Two incidents across Bangladesh’s border with India have led to consternation and raised questions in Dhaka. The West Bengal food and supplies minister, Jyotipriyo Mallick, let his emotions overflow at an observance of the anniversary of Bangladesh’s language movement. Speaking before a gathering of dignitaries from West Bengal and Bangladesh, the minister quite rightly pointed to the heritage which has united Bengalis on both sides in the cultural sense. Such effusive expression of sentiment was understandable. But what raised eyebrows was Mallick’s assertion that in 20 years’ time no state by the name of Bangladesh would exist on the map.
Mallick’s remarks have been interpreted in Dhaka as those of an individual getting carried away by emotion. Even so, his comments reminded Bengalis in Bangladesh of the question that was put to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, at the very first press conference he held as the new nation’s prime minister. Now that Bangladesh had become an independent state, a foreign journalist asked him, did Mujib envisage a Greater Bangladesh through an amalgamation of West Bengal with the state he had led to freedom? Mujib did not take much time to respond. “I am happy with my Bangladesh,” he said. That was the end of the story. Forty-six years on, the West Bengal food and supplies minister’s statement begs the question: What exactly did he mean?
The bigger question, bigger than that raised by Mallick’s ill-advised or perhaps naïve comments, relates to Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement concerning an influx of people from Bangladesh into India through the machinations of China and Pakistan. Bangladesh’s political and intellectual communities are certainly in no state of shock after this statement. But they are surprised that the chief of Indian army has made comments which have a whiff of the political about them.
Beyond the surprise comes the improbable thought that Bangladesh is home to sinister ideas being given shape by countries which traditionally have not had an easy relationship with India. In the past nine years, with the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina presiding over Bangladesh’s fortunes, the clear impression, backed by concrete evidence, is that Dhaka and Delhi have had comfortable relations. Though India and Bangladesh failed to reach an accord on sharing the waters of the Teesta, owing to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s worries about the problems her state might face in the absence of an equitable arrangement, the two countries initialed 22 accords during the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit to Delhi last year.
For General Rawat to suggest, therefore, that a planned immigration of people has been going on from Bangladesh, through means employed in Pakistan and China, flies in the face of reality. The general has not explained how he has come to this conclusion. But he has obviously ignored the fact that Dhaka, which in the past decade or so has not had much reason to maintain friendly links with Islamabad — Pakistan’s interference in the war crimes trials in Bangladesh being a prime cause — will not countenance any measure that will disturb Delhi. As for Bangladesh’s relations with China, these have been dominated by factors such as defence deals and in no way has it been Bangladesh’s aim to either align itself on a stronger footing with China or to signal a shift away from its traditionally close ties with India.
General Rawat’s conviction that a proxy war is being waged by China and Pakistan through forcing Bangladeshis into India is being seen in Dhaka as not only an instance of naivete on the part of the Indian Army Chief but also one of grave irresponsibility. The implication of his statement cannot be missed: Bangladesh, in Rawat’s view, is a willing player in a bad game devised by Pakistan and China.
The Indian Army Chief has not done himself or his country any favour by his foray into territory, which from the Bangladesh perspective, is not his to traverse. It would have helped if the foreign policy establishment in Delhi had moved quickly to distance itself from the general’s remarks. And of course it would also have helped, if the Foreign Office in Dhaka had swiftly come forward to put forth its view.
Neither has happened, which is a pity.