts as a survival kit during the era of globalisation. South Asia is caught between the twin forces of globalisation and regionalism. It is time to sync them.
Europeans have learnt the hard way through the mass deaths from the two World Wars. Countries of the Far East have discovered the virtues of cooperation facing powerful insurgencies at home and abroad. The problems in the subcontinent are also not very different from those of others, particularly the post-colonial states. The question for us is to learn as much as possible from the experience of others. After all there is no point “reinventing the wheel.”
Many of the persistent problems call for new and innovative solutions. And as the experience of the more successful ones exhibit that those who go for a “soft-landing” fare better than those who go for the harder variety. Recent developments give us hope that we too will opt for the first one.
Any relationship starts with trust and mutual confidence. We believe, the recent passage of the long-standing Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in the Indian parliament is indicative of more such moves to come. Reflective of the mood of the country: it was unanimous. We are indeed, thankful to the people of India and all its political parties, both in government and opposition, federal and regional, for the solidarity they have expressed in their willingness to support a cause so dear to the hearts of the people of Bangladesh and affecting the fortunes of almost a hundred thousand people in Bangladesh and India.
It is not the first time this has happened. During the first tenure of Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina we had observed such gestures, too. The outstanding problems of sharing the water of the Holy Ganges and the refugee and insurgency problems in our south-east, was also satisfactorily settled with the help of the Indian government.
Economists say proximity is a major parameter of enhanced economic activity. However, because of a number of reasons, including non-resolution of outstanding problems, we are yet to realise the potential in the sub-continent. A World Bank study says that intra-regional trade in South Asia is less than that in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it is only four per cent.
A number of geo-political problems have bedeviled the realisation of our potential. A history of animosity that set in with the partition and independence of the subcontinent from British rule and other residual problems rancor in the minds of all those who have suffered.
We, believe, the government led by Sheikh Hasina, once again, showed its sincerity for a better and peaceful neighborhood by ensuring that no camps or persons are allowed to use the territory of Bangladesh to ignite violence or carry out subversion in India.
It was a unilateral decision by Bangladesh. There was no quid pro quo. It was felt by us in the immediate future and not only the long-run that such an initiative would not only help our neighbours, but also protect Bangladesh from the “backwater effect” that such activities usually generate.
The on-going investigations into the brutal grenade attack on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 21, 2004 and the “Ten-truck arms’ haul” cases are also steps that have definitely reduced substantially, if not eliminated, the trans-shipment of illicit arms into India using Bangladesh territory, illegally.
Problems of familiarity
As the 19th century British parliamentarian, Edmund Burke said “Familiarity breeds contempt or children”. It is true for us. If we can create a “framework of peaceful negotiation” then it will engender prosperity for all concerned. For too long, we have looked beyond our shores to make our day. It is time we looked within.
The examples of EU and ASEAN tell us a story of what contiguity can do, while the experience of South Asia, West Asia, and Africa has shown what it cannot. The problems are understandable. There is too much historical baggage and unsettled issues to address. EU and ASEAN started with a common political perspective: collective security. Only later did it not only become an economic community but also engaged former adversaries.
We too need to do that. The sub-regional grouping of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, if successful, could form the embryo for a more effective and broader regional platform.
The way forward
But solutions do not come easily. They need to be studied objectively and innovative solutions must be found. The problems of post-colonial states all over the world are in many ways the same. Overlapping boundaries and populations coupled with poverty.
The answer to all of that is to address them in the spirit of co-operation and satisfaction within a “win-win” framework. There can be no problem that defies a solution. The important thing is to understand its dynamics and build a state and region where all its citizens feel safe, secure, and happy. And for that to happen, the people must identify with the state and regional institutions. Inclusion alone can lead to ownership and full utilization of a country’s and for that matter, a region’s potential.
As Bangladeshis, we must view the relationship between the two countries from Bangladesh’s perspective, and not through the eyes of those of Pakistan or any other country. The freedom achieved through the bloodbath of the Great Liberation War is not something which can be trans-shipped in a covered-van nor destroyed by minor scuffles.
Militancy and cross-national terrorism have always tended to sow the seeds of mistrust between the two countries of South Asia, sitting on two explosive challenges of communalism and poverty. We hope the Hasina-Modi bilateral talks will address them adequately.
We welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with open arms and hope to build on the success of the Land Boundary Agreement to settle the outstanding common-river-water issues including Teesta very soon. Amicable settlement of the water issues is the “golden key” that will open up the golden age of mutual trust and confidence. And how can we ignore the people of both India and Bangladesh, who have always wanted `Friendship’?
Hasanul Haq Inu, MP is the Information Minister for the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.