The hope of Dhaka

SAARC at 20, Bangladesh, and the possibilities of eastern Southasia.

The twice-postponed summit meeting of SAARC leaders is slated for Dhaka in November, and will take place barring natural or manmade disasters. It was in this city 20 years ago that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was born, bringing to reality the statesmanlike vision of the late president Ziaur Rahman.

It needs no elaboration to say that SAARC has yet to fulfil its original commitment to promote mutual trust and confidence and to enhance economic cooperation in the region. Certainly, some of this can be blamed on the adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan over the past two decades, which has often dissipated much of SAARC's potential energy into meaningless polemic, benefiting none. But maybe it is also time for some real introspection: to see whether, in this age of globalisation, every SAARC member has adequately addressed its responsibilities to strengthen its neighbouring relationships. SAARC's success in promoting Southasian development and a Southasian voice continues to rest in the sum of its bilateral relationships.

By virtue of its size, population and location in the middle of the Southasian landmass, India's regional role remains of the most significant interest. While there is (and must be) parity of sovereignty between India and her neighbours, the latter cannot expect parity of power and influence. At the same time, we must keep in mind that any diminishment of India will also affect the Southasian dynamic as a whole. This is particularly so if, as suggested recently by the president and prime minister of Pakistan and India, the borders become 'softer' and there is more social, cultural and economic give-and-take. More simply, political instability in India, or an economic slump in this leviathan, would impact all the neighbours and their populations.

Within India, a degree of political mismanagement, coupled with the assertion by smaller groups of their individual identities, has led to a rash of insurgencies that have lasted for decades, sapping the energies of the people and the state alike. On the other hand, the recent success of the Indian economy has created an increasing number of stakeholders keenly interested in the country's future. It is important for India's neighbours to become stakeholders as well, for a large growth-engine like India offers immense benefits for others.

Out from the delta

Having given rise to the original idea for SAARC in its capital, Bangladesh is now acting as host to the organisation's summit for the third time, on 12-13 November. This will be a time when Bangladesh, as one of the SAARC Seven, must take stock of its own place in Southasia as a whole. This will mean considering its continuing complex relationships with rump Pakistan; the possibilities of expanding trade with nearby Nepal and Bhutan, as well as with faraway Sri Lanka; and developing strategies not only to countenance New Delhi, but also mutually beneficial links with West Bengal and the Indian Northeast

Bangladesh could wield much greater regional influence, due to both its strategic location at the head of the Bay of Bengal and its proximity to Southeast Asia. Nepal, for one, has had close historical ties with Bengal. Today, Bangladeshi ports could offer important alternative routes for Nepali trade with the outside world. How Bangladesh fashions its future, then, should be of significant interest to Kathmandu. Both of these countries were represented in the first BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) summit of energy ministers in early-October 2005. Among other things, the New Delhi meet agreed on country-to-country energy interconnections, development of hydropower projects, and the possibility of secure trans-BIMSTEC gas pipelines. Such agreements could bode well for both Nepal's hydro potential and Bangladesh's natural gas reserves and locale.

In the context of regional cooperation, the widespread suspicion of India that is harboured in Dhaka is clearly a matter for study. While the imperiousness and muscle of the larger neighbour must be resisted on diplomatic and intellectual planes, it would be unfortunate if domestic political concerns prevented Bangladesh from taking advantage of its Southasian connections, including with India. In this context, it is important to note the remarks of a Pakistani commentator – writing in a Dhaka daily after a visit to the city last August – on the country's widespread suspicion of India, which he said was hampering constructive cooperation. The 'trick' to tackling India is to upgrade one's engagement, and not to allow negative approaches to influence state policy.

As a country at the mercy of substantial river-flow from India, the issue of water resources is a matter of overwhelming concern for Bangladesh, with its teeming rural population. But India – which faces a similar water situation with respect to Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet/China – has been traditionally averse to discussing the issue in a wider regional context. Demanding the rights of the lower riparian party when it is convenient, but remaining unwilling to consider Bangladesh's similar concerns, has been the negative leitmotif of Indian policy. There is not nearly enough sensitivity in New Delhi about the extreme distress this causes in Dhaka. The lackadaisical manner in which river-linking schemes have been bandied about without reference to Bangladesh is a clear factor in this. Political boundaries may not determine the flow of rivers, but nations have a moral and legal responsibility to those downstream – a responsibility that would do well to be extended to a regional or basin-wide consideration. A good place to begin, incidentally, would be for India to release the river-flow data that it keeps so close to its chest.

A show of neighbourliness on the water front is bound to be reciprocated by Dhaka on a whole range of additional issues, most importantly on transit. The disinclination of Bangladesh to permit the transit of people and goods from mainland India to northeastern India may be inexplicable to the outsider, but within Dhaka it is enmeshed in larger suspicions. There does remain, on the other hand, an odd contradiction in Dhaka's excitement for greater use of its ports by Nepal and Bhutan, while denying those facilities for the movement of goods to Mizoram or Meghalaya from the Indian mainland.

Even in the run-up to the upcoming summit, it needs to be said that Dhaka should not limit its push for greater regional linkages to only the 'Southasia' as defined by SAARC. Indeed, Dhaka would do well to cultivate greater regional relationships with the Indian states along its borders, with which it has had historical and cultural links. Genuine cooperation is generally best cultivated at the level of subregional interactions and development. Such a dynamic would also do much to positively influence attitudes in New Delhi.

Migrant souls

The movement of peoples across the Ganga-Brahmaputra plains has been driven by economic imperatives since age-old times; this process continues to this day. For the moment, the flow of migrant souls is from Bangladesh into the populated Indian cities to the west. But a friction has grown between India and Bangladesh that, sadly, is escalating. The first step is to recognise that economic migration is indeed taking place. Such migration is sometimes implicitly encouraged by the host cities (migrants, almost always exploited, serve an economic function), even though there is occasional reaction against it by groups such as the Shiv Sena. There is a need for frank exchange between Dhaka and New Delhi to look for solutions that are both practical and humane. Dhaka's state of denial on the matter of migration to India does nothing to promote such solutions.

These are not easy days for Dhaka. Law enforcement authorities are fully stretched to bring to book those who seem intent to radically change the liberal, secular fabric of the state, as created in 1971. Civil society and a courageous media have been drawing attention to these dangers for quite some time, but have been faced with walls of official disclaimers. Authorities obliquely suggest that the problems are not internal. Rather, the state claims that these troubles have been promoted from elsewhere in order to tarnish Bangladesh's image – and that irresponsible media have helped enhance insecurity. Such explanations, however, are hardly credible.

On the 20th anniversary of the founding of SAARC, an important opportunity now exists for Bangladesh to rededicate itself to the vision of Ziaur Rahman: to act as a beacon of cooperation in eastern Southasia.

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