Though Southasia has a shared history and numerous cultural synergies, in the modern era ultra-nationalism, jingoism and religious radicalism have almost obliterated this legacy. The violence of Partition ensured that there was only limited space for moderate voices that believed in treating borders as mere national boundaries rather than zones of conflict. Political disputes and acrimony resulted in the creation of impermeable barriers, first between India and Pakistan and then between India and Bangladesh. The Punjab, which shared a common culture and heritage and was also a cohesive economic unit prior to Partition, was divided into two adversarial camps thereafter. Similar, though less extreme, was the fate of Bengal.
In the case of the Punjab, this began to change in the late 1990s when the two Punjabi prime ministers of India and Pakistan at the time, I K Gujral and Nawaz Sharif, attempted to forge a harmonious relationship between India and Pakistan. From 2003, cultural exchanges between the two Punjabs began to increase, visits by Sikh pilgrims to Punjab province became more frequent, and limited trade between the two also began. This process has continued since that time despite the continuing mutual mistrust maintained by incidents such as the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Relations between Dhaka and New Delhi have generally been smoother than those between Islamabad and New Delhi. As such, there is great potential to use the inherent cultural synergies and common history of the two Bengals, as well as parts of the Indian Northeast, as a bridge to improve relations between the two countries. To date, the India-Bangladesh thaw had been attributed to the personal chemistry between Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, himself a Bengali, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The latter is also said to have phoned West Bengal’s newly elected chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, to congratulate her on her victory in the recent West Bengal elections. There is great potential to move forward from this point, but India must work harder to dispel Bangladesh’s fears of Indian hegemony and interference in Bangladesh. It is also time to encourage more people-to-people contact between West Bengal and Bangladesh.
While the Pakistani and Indian Punjabs are sub-state units (one a province, one a state), in the case of West Bengal and Bangladesh it would be one state unit dealing with a sovereign country. Interestingly, there are far fewer civil-society organisations in West Bengal and Bangladesh pushing for greater Bengal-Bengal interactions than one sees in the case of the two Punjabs. Yet in certain ways, especially at a cultural level, it would seem far easier for the two Bengals to cooperate, since they have not drifted as far apart culturally as have the two Punjabs since Partition. Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray are cultural icons admired on both sides of the border, as we have seen in the case of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth.
India-Bangladesh relations have clear problems, but tensions have never reached levels comparable to those between India and Pakistan. Bangladesh has made substantial progress in the economic realm. West Bengal, which has freed itself from left rule after 34 years, could possibly benefit from Bangladesh’s ‘soft power’, especially through initiatives such as the Grameen Bank. This would send positive signals and emphasise the fact that India, especially the Indian Bengal, recognises Bangladesh’s progress in social development as worthy of emulating. In fact, West Bengal could be the window for initiation of Bangladesh-style mass-based NGOs such as Proshika and BRAC, besides Grameen.
There is already positive energy from the Sheikh Hasina-Manmohan Singh joint memorandum of January 2010, which could prove to be a sea change in new transit and trade links. Further opportunities have been opened up by the recently elected leadership in Kolkata. Mamata has previously dealt with Prime Minister Hasina in her capacity as India’s railway minister. The Sonar Tori Express, from Kolkata to Dhaka, has yet to come to fruition, but the Sanskriti Express is likely to begin plying along this old route from August 2011.
Mamata can utilise her rapport with the Bangladesh prime minister for more interactions between the two Bengals and, as a coalition partner of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, take further efforts to strengthen road and rail links and improve the relationship between the two Bengals on the basis of the January 2010 memorandum. Ultimately, this would almost certainly play a significant role in improving overall relations between India and Bangladesh. At this stage, the show of goodwill has to come from New Delhi, given the significant initiatives (and risks) taken by Sheikh Hasina under the memorandum.
While this might seem utopian for now, both Dhaka and New Delhi need to realise the importance of creating a permanent constituency for peace. One small but crucial step towards this could be via Bengal – and what better way than the Sanskriti Express, which will be received jointly at Dhaka by the Indian and Bangladeshi prime ministers in August?
~Tridivesh Singh Maini is an associate fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.