Sheikh Hasina's recent meeting with her worthy Indian counterpart in Kathmandu sounds like killing two birds with one stone. She has aired her anti-poverty and counterterrorism stance on one hand, and exploited, on the other, her personal charisma in bringing back the possibilities of implementation of different bilateral deals that lay stuck in limbo for ages. Hasina-Modi meeting is successful, and shows us light at the end of the tunnel. Modi has assured Hasina of his continued support for the implementation of the long-awaited land boundary agreement, the Teesta water sharing agreement, sharing of intelligence over the recent Burdwan blasts with Indian intelligence agencies and some other deals conducive to mutual relationship and regional cooperation. However, we can only cross our fingers that the deals would become a reality, today or tomorrow, because our position in terms of relations with India is like proverbial 'once bitten and twice shy'. That India was once the biggest help and many times a big disappointment for us is equally true. The dynamics of Bangladesh-India relations is all too complicated and needs to be fostered constantly.
Bangladesh-India relations may apparently be weighed up by their geographical locations - a weak little mouse in a mighty cat's paw. Swallowed up three fourth by India, and one-fourth by the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh shares 4,094 kilometres of land border, a vast maritime boundary, and 54 common rivers with India. If India is a big banyan tree, Bangladesh is a twining tendril around it.
Along the Bangladesh-India land border has been raised an 8-foot-high, double-walled, barbed-wire fence by New Delhi reportedly to prevent terrorism, smuggling, and infiltration into the country. However, the iron fence could not restrict the movements of nature - flora and fauna, and culture. People of two countries (the caged up Bangladeshis and the West Bangalis and many of northeast Indians) are born and raised in the same cultural matrix. They bathe in the same waters, dry in the same air, take the same food, speak the same language, read the same poetry, listen to the same music, and share the same history, culture and heritage. Thus, when the same people have to belong to two different countries by the twist of an arbitrary political fate, it becomes difficult to determine their bilateral relations.
Another thing that binds one country to the other is India's role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. India played the role of a loving matron in the birth of an orphan-like child whose father was in far off solitary confinement during childbirth. The founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, himself, owed a great debt of gratitude to India and its erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For this deep sense of gratitude on one hand, and the vulnerability of geographical location and other concomitant weaknesses on the other, Bangladesh cannot always strongly haggle with India over different bilateral issues. Not only that, Bangladesh often fails to levy its due on India, which both countries are agreed on. It is, however, not that Bangladesh is solely responsible for the failure to obtain its rights being cowed by its counterpart in authority. India's big-brotherly attitude and hegemonic control over the neighbouring countries sometimes work as a hindrance to smooth functioning of relations-building agenda. Besides, the change of governments in both the countries largely affects the relations. Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League were the best friends of Indira Gandhi and her Congress. Their relationship was so profound that on Mujib's request Indira withdrew all her armed forces from Bangladesh at a moment's notice. The 'Indira-Mujib Pact' (16 May 1974) could have been the best possible catalyst for the best possible relations between the two countries, if it had been fully realized.
However, after the assassination of Mujib in 1975, the anti-Mujib military, autocratic, and pseudo-democratic governments in Bangladesh took a U-turn in their attitude towards India. On the other hand, the non-Congress governments in India did not feel much about neighbouring Bangladesh, the vast majority of whose people are the supporters of Congress leader Indira Gandhi. Although this usually does not matter in case of the formulation of state policies, but it sometimes reaches crisis proportions.
Therefore, the state relations between Bangladesh and India vary with the change of the political ascendancy in both the countries. As a result, in last four decades after the independence of Bangladesh, Indo-Bangladesh relations have been more or less a source of continued disappointment especially for the people of Bangladesh. The building of many upstream dams, the Ganges water share deprivation, indiscriminate killing of Bangladeshi nationals in the border, untold miseries of the people of 162 enclaves in India and Bangladesh have hugely frustrated 160 million people of the downstream delta - Bangladesh. Today's scholars in Bangladesh tend to depreciate the selfish motives of India for helping Bangladesh in its Liberation War (1971), and highlight India's own geopolitical interest.
The Bangladesh-India relations revolve around the issues of joint rivers, border and enclaves, security concerns, bilateral trade, regional cooperation, maritime boundary, transit and transshipment, and international politics. The core of the contention mostly lies in the operation of the Farakka Barrage since 1975 by India. The upstream dam is taking a heavy toll on the downstream people of Bangladesh. About one third of the total population and almost half of the total irrigated land in Bangladesh are in the Ganges basin. Bangladesh claims that it does not receive a fair share of the Ganges waters during the drier seasons despite mutually made agreements, and gets flooded during the monsoons when India sets free the flow of water.
There have also been disputes over the transfer of Teen Bigha Corridor to Bangladesh. In 1992, India leased three bighas of their land to Bangladesh to connect this enclave with mainland Bangladesh. But, there remains dispute regarding the indefinite nature of the lease. The exchange of adversely held enclaves is also a big problem for both the countries. About 51,000 people are stranded in 162 enclaves (111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India) spread over 7,000 acres of land. Terrorist activities carried out by the outfits based in both countries, like Banga Sena and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islam or Jama'at-ul-Mujahideen are also big cause for concern. The cross-border insurgency is another worrying issue. India sometimes claims that insurgents from India are given refuge in Bangladesh. This has been a major disquiet over the years.
India's pursuit of the transit facilities in Bangladesh is a very sensitive issue in Bangladesh. The vested quarters try to earn narrow political interest by abusing this issue. However, connectivity plays a pivotal role in this era of globalization. Most ironically, the connectivity between Bangladesh and India in terms of train services, transit and trans-shipment was much easier during the Pakistan days. It should have been far better by now in the post-Independence period.
That India feels distinctly uneasy about the illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India is another cause of mounting tension in the bilateral relations. The Indians are prone to believe that there are large numbers of illegal Bangladesh immigrants in the North-East, West Bengal, and even in the big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, who are described as having been trafficked. This has serious repercussions among them, for they are uncritically stigmatized as being involved in prostitution. The worst thing about these 'cross border migrants' is that they are running high risk of HIV infection and other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Bangladeshi officials, however, deny the existence of illegal Bangladeshis living in India. In addition, indiscriminate cross-border killing, aiding and abetting criminal activities like armed robbery, fake money transfer, and illegal drugs trafficking by both Indian and Bangladeshi people are other difficult problems besetting our bilateral relations.
The trade gap has been another major obstacle to Indo-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh has always been in a situation in which the value of its imports is far greater than that of its exports. Bangladesh has been a major market for Indian products, while India imposes a number of non-tariff barriers to the marketing of Bangladeshi products in India. The huge trade deficit stands in the way of mutually beneficial trade.
The gradual change in Bangladeshi people's attitude towards India is, however, a positive aspect of Bangladesh-India relations. People no longer want to believe that their dearly bought country may be eaten up by the Indian hobgoblins or be sold to them. The India-card players are not having grounds to hoodwink the people. There is widespread realization that Bangladesh would gain enormously from improved relations with India.
Another good thing in Bangladeshi side is that they have come to realize the importance of India in the present regional and global context. India is one of the four countries (BRIC) in the world who are expected to lead the world in the near future. Therefore, it would be very prudent of Bangladesh to develop an amicable relation with India, and benefit from it through trade, commerce, and investment; technical and scientific cooperation; and education. Although Bangladesh's relations with India have always been more or less under strain, at present, there are some tangible developments. This has been instigated by some previous high-profile visits and return visits, and the recent rounds of talks held between Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi.
Although Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's September 2011 visit to Bangladesh had been a mixed blessing, it marked a new dawn in Indo-Bangladesh relations, and broke fresh grounds in bilateral ties. Though the sharing of Teesta water issue had cast some aspersions on it, and little upset the people of Bangladesh, the hope revived after the recent Kathmandu SAARC summit. Both Hasina and Modi have expressed an unambiguous willingness to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the long-borne problems of the boundary demarcation agreement, Teesta and Feni rivers' water sharing, exchange of adversely held enclaves and other similar issues, which may help settle the decades-old border disputes.
Although the dramatic cancellation of the Teesta and Feni river water sharing deal during Manmohan regime had cast a cloud over the bilateral relations, it was not, as such, nipped in the bud. However, it should not have come so badly unstuck due to the non-cooperation of a single person (Mamata Banerjee). It may have been deferred for a certain period, but it must come to light sooner or later. The way the present two premiers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have assured us of mutual cooperation, we can easily hope against hope. A successful conclusion of the Teesta water treaty may lead to other major shared rivers' water treaties along with many other Indo-Bangladesh mutual settlements.
The historic relations between Bangladesh and India did not develop as much as expected from their relations during the Liberation War in 1971. For whatever reason it may be, it is most unfortunate for both the countries to keep failing to improve their relations. There is no reason why they should grow unfriendly to each other. The state principles of both the countries are identical. Both are People's Republics where principles of democracy and secularism are mostly valued. Both believe in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Both have framed their foreign policies in the light of amity and goodwill. Then why not the practice of what both preach?
There should not be any room for doubt and distrust between the two cognate countries. But how to earn this? All the disputes developed between them over the years should be settled amicably. The already signed agreements should be properly implemented so that there remain no fears of a hidden agenda. Through a sincere accomplishment of the agreements so far concluded, India can win back the confidence of the Bangladeshi people. People of Bangladesh should also reciprocate with the same, and secure a win-win situation. India should be well rid of its hegemonic role, and Bangladesh should come out of the shell of any kind of unfounded xenophobia. Only through the exercise of liberal and unprejudiced views and benevolent attitudes the two countries can earn each other's trust. If the two neighbouring premiers honour their Kathmandu pledge of mutual support, Bangladesh-India relations can again be held in trust.
writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail: [email protected]