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Onion issue impacting Indo-Bangla ties

Published : Saturday, 19 September, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1151
Observer Special

Success of any form of diplomacy depends on equal commitment, friendship and sincerity extended from both sides. Between two close neighbours like Bangladesh and India it is more tangible and essential. However, Indo-Bangla ties have once again got mired in a one way treatment. And once again it is the same onion that has turned into a new bone of contention in the 'friendship diplomacy' between the two friendly neighbours. The same crisis has erupted now as Indian government suddenly stopped exports of onion to Bangladesh similar to last year's September.

Abrupt and unilateral ban on Indian onion export severely hit the Bangladeshi people as the price of onion shot up sky rocketing. For onion consumers in Bangladesh it is now "Black September" as the Indian ban has been slapped in September for the last two consecutive years. In recent months the two countries' bilateral ties have gone through testing times, and that became noticeable with the Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's unscheduled visit to Dhaka for cementing Dhaka-Delhi ties. Shringla's shuttle diplomacy reiterated Delhi's importance for Dhaka's friendship. It was the first visit of a high calibre foreign government high-up to Dhaka.

Reciprocating Indian friendship move, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for the first time, gave an audience to a foreign dignitary during the ongoing pandemic. A part of the Indian media had played foul by misinterpreting Dhaka's growing strategic and development ties with Beijing. The damage had been done through circulation of numerous conspiracy theories by some media outlets among the people in India and Bangladesh.  The Indian foreign secretary's last month's visit signalled two positive signs. First, the Indian government was noticeably concerned on our misinterpreted bilateral ties. Second, India values friendship with Bangladesh.

The Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das had stated in a media briefing during the visit that the foreign secretary's visit was important since India has "special and close relations" with Bangladesh. Riva Ganguly's flurry of activities meeting ministers, high officials and business leaders have contributed to remove some misgivings created by Indian and Bangladeshi media hype. In the chain of events, the Indian High Commissioner got actively engaged by meeting, interacting and talking, showing a pro-active approach towards restoring Dhaka-Delhi ties.

After Shringla's visit, India's response to Bangladesh remained measured. Officials and diplomats of both sides are equally circumspect and conciliatory to promote understanding. However, the sudden impose of onion ban has clearly harmed whatever progress had been made jointly, by the Indian Foreign Secretary and the Indian High Commissioner. In fact, unannounced ban on export of onions goes against bilateral commercial understandings, and Bangladesh has already conveyed it in a diplomatic note, soon the ban was imposed from the other end.

There is a special significance regarding the sudden ban on onion export to Bangladesh this time. It was on October last year, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had openly voiced her grudge during an official visit to Delhi. She had jokingly told a public gathering that she had asked her cook to prepare her food without onion. She clearly said on record, Indian authorities could have informed Bangladesh in advance before suspending onion exports to Bangladesh. But the response from India's end this time, once again hints at the speculated diplomatic weariness and indifference.

On the other hand, focusing on the last sentence on India's "special and close relations" with Bangladesh, the AL government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has displayed a sheer goodwill gesture by allowing a special export of 1, 450 Metric Tonnes of Hilsa fish to India, marking the occasion of Durga puja despite shortage of the fish at our local kitchen markets. To honour the Indian consumers' demand before one of the biggest religious festivals, Durga Puja , Bangladesh demonstrated 'friendship first' by exporting Hilsa without waiting for its legal share of Teesta waters.
The consignments of the quintessential Bengali delicacy - Hilsa from River Padma - have reached fish markets of West Bengal. But trucks loaded with onions are still stranded on the border check posts in the wake of Indian ban on onion export. Our local importers and traders of onion had to count mounting losses as trucks loaded with onions were not allowed to cross the border because of the unanticipated ban.

 We, however, mark the stark comparisons between the diplomatic approaches of two countries. One country exports despite shortage of supply while the other bans exports without even issuing a prior notice. International trade can be understood well, if we observe the reciprocal diplomatic approaches of various countries while guarding against their distinctive liabilities.

However, considering 'close and special relations' with Bangladesh, it was expected that the Indian authorities would place Bangladesh under special consideration for exporting onions. It was markedly a missed opportunity for cementing and wiping out whatever misperception and rumours that had been circulated by certain Indian media outlets previously. Bilateral trade between Bangladesh and India has run into a quagmire of late, especially following the novel Coronavirus outbreak in this region.

At a broader scale, India has been Bangladesh's main trading partner since independence, but trade between the two countries, since the outbreak of the pandemic and especially in this year have faced frequent hiccups. Indian authorities are yet to address the growing trade deficit. We apprehend, abrupt imposing of ban on onion export can potentially lead to a trust - deficit in the long run. It is for the second time that the onion issue has hit not only the trade but also the friendly ties between the two close neighbours.

Our Foreign Minister Dr A K Abdul Momen has stated that 'The Indian foreign ministry is very repentant over onion export ban'. We take our foreign minister's statement, as a positive sign of late realisation of our Indian counterparts. As the saying goes, better late than never, we believe, it is also time to build up mutual understanding on the repentance expressed by our Indian friends.     

Repentance felt in India following the onion ban - can be converted into effective diplomatic course of action for bridging the gaps as well as to cement Indo-Bangla ties. But then again it takes two to tango. Hopefully, our Indian counterparts will from now on locate the missing links and weaknesses in our bilateral ties and remove them to take our ties to the next levels for 'new mutual trust building' to promote friendship and understanding.

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