History is fine (and sometimes not so fine), but our main inspiration and most compelling reason for inter-state cooperation between India and Bangladesh lies in our location. Just as countries can be prisoners of geography, so can geography be our liberators — if we have the ability to see it. In the case of India and Bangladesh, we seem to have singularly failed to do so.
For Bangladesh, India is one of its two neighbours. But that does not tell the whole story. Given its huge all-round presence, it is practically the only neighbour, a giant one with enormous military and economic capabilities, potentially both for good and bad, depending on the nature of the relationship. For India, on the other hand, Bangladesh is one of six contiguous neighbours. Again, that does not tell the full story. Bangladesh is the only neighbour that is practically enveloped within India’s own borders, again with tremendous potential for good and bad.
History tells us that geography has been crucial in determining the destiny of countries. But it remains far below its potential here. In the case of India and Bangladesh, geography has tied us so intricately together that any underestimation of both the potential for mutual prosperity — and mutual harm — can only testify to our collective foolishness. The allure of the positive, and the legitimate fear of the negative, should compel us to always search for solutions to problems, never allowing them to fester long enough to become too difficult to solve.
Seldom has a country contributed more towards the independence of another country as India has for Bangladesh, including the sacrifice of nearly 2,000 Indian soldiers, the sheltering of millions of refugees during the nine months of our liberation war and the enormous economic hardship suffered, so that we Bangladeshis could be free.
So, why have we failed to build a model bilateral relationship? Simply put, we have never given our heart and soul to it. Every time “breakthrough opportunities” come, we fail to seize them and allow our “business as usual” habit to destroy them by failing to think “outside the box”.
Take the case of transit. India has been insisting on it for decades; now that it has come about, progress is slow, piecemeal and held back by pathetically low levels of investment. Instead of a comprehensive, multi-model, transit accord or treaty, what we have are fragmented deals, totally lacking global vision. On both sides, river transit is being handled by one ministry, railway by another and road by yet another, with the attending inter-ministerial mismatch and bureaucratic delays.
Imagine how far we would have moved if all our transit potentials were brought under one masterplan, with one vision and clear goals of improving trade, commerce and connectivity in all sub-regional, regional, trans-Asian and trans-continental aspects. Such a global view would have generated the resources to realise the true potential of what we can achieve. Only if we saw our maps a little more, the potential would have hit us on the face.
Water sharing also remains a core vexing issue. There is no new thinking on this matter. The problems between the central and the West Bengal government may be real, but to us, these appear more as an internal issue of India which should not affect our bilateral relations.
Like transit, here again, we need a comprehensive water management accord which will deal with all our common rivers and not one by one, as we have been doing so far. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will, reportedly, carry such a proposal during her upcoming visit. We hope it will be considered with the seriousness it deserves.
A new irritant is also the Rampal power plant whose location, near the Sundarbans, is a very serious concern for the environmentalists of Bangladesh, their fears shared by Indian counterparts. So far, such concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
Much has been accomplished under Sheikh Hasina on our side and Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi on the other. But it remains far below potential. On Bangladesh’s side, the biggest step forward was responding to India’s security concern and removing all terrorist camps within our borders — which shouldn’t have been there in the first place. On the Indian side, duty-free access to Bangladeshi goods was the biggest positive move, whose benefits are beginning to be realised. Again though, the area remains below expectations. Illogical non-tariff barriers continue as irritants and retard progress. Meanwhile, India selling much needed electricity to Bangladesh has had positive results; more such supply would really help.
Given the changed political climate on both sides, progress in our bilateral relations should have moved forward faster and more substantially. Much remains stuck at the policy and planning level — less than expected can be seen on the ground.
As a media person, I have never been able to understand the indifference of the Indian media towards Bangladesh’s issues, especially those affecting bilateral relations. The saddest example is the Farakka barrage, which, in my view, was the first major cause of the rise of grassroots-level anti-Indianism in the late eighties. This lasted for decades and still lingers — but this was never reported in depth in India by any mainstream print or audiovisual media.
This barrage devastated the ecosystem of northwest Bangladesh, destroying thousands of acres of arable land, resulting in the rise of salinity in river and underground water. Only with the signing of the 30-year Ganges Water Treaty in 1996 has some of its negative impact been mitigated. In fact, water sharing of our common rivers remains a blotch in our relations. The failure to even talk about Teesta, when a deal was ready to be signed in September, 2011, has greatly disappointed us in Bangladesh. The rationale for Bangladesh’s position on this crucial water sharing issue has almost never found adequate space in the Indian media.
There are many other issues that can be cited. Nothing about Bangladesh is covered except for occasional instances of communal violence — which is endemic to the subcontinent — and the so-called rise of terrorism that Bangladesh is waging a frontal onslaught against.
So how do we move forward? Without fretting over lost opportunities and putting aside a litany of our mutual errors, we need to seize the opportunity that is before us. If there ever was a propitious moment to make a dramatic change in Bangladesh-India relations, it is now.
There are too many examples of lost moments in the history of our relationship. Let us not repeat them.