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BNP’s Blinkers

Bangladesh’s main opposition party’s distrust of India is politically imprudent

Written by Ashikur Rahman |
Updated: April 12, 2017 12:15:09 am
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Hasina, BNP Bangladesh, India Bangladesh, Hasina Modi, Indo-Bangladesh ties, Bangladesh liberation struggle, Bangladesh Pakistan, Indian Express Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s recently concluded visit to India has reignited an old anti-India discourse in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s principal opposition party, has not only raised red flags against the MoUs and agreements signed during the visit but has stated that the visit ensured Bangladesh’s servility to India’s economic and security interests. This pathological anti-India stance is not new.

The BNP’s anti-India position, during its stints in government, between 1991 and 1996, and 2001 to 2006, has cost Bangladesh dearly. During these stints, the BNP failed to address critical bilateral issues such as the maritime boundary dispute, the land boundary dispute, investments in common infrastructure, energy trade for Bangladesh’s benefit and water-sharing arrangements. Worse, the party began to support separatist movements in India’s north-eastern states.

Over the past two decades, the BNP has developed a close political alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami — the party that challenged Bangladesh’s liberation struggle and aided the Pakistan army in its war crimes. The Jamaat also has a strong political allegiance to Pakistan’s interests. The political alliance with the Jamaat has meant that rather than reinventing itself as a centre-right political party, committed to economic liberalisation and good governance, the BNP has been inclined to play the anti-India political card — complemented by its commitment to an Islamic vision for Bangladesh.

In a country with nearly 145 million Muslims and a long history of mistrust of its largest neighbour — engineered largely by religious parties and anti-liberation political elements — the BNP finds banking on anti-India populism both opportunistic and profitable. In the face of the propaganda it faces, PM Sheikh Hasina’s party has found it difficult to sell to the people her long-standing policy of constructive diplomatic engagement and value-based friendship with India.

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Yet, over the past eight years, Sheikh Hasina has shown that pragmatic diplomatic engagement with India remains the only rational strategy for Bangladesh. At the heart of her strategy is a commitment to “zero tolerance to terrorism”. This helps India and Bangladesh to collectively counter separatist organisations that found space in Bangladesh, which benefited immensely from this goodwill-generating exercise.

On June 6, 2015, the Indian government led by the BJP ratified the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement resolving the border disputes between the two countries. This included settling matters pertaining to chit mahals (enclaves), adversely possessed land and undemarcated boundaries. The land swap settled the territorial anomaly that dates back to 1947. This milestone was also unprecedented as there was a rare show of bipartisanship with the Indian Parliament unanimously approving the bill operationalising the treaty. The ratification also means that Bangladesh has gained an additional 10,000 acres of land due to the swap.

Hasina’s goodwill-oriented foreign policy has in no way constrained her government’s ability to constructively challenge Bangladesh’s largest neighbour when diplomatic negotiation has failed. This was exemplified by her initiative to settle long-pending maritime disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar and India through two separate judgements of The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which allowed Bangladesh to gain sovereign territorial rights over more than 1,30,000 square km of maritime boundary.

The BNP should introspect on its blind anti-India stance. While critical issues, like sharing Teesta waters, are still unresolved, pragmatic diplomatic engagement remains the only viable option for both sides. The BNP must heed the Indian philosopher Chanakya’s words, “learn from the mistakes of others… you can’t live long enough to make them all yourselves”. Unfortunately, the BNP has shown no inclination to learn from the failure of its anti-India policy. Fortunately, the people of Bangladesh are not dependent on the BNP’s failed leadership to address long-standing bilateral issues with India.

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The writer is senior economist, Policy Research Institute, Dhaka

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First published on: 12-04-2017 at 12:15:07 am
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