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A chance to make history

The moment is now for a breakthrough in relations with Bangladesh.

Written by Mahfuz Anam |
September 6, 2011 2:21:34 am

Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh make history during his trip to Bangladesh starting today,or repeat the tragic record of missed opportunities and mutual suspicion that marked the Bangladesh-India relationship,since the murder of Bangabandhu in 1975,but set on track by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit in January 2010?

The last-moment obstacle to the Teesta water-sharing treaty during Manmohan Singh’s visit comes as a great shock to the people and government of Bangladesh and raises the vexed question,are we going to miss another opportunity to mend our bilateral relationship? It has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the trip. However,we are still hopeful that this last-moment let-down notwithstanding,the trip will produce some historic results.

It is perhaps not the occasion to look into the past,but it is definitely the moment to learn from it.

The lesson on our side is that,having made Bangladesh-India relations a near-compelling domestic issue,our politics,more or less,became defined by it. While a section of our leaders found India-bashing a cheap political ploy to mask their failure to address development challenges,their opponents became much too afraid to call the bluff of a mythical vote-bank politics that corroded our secular traditions and fanned a latent fundamentalism. Thus our vital bilateral relation with India became a prisoner of domestic politics that fed on a myopia and threatened to jeopardise our economic growth prospects.

The Indian failure has been both generic and specific. It was generic to the extent that in India’s Pakistan-centric approach to the region she ignored all her smaller neighbours. The specific fault was India’s failure to comprehend the negative impact of Farakka on our relations that mainstreamed anti-Indianism in the 1980s,till then a peripheral phenomenon in Bangladesh. For 18 unrelenting years,the economic and ecological devastation that Farakka wrought on large parts of Bangladesh remained unnoticed in India. Unbelievably,no mainstream Indian newspaper,magazine or TV station bothered to cover this great human tragedy occurring just next door.

Thankfully,Sheikh Hasina had both the courage and the vision to take considerable political risk and bring us out of a relationship frozen in suspicion and prejudice. The question is,will the Indian PM show the same courage and vision? There is no question that the moment is now for a historic breakthrough in Bangladesh-India relations. Public opinion here is far more open to regional connectivity than it has been for a long time. In India also,there is a new and healthy interest in Bangladesh and a desire to help us move forward.

As we understand,India’s overwhelming concern is insurgency-cum-security in the northeastern states and their econo-mic development.

On the insurgency issue,Sheikh Hasina’s government has taken the sternest of measures against Bangladesh’s land being used in any way for that purpose. In a dramatic confidence-building measure,Bangladesh has responded to the full litany of Indian concerns. This we have done at considerable risk of exposing ourselves to the insurgents’ wrath. All their clandestine outposts have been destroyed and their local links unearthed. As for good-neighbourly relations on insurgency,India really couldn’t have asked for more.

On the related issue of tackling extremism within Bangladesh,once again,Sheikh Hasina’s government has been extremely proactive. Here,she has moved more from Bangladesh’s own future perspective than from India’s concern,yet the importance and relevance of this move cannot be lost on her policy-makers.

With significant progress on transit,India’s development concerns for these backward states have also been largely addressed. With details being worked out and gradually put into practice,transit will provide India the connectivity that she has been desiring since the birth of Bangladesh. However,India must see connectivity not only from the perspective of its northeastern states but also in the context of greater linkages with Nepal and Bhutan.

As for Bangladesh’s issues,we feel that the ball is in India’s court. In contrast to Bangladesh having already delivered on India’s demands,namely security and transit,India’s delivery remains in the realm of the future. A treaty on Teesta water-sharing,which was promised since Sheikh Hasina’s visit 20 months ago,is now up in the air. I cannot overemphasise the set-back that Teesta may bring to our relationship if it is not solved at the earliest. India cannot make it a part of its domestic politics.

Work on an overall agreement on the sharing of all common river waters must be completed in the shortest possible time. Worry over Tipaimukh Dam remains. Here,the Indian PM’s earlier assurance that nothing will be done to harm Bangladesh’s interest must be adhered to in both letter and spirit. However,we are aware that contending interests and conflicting viewpoints will remain on this increasingly scarce resource. As long as a win-win formula guides our every action,we can solve all problems that may confront us.

However,it is in the area of trade that India can really open its door to us and go the extra mile that we expect her to. The one step that will do wonders is to give duty-free access to all Bangladesh’s export,which amounted to a mere $305 million in 2010 and $512 million last year.

According to 2007-2008 estimates by the Centre for Policy Dialogue,the premier think-tank of Bangladesh,if India gave duty-free access to all the 480 items on its present negative list,the loss of revenue would be approximately $5 million. Do we need to argue any further? By contrast,this will dramatically impact Bangladesh’s growth. With the prospect of duty-free access to the Indian market,Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and non-resident Bangladeshis will expand their domestic investment spurring growth and employment.

Indian companies can also be persuaded to invest in Bangladesh for entry into the Indian market,greatly expanding our economy and also helping to reduce our trade deficit. Indian companies will also feel more confident in investing in Bangladesh if they have an assured market in mind. Investment in the infrastructure of Bangladesh will receive a great boost leading to greater connectivity both in Bangladesh and beyond.

In the case of all developing economies,the fundamental spur to growth has been,and continues to be,market access. India can give us that vital access. Will she? Indian leaders,especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,never tire of saying that India cannot grow in isolation. Without her neighbours participating in Indian advancement,her growth will not be sustainable,speeches reiterate. If India truly believes this to be true,then there is no better way of proving it than giving Bangladesh duty-free access to her market.

Bangladesh provides India a genuine opportunity to be the “Caring India” that can be its destiny. Will Manmohan Singh,for that matter the Indian leadership as a whole,have the vision to go for it? The moment is now.

The writer is editor of ‘The Daily Star’,Dhaka

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