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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Reverse Swing: Look East, India

Using cricket as a metaphor, addressing the long pattern of patronising behaviour toward a neighbour that deserves Indian respect, but seldom gets it.

Written by Tunku Varadarajan | Updated: May 24, 2015 12:00:42 am
india cricket, india crocket team bangladesh, bangladesh test cricket tour, bangladesh cricket tour, bcci, Reverse Swing, indian express, editorials, india news India Cricket team Captain MS Dhoni and Vice Captain Virat Kohli. (File Source: AP)

While disappointed that there will only be one Test match, I’m delighted that India is sending a full-strength cricket squad to Bangladesh. There was much loose talk about resting our poor, tired players, but the largely unprincipled BCCI seems to have struck a rare principled note: A cricketer can’t use the IPL as an alibi to shirk national duty.

My column this week isn’t about cricket. Had we sent a B-team to Bangladesh, we’d have continued a long pattern of patronising behaviour toward a neighbour that deserves Indian respect, but seldom gets it. Cricket is a metaphor here, but an eloquent one. Having fought for Bangladesh’s elevation to Test status, the BCCI hasn’t yet deigned to invite that country to India for a Test series. It’s been 15 years since Bangladesh joined the Test match fold. They’ve played Test matches everywhere — even in Australia — but haven’t played a single one in India.

If only Indians would pay Bangladesh a fraction of the attention they lavish on Pakistan. New Delhi’s intellectual elites — retired civil servants, university professors, senior editors, the usual suspects — wallow in back-channel love-fests with counterparts from across the never-quiet western front. Dinners are eaten, and group photos taken, amid dewy-eyed affirmations that “we are the same people”. I’ve been to Pakistan: We are not the same people. I’ve also been to Bangladesh:

And of that country I can say with pleasure, We are the same people. It’s time we dropped the “asi, tusi” bonhomie
of a shared Indo-Pak “Punjabiat” and, instead, gave ourselves wholeheartedly to some “ami, tumi” bonding with Bangladesh.

In this, as in other things, Narendra Modi has surprised us. His party’s rhetoric on Bangladesh had, in the past, been distinctly unlovely, with its obsessive, near-xenophobic focus on “infiltrators”. But he wasted little time in concluding the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, dealing with border enclaves that The Economist has called “the land that maps forgot”. The impact of this on the Bangladeshi imagination was electric: It meant RESPECT. A larger, immensely more powerful neighbour had resolved a territorial dispute equitably and unselfishly. (China, take note.)

Modi goes to Dhaka on June 6. He will spend 36 hours there, and these could be among the most important hours of his prime ministership to date. Whatever the failings of the Awami League government in Bangladesh (and there are too many to list in the measly word count allowed to me by my otherwise saintly editors), it is the most Indophile government imaginable. Modi must take advantage of its goodwill; but he must also give Bangladesh the same love that many in that country (still) feel for India.

There is talk in Dhaka now of Bangladesh giving India transit from Kolkata to Guwahati, and an accord could be signed during Modi’s visit. In return, India must offer Bangladesh a fairer arrangement on water-sharing — and not just on paper. A friend in Dhaka writes to me: “I’ve seen rivers dry up over the years to the point where once well-used bridges now span sand-lots. It’s a real issue.” Modi must approach this question with sincerity and haste. India has nothing to gain by beggaring Bangladesh.

India must also be fairer on trade, especially in taking down non-tariff barriers. But most pressingly of all, it should ensure that the border shootings of civilian Bangladeshis cease altogether. It makes for hideous PR, besides being barbaric. Even the Bangladeshis admit that they could do a better job of stemming the exodus of illegal migrants into India. But there is an inexorable economic push behind it. Equitable deals with India on water and trade could help stem the flow in the long run.

Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government have lived up to their side of the bargain on counter-terrorism. India cannot complain about that issue any more, as it could — and, rightly, did — when the obnoxious BNP was in power, with its Islamist bedfellows and its often psychotic aversion to India. Modi has a game-changing opportunity to embrace Bangladesh. A canny man, he is unlikely to waste it.

It’s a pity, though, that he won’t eat their fish.

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution

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