Cover interview: Deb Mukharji
Indian perception of Bangladesh: Indians have never quite understood the Bengali Muslim mind and its aspirations. This is reflected in how 1971 is seen against a largely Indo-Pakistani construct. They do not understand that while Bangladesh is a Muslim country with a Muslim ethos, there is a firm commitment to cultural and linguistic roots. At the same time, while the push for Pakistan might have come from the Muslims of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the substance of Partition came from the Muslims of East Bengal, who wanted an end to Hindu domination. Pakistan was a dream for the Muslims of UP and Bihar, but for Muslims of East Bengal it had substance. Punjabi Muslims were latecomers in the Pakistan project and the NWFP, in fact, required a referendum. In a slip of the tongue, sometimes people in India still refer to Bangladeshis as Pakistanis – they have not mentally adjusted to Bangladeshis as a different nationality with a different outlook and different priorities. I should add that some Bangladeshis too have similar slips of the tongue.
The bilateral relationship: On the dissonance in the India-Bangladesh relationship, I do believe that it is largely fallout from the internal political dynamics of Bangladesh. India might not have been particularly generous, but it has not been malicious either. There is no ill will towards Bangladesh. New Delhi wants delivery on security, but it needs to deliver on its side, as well, on the all-important matter of trade. My suggestion is for a ‘fair-plus’ approach in all matters concerning Bangladesh, which would be based on Indian self-interest rather than magnanimity. The term ‘elder brother’ is anathema to me. It seems like condescension and cannot be the basis for a productive relationship. Bangladeshis run their own country as a sovereign nation. The election results represent who the people of Bangladesh want.
Sheikh Hasina: No one expected the Awami League to make a comeback in 1996, but it did. And they concluded the Farakka Agreement, which had been seen as intractable and insoluble. Also, the Chittagong Hill Tracts agreement. The person to give credit to is Sheikh Hasina, who took the bull by the horns back then. She is a woman of phenomenal political and personal courage, and is willing to take risks for what she thinks is right and good for her country. Once again as prime minister, over the last couple of years she has sought to address India’s security concerns. With the Awami League having a comfortable majority, it should be able to solve some of the longstanding problems. Meanwhile, there is a problem with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party because, at the core, its leader Khaleda Zia is deeply communal with a visceral distrust of India. Let me add that that there are many members of the BNP who are progressive and broad-minded.
Illegal migration: There can be no belittling the matter: Illegal migration is a serious issue for India. The Indian establishment does not have a duty to come to the support of Bangladeshi citizens who flee poverty to come to India. Bangladesh must care for its own citizens. As far as the migrants are concerned, the best would be to issue them work permits.
Deb Mukharji, a political analyst with special interest in Southasia, is a retired diplomat who served as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh from 1995-2000. He had earlier served in Pakistan from 1968-71, Bangladesh from 1977-80, and, later, as ambassador to Nepal.