Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, made a four-day official visit to India from October 3 to 6. Besides discussions with her Indian counterpart, she also addressed the India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum. The joint statement issued after the visit contained mutual appreciation for steps taken in various fields and outlines of what is intended in the use of ports and connectivity, water sharing, power, gas, education, culture, defence. For Bangladesh, the reference to the plight of the “forcibly displaced” persons of Rakhine in Myanmar is a positive development, hopefully undoing the damage done earlier by India’s hasty acceptance of Myanmar’s version of the developments. If the joint statement lacked the vision of the one issued after Hasina’s visit in 2010, it must be recalled that the effort then was to raise the relationship by the bootstraps after a dark period of suspicion and hostility. Today, it has matured greatly and it is possible to undertake projects that underline continuity and interdependence. Hasina has looked forward to a golden period of India-Bangladesh relations.
Going beyond the anodyne which usually permeates high-level joint statements and leaves one in the dark on sensitive issues, on this occasion, there is, on the record, PM Hasina’s address to the Indo-Bangladesh Business Forum. Here, she articulated points critical for the future welfare of South Asia. The first of these prescriptions says: “We must move beyond the majority-minority mindset… Pluralism has been the strength. So, we should be able to celebrate South Asia’s diversities in religion, ethnicity and language”. This may be applicable to all, including elements in her own country, but cannot but be seen as a veiled admonition to the Indian establishment today.
Yet another prescription — “We must manage our geo-political realities through friendship and collaboration. Let us appreciate and balance regional political realities for the interest of our peoples. We cannot trade off long-term interests for short-term gains” — may be universally fundamental to statecraft, but may also be seen as directed to those of her countrymen reluctant to forge closer relations with India.
In the months preceding general elections in Bangladesh in December 2018, members of the BNP, which still had the semblance of a cohesive political party, visited India to persuade public opinion on two counts. Firstly, that the party had abjured its hitherto anti-Indian posture and, if re-elected, would pursue a path of co-operation with its neighbour. Secondly, with public opinion in Bangladesh turning rapidly against the Awami League for its mis-governance, it would be in its own interest for India to not be perceived as committed to the Awami League. Some would-be game players in India seemed prone to be not indifferent to the BNP’s arguments. Governments in Bangladesh are chosen by its people and Indian endorsement is only of perceived importance. But perceptions do matter and India’s perceived quasi-support to the BNP prior to the 2001 elections and its consequences should not be lightly forgotten.
After two terms in power, it would not be surprising if there is a degree of public apathy towards the Awami League government. But the balance sheet should include a steady increase in the GDP, improvement in all parameters of economic activity as also law and order. Above all, the committed pushback against jihadi activities supported from foreign shores. One only has to recall the period prior to Hasina’s assumption of power and the sense of helplessness that seemed to prevail with the rising tide of fundamentalism sponsored by the state and its allies.
It could be argued that the Bangladeshi state today has shown intolerance of criticism. The case of the charges against Shahidul Alam is illustrative. Unfortunately, this is an area where Indians today cannot seek to advise.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been a worry for Bangladesh in the past months. It has been repeatedly assured at the highest level that it should have no cause for concern. The formula appears to be that the NRC is a Supreme Court mandated exercise for Assam and there are provisions for various stages of appeal. Given the impoverished and uneducated status of those affected, it is questionable how the levels of appeal can be accessed. Nor is there clarity about what transpires when the process is exhausted. The comment of the foreign secretary of Bangladesh: “We were told that this is an internal matter of India. Our relationship is best of the best at present. But at the same time we are keeping our eyes open (on the NRC issue)”. The words “at present” and “our eyes open” would not have been carelessly uttered. The NRC, to be extended to all of India, may well be largely for internal political objectives, but its eventual fall-out on Bangladesh and Indo-Bangladesh relations is too evident to brush aside.
Looking at the balance sheet of Indo-Bangladesh relations, it would have to be acknowledged that the ledger tilts, perhaps heavily, in favour of Bangladesh. The Ganga Waters Agreement had removed what had appeared to be an intractable problem permanently vitiating the relationship. Given the emotions aroused over a long period, then PM Hasina had shown great political courage in addressing the issue constructively. The Land and Maritime Boundary Agreements, approached by different means, were of mutual benefit, the former a victim of mutual lethargy over time and finally a four-year hold imposed by the BJP in parliament. Bangladesh would seem to have comprehensively addressed Indian concerns with regard to support to militant elements in the North-east, for long an area of Indian concern. On its part, India continues to be unable to deliver on Teesta. The Ganga Barrage project in Bangladesh carries economic advantages as well as political overtones, but has not been addressed with suitable despatch by India to enable Bangladesh to obtain external funding. Delay in implementation of the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal initiative) is inexplicable. Even if India is not chiefly responsible, one may have expected greater attention.
Lastly, the hate mongering and incidents of lynching of Muslims in India cannot but affect public perceptions. It is to the credit of the Awami League government that we have not as yet seen any hostile reactions from the people, considering the reactions after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. But this can only be a slow burning fuse. One earnestly hopes that India’s internal aberrations do not derail the one substantive relationship we have developed in the neighbourhood.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2019 under the title ‘Be neighbourly’. The writer is a former High Commissioner to Bangladesh.