Paying more attention to relations with Bangladesh

Look East

Col Hariharan writes that India’s foreign policy establishment is too preoccupied with Pakistan to give enough attention to Bangladesh. He has a point. The election of an overtly anti-India political formation in Bangladesh is only a convenient excuse to explain away India’s failure to manage bilateral relations. The irony is that all the wonderful proposals India is discussing with Pakistan — from people-to-people contacts, to free-trade, to gas pipelines — are equally, if not more relevant, to Bangladesh.

But the healthy sign is the presence of a silent majority of Bangladeshis, which values its Bengali national identity. Though these Bangladeshis are a little suspicious of India due to historical reasons, they would like close ties between the two countries, naturally to the advantage of Bangladesh. It is this constituency that forms the bulk of the population. Unfortunately, the activities of the Islamist elements are what catch the headlines.

It is not that India-Bangladesh relations have been strained since the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bilateral relations warmed up in 1996, when the Awami League came to power again. A 30-year Ganga water-sharing agreement was signed in December 1996, after an earlier agreement lapsed in 1988. Both nations have also cooperated on flood warning and preparedness. A peace accord signed in December 1997 between the Bangladesh Government and the Chakma tribal insurgents allowed for the return of tribal refugees from India. They had fled in 1986 to escape violence caused by an insurgency in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill tracts. (However, the full implementation of this agreement has been stalled, with the army maintaining a strong presence in the area.) Much of the goodwill was lost when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance came to power on strong `Indian hegemony’ rhetoric.

Both India and Bangladesh are guilty of not working towards building a win-win relationship due to their internal and external political preoccupations. In India’s foreign policy spectrum, Pakistan occupies the predominant place to the detriment of ties with other neighbours. India has not made studied efforts to build its constituency across the political spectrum in Bangladesh due to its close identification with the Awami League. While the special place the Awami League enjoys in the Indian eyes is understandable as a historical legacy, this affinity should not cramp New Delhi’s style in dealing with Bangladesh as a nation.

The global terrorism scene has made it imperative for both Bangladesh and India to build a synergy in the security set-up. In this context, two important issues — illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India and sanctuaries to anti-Indian insurgents in Bangladesh — assume a great deal of importance to India’s national security. A free trade agreement and greater Indian investment are attractive propositions for Bangladesh. To achieve these, Bangladesh needs to have a smooth relationship with India. With a growing terrorist threat in the region and within Bangladesh, it cannot afford to trivialise issues of India’s national security and expect New Delhi to respond positively on other issues. The sagacity of political leadership lies in solving the contentious.

To start with, both countries can put all other issues on the backburner and evolve a working security relationship that will banish terrorism from the neighbourhood. They will have to work out a plan to sell the idea to the public in both the countries. Once the minds at the top are made up, handling the existing contentious issues will become a lot easier. [The Hindu]