The Best of Times and the Worst of Times – Bangladesh and Southasia

Now is the time for Bangladesh to further develop and strengthen its political, economic and cultural relations with the rest of the Southasian states. In the favour of such an attempt, India and Pakistan seem finally to be serious about smoothing their political, economic and cultural relationships. The present 'thaw' might indeed prove to be the single most important factor leading to improved bilateral relations throughout the region. Bangladesh must also strive to take advantage of the situation.

Indeed, Bangladesh, with an average annual economic growth rate of 5 to 6 percent, is in an excellent position to benefit from India's and Pakistan's current 7 to 8 percent growth rates. Southasia's political elites also seem to have finally started appreciating that their respective economies will not grow until they are engaged in trading inter-regionally. Today, this trade is still very low, compared to internal trade within the European Union or the ASEAN countries. Hopefully, however, with the implementation of a Southasian free trade zone, either within SAFTA or the larger WTO process, regional trade will grow dramatically.

But this is also a problematic time for Bangladesh to deepen its relationships with the other Southasian countries – again, most notably India and Pakistan. Perhaps more than another regional country, the pursuit of an effective foreign policy by Dhaka necessarily requires the consolidation of the domestic socio-political and economic orders. Despite relative economic success, an increasingly unstable internal political scenario has meant that the country's foreign – including regional – policy is yet to be put on an even keel.

Home and the world

Soon after the 1971 independence war, international observers began to express serious doubts about the viability of the Subcontinent's newest independent state. Nonetheless, during the subsequent 34 years, Bangladesh has registered notable successes: the deceleration of population growth; food self-sufficiency; substitution of jute by textiles as an impressive export earner; notable attendance of girls in primary and secondary schools; an energetic private sector; micro-credit as a powerful homegrown response to rural poverty; and three successive elections held under caretaker governments.

But despite all of this, a stable political system still eludes the country and people. The list of ongoing political woes includes the fact that the state has failed to control an increasing gap between the rich and poor, thereby negating much of the success achieved in the economic arena. Successive governments have dragged their feet in separating the country's judiciary from its executive branch. The brutality practiced by law enforcement personnel against the common people, as well as their impunity, is a peculiarly Bangladeshi phenomenon. The country has yet to establish an independent human rights commission, as well as an effective, autonomous anti-corruption authority. Extortion of businessmen by hooligans large and small is on the rise. Meanwhile, the state agencies have been endlessly politicised by successive governments; while Dhaka's political elite have failed to turn Parliament into a meaningful institution. As a result of all these flaws, poverty remains rampant and militancy is on the rise.

The intense animosity between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the BNP and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League (AL), has contributed to the development of a sense of helplessness in the country's political environment. Their never-ending feud is a stumbling block towards a consensus within the national political spectrum. Even after 34 years of independence, intense debates still take place within political and intellectual circles over such questions as who was the first to announce the country's 'declaration of independence', or who is to be considered the 'father of the nation'. Such wrangling has gone on for so long that it has affected the very fabric of national society, and this has clouded the spirit of the younger generation. Students are bewildered by the fact that their textbooks tell differing national histories, depending on which of the two parties is in power.

But it is not all about personality politics. Deep differences do exist between the two leaders on several issues of national importance. Regular rows erupt over secular versus Islamic-based approaches to both policy and national identity; as well as questions over the role played by the AL in the 1971 war. These differences have significantly impacted Dhaka's foreign relations, particularly with India. In the latter context, the BNP-AL differences have centred on the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty; land transit to allow goods to reach India's Northeast from its 'mainland'; as well as India's potential purchase of gas from Bangladesh's natural reserves. Interestingly, party viewpoints have flip-flopped on each of these issues, depending on who is in power or in opposition.

Such internal bickering has led to an increasingly blurry security situation. In the international sphere, there have been leaks and accusations about Bangladesh as a refuge and even training ground for religious militants. While these have provoked vehement denials from Dhaka, the government has failed to deal effectively with the activities of several Islamic fundamentalist groups. Last year's bomb attacks targetting Sheikh Hasina killed scores of AL leaders, including S A M S Kibra, the former finance minister. The dramatic explosion of nearly 400 bombs going off throughout the country on 17 August this year cast still more worry on the coalition government's ability to tackle terrorist acts. Amidst this din, Dhaka has been largely unable to formulate cohesive, progressive foreign or regional policies.

The inevitable India

As a populous but relatively small country in terms of land area, Bangladesh needs to pay particular attention to relations with its regional neighbours. At the time of its independence, given the Cold War environment, the country had three options for its foreign policy. First, it could maintain a foreign policy that stood apart from all regional and international exigencies – perhaps an impossible order. Second, it could try to deepen its relations with those countries that had supported and helped in its fight for independence. Third, it could diversify and build relations with as many countries as possible, thereby reducing dependence on countries such as India, the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes.

It turned out to be practically impossible for the newborn state to follow the first or third options, given the destroyed political, economic and social infrastructure, coupled with the hostilities of both US President Richard Nixon's administration and those of Muslim countries in the Middle East. Dhaka's foreign policy naturally gravitated towards those countries that had helped it gain independence – the Soviet Union, Cuba, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and, mostly significantly, the regional giant, India. But within a couple of years, the country's leadership, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had come to realise the limitations of such a policy. Even though New Delhi, Moscow and other friends did their best to help to rebuild the devastated country, they could not provide the massive infusion of economic support that Bangladesh required.

As such, Sheikh Mujib started to nudge the country towards its third foreign policy option – diversification. Having being spurned by the US, this process pointed towards improving relations with other Muslim countries, which had become distanced from Bangladesh for having separated from Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib attended the 1973 summit in Algiers of the Non-Aligned Movement, where he discussed Bangladesh's situation with Arab leaders. Thereafter, he was able to convince the Kuwaiti government to deposit gold into Bangladesh's central bank to shore up the value of the taka. Sheikh Mujib was persuaded to join the Organisation of Muslim Conference (OIC) and attend its 1974 Islamic Summit, held in Lahore, but only after Pakistan had decided to recognise Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state.

Even as Bangladesh initiated this new foreign policy path of diversification, however, Sheikh Mujib, along with most of his family, was killed in the military coup of 15 August 1975. However, the new policy was aggressively followed by Gen Ziaur Rahman, who was propelled to power the following November, after a series of coups and counter-coups. Even as Bangladesh thus adjusted its international relations, no leader in Dhaka – be it Sheikh Mujib and Gen Zia, or later Gen Hussain Mohammed Ershad, Begum Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina Wajed – could forget the acute fact that history and geography bound Bangladesh to India. So, India became the power on whose perceived good- or ill-will the conduct of Bangaldeshi foreign affairs began to be organised. The ongoing separatist restlessness in India's Northeast, all of which bordered Bangladesh in the north and east, became an additional, complicating factor.

Dhaka-New Delhi relations have been troubled by a litany of issues. Over the years, these have included a trade imbalance in India's favour; the sharing of river waters vis-à-vis a lower riparian Bangladesh; alleged Bangladeshi assistance to Northeast separatist movements; unending border disputes and skirmishes along the frontier; the flow of Bangladeshi economic migrants into India; the unwillingness of Dhaka to supply India from its natural gas reserves; the unwillingness of Dhaka to supply transit rights to India's Northeast through its territory; the difficulty that Bangladeshi manufactures and semi-manufactures have in entering the Indian market, despite talks of open markets in New Delhi; and the alleged Indian assistance to the Chittagong Hill Tracts insurgency. Such is the lack of trust, that even the recent spate of coordinated terrorist bombings throughout Bangladesh have emerged as a factor to mar Dhaka-New Delhi relations, with allegations made of Indian involvement.

It is critical that these thorny bilateral issues get addressed in an atmosphere of calm and logic. Some of India's accusations against Bangladesh have been out of touch with reality. Dhaka, for instance, has neither the intention nor capacity to provide material assistance to insurgencies across its borders. At the same time, Dhaka cannot maintain an ostrich-like mentality on other matters. Just to take one example, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration is real and the proclivity of Bangladeshi officials in all but the most private of conversations to admit to this reality does public policy no good.

Bearing these factors in mind is important for leaders in both Dhaka and New Delhi, in order to come to reasonable terms with one another. This is particularly so in the face of ongoing separatist struggles in India's Northeast. Bangladesh cannot suspect that New Delhi is forever conspiring to diminish its image and calm. India, on the other hand, must be more than cognisant of the genuine insecurities of its smaller neighbour – from worries regarding the balance of trade, to the all-important matter of water-sharing. Indian officials and 'track two' participants alike do not give enough credence to Dhaka's fears regarding the reduction of water flows in either the Ganga – which is already taking place – or, in future, on the Brahmaputra (Jamuna). Bangladesh is a populous, riverine society, where water-flows mean just about everything; threats of withdrawal, such as through the projected river-linking scheme, go straight to the very heart of Bangladeshi survival. It is no wonder that Dhaka intellectuals and policymakers alike get exasperated when their Indian counterparts just don't get the point.

While Bangladesh needs to lift its Indian relationship to a minimum level of maturity, a fair amount of responsibility in this regard rests on New Delhi. In regional relations, large neighbours will give rise to insecurity in their smaller neighbours. New Delhi needs to rise to the demands of its size and clout, and not be seen to be acting as a regional bully. More empathy towards the neighbour is certainly a requirement among New Delhi's policymakers and strategic analysts, whose general tendency is to show exasperation towards Dhaka's stance and attitude. On a regional level, India would also do well to maintain a relatively unassuming role within SAARC – similar to Indonesia's role within ASEAN – which would see an immediate improvement of relations all around, most importantly with Bangladesh.

Despite the increased polemics between New Delhi and Dhaka, however, there have been positive developments. The creation of Bangla-language private satellite channels are working to bring together Bangladeshi and Indian Bangla-speaking audiences; in the long run, this will affect attitudes and policies in Dhaka and New Delhi for the better. There is increasing interaction between intellectuals and 'track two' activists in both countries, which will also help to develop empathy and understanding. Perhaps the best example of the evolving scenario can be found in a trend towards increasing Indian private investment in Bangladesh, which shows a confidence that is not evident in official attitudes.

The highlight, of course, is the intention of the Tata Group to invest nearly USD 3 billion in several projects in the country, including in power generation and fertiliser production. These would be a strong vote of confidence in the Bangladeshi economy, and the hope is that current glitches towards the investment's fruition will be resolved before long (see accompanying story). Even as Indian investment increases in Bangladesh, however, it would be incongruous for New Delhi to continue with the direct and indirect trade barriers that it imposes on Bangladeshi production seeking to enter the Indian market. This, more than investments, will help to bring a certain balance to the trade between the two countries.

Looking back at Pakistan

As the country that originated the concept of SAARC in the time of Ziaur Rahman, it would be counterproductive for Bangladesh to ignore the rest of Southasia due to the need to 'tackle India. Indeed, there is an urgent need to foster closer links with other Southasian countries; Dhaka, after all, continues to look at its relations with other regional countries as part of its diversification project. In this context, relations with Pakistan remain cordial, but two issues remain stumbling blocks to any future deepening. The first of these is the question of repatriation of one lakh 'Biharis' who opted to be repatriated to Pakistan way back in 1971. These refugees have remained stranded in camps in Bangladesh for more than two decades now. The situation is unconscionable on humanitarian grounds, besides being a constant thorn in the side of Dhaka-Islamabad relations.

Second, and there is no getting around this, there remains the need for a formal apology by Pakistan for the brutal behaviour of its soldiers against Bengalis before and during the War of Liberation. Although some Pakistani national leaders from time to time express their sorrow over their military's behaviour in former East Pakistan, a formal apology from Islamabad would go a long way in strengthening Bangladesh-Pakistan relations. While the Bangladeshi people do not demand that Pakistani leaders kneel in repentance at the Savar National Monument outside Dhaka – as Willy Brandt did while visiting the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw – an apology is in order. Instead, what we have had in the past is the boorish behaviour of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who, while visiting Savar, did not even remove his golf cap as a mark of respect.

These differences notwithstanding, Bangladesh and Pakistan can have more effective economic relations, which would be to both of their benefits. It is time for Bangladeshi businessmen to consider setting up linkages in Pakistan in order to enter the Central Asian markets. More attention should be paid to Pakistan-Bangladesh cooperation in multilateral bodies like the OIC and NAM. In particular, Dhaka must try to coordinate its diplomatic moves with Pakistan while ASEAN considers their applications for joining the Asean Regional Forum (ARF).

SAARC and Bangladesh

While India and Pakistan, for different reasons, form huge images in the Dhaka foreign policy radarscope, Bangladesh is probably more SAARC-oriented than is either of these two countries and values its links with the other Southasian nations. Going beyond the Bangladeshi enthusiasm for the creation of SAARC two decades ago, Bangladesh also looks to developing relationships with its nearby neighbours, Nepal and Bhutan. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of SAARC in terms of the original expectations, Dhaka has also been ahead of the other Southasian capitals in recognising the need for subregional groupings. During the previous AL government, it was Dhaka that pushed for subregional cooperation that brought in Bhutan, Burma, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand to discuss the specific concerns of the eastern Subcontinent and western ASEAN.

Development of Dhaka's relations with Kathmandu is crucial for both countries, which share so much in terms of their placement in the Southasian template – for the sake of bilateral trade, alternative transit and access for Nepal, tourism and cultural links, as well as to discuss geo-strategic and economic issues. Bangladesh and Nepal are also tied together in their needs to nudge India into a more cooperative attitude in terms of water resource sharing. The two Southasian neighbours, separated by but a sliver of land at India's Chicken's Neck at Siliguri, are in a position to collaborate on emerging opportunities for sharing. Bangladesh could use Nepal's hydropower energy; while Bangladeshi natural gas could do wonders for the Nepali economy and environment, without significantly depleting Dhaka's underground resources.

The two countries could also collaborate in a whole range of social, cultural and development arenas, from the issue of arsenic poisoning to micro-credit, tackling of floods, and do on. For the moment, it is disheartening that, even though India allows Nepal use of its territory for access to Bangladesh's Mongla port, there has been little increase in the facility's use. The reasons ascribed are the continued ease of Calcutta's port for Nepali traders; bureaucratic hassles created by Indian and Bangladeshi officialdom; and infrastructural bottlenecks in both India and Bangladesh. Most importantly, on a regional plane, Bangladesh and Nepal can exchange notes on how best to improve relations with India.

Bhutan is another close neighbour of Bangladesh, and the primary linkages here would be in the tourism, hydropower and trade sectors. The export of Bhutanese processed fruits to Bangladesh has been a little-talked-about success story of how regional countries can make use of the theory of comparative advantage. In the future, one would hope, Bhutan's hydropower output would not only be exported to mainland India through the Chicken's Neck, but would also snake its way through power lines across nearby Assam into Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Druk Air's Dhaka-Paro flights have been "suspended due to low traffic between the sectors", according to an airline announcement. This is itself a poor reflection on the state of interregional Southasian links.

Bangladesh needs to look at the Indian Northeast through a separate lens from the rest of India, due to the region's proximity and prospects. The states of Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Assam, which border Bangladesh, as well as Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland are all Indian states with which, in the long term, Dhaka will have to build deep relationships. To begin with, the Chittagong port holds great promise for the benefit for these states. The port itself, it is said, would gain additional revenue of USD 2 billion for Bangladesh, were such relationships developed. Dhaka could also learn a lot from Sri Lanka in terms of developing Bangladesh's tourism industry, beside coordinating its policies with Colombo on a host of regional and international issues.

New Delhi is keen to be able to access its Northeast through Bangladeshi rail and road transport. The presently underused Bangabandhu Setu, the five kilometre state-of-art bridge over the Brahmaputra (Jamuna) near Dhaka, also has the potential to promote transit access into the northeastern states. Hopefully, when the larger India-Bangladesh relationships settle down and balance out, the links between the Northeast and Bangladesh will flower to their full, enormous potential.

Whether discussing Bangladesh's relationships with the SAARC region as a whole, India and other member countries specifically, or the Northeast in particular, Dhaka clearly needs to develop a better understanding of the role of trade, commerce and people-to-people contact that such dynamics entail. In this globalised world, the focus has to be on economics – not politics or geopolitics. The notion of sovereignty is no longer to be seen in absolute terms when, in the final analysis, the people at-large are to benefit.

A pragmatic understanding not only by Bangladeshi leaders, but by the Southasian leadership in totality, would certainly help revolutionise the political tapestry of the Subcontinent. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, the sooner this is realised by both the country's population and political elite, the better will be their ability to seize these new opportunities and their economic benefit.

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