|Graphics: Roshan Tamang|
As would be expected, the conventional thinking on Southasian inter-state relations is predominantly bilateral in nature. As such, readers should be unsurprised by the following exchange, which took place on the floor of the Indian Rajya Sabha on 17 February 2006, when two members asked Manmohan Singh a three-part question:
(a) whether Indo-Bangladesh relations have deteriorated recently;
(b) if so, the details thereof and the reasons therefore; and
(c) what steps are being/have been taken to improve our relationship with Bangladesh?
The prime minister’s response is not available to this writer, but it can be said with some confidence that he did not say anything that would have embarrassed his official position or that of the government of Bangladesh. This became clear when then-Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia visited India a few weeks later – incidentally after a gap of over seven years, during which time no Bangladeshi prime minister came to Delhi. Nonetheless, the words that Prime Minister Singh had for her and the public were only the most laudatory: “Bangladesh is a country with which we have intimate ties of friendship,” he noted, adding, “A peaceful, strong, prosperous and stable Bangladesh is in India’s interest. It is in the interest of Southasia and all.” Prime Minister Singh did not hesitate to web the relationship between India and Bangladesh within the framework of Southasia and beyond. There are good reasons for this.
Two issues are critical here. First, Bangladesh-India relations are faced with a multitude of puzzles that need to be responsibly addressed, with or without feelings of either friendship or animosity. Second, regional and global scenarios have transformed relations between the two countries in several key areas, both for the better and the worse; this is where a sheer bilateral perspective has come to be a handicap. Let us look first at seven of the stickiest puzzles facing these two countries.
Border fencing. At an estimated cost of INR 11.3 billion, the Indian government has undertaken to fence off the entire Indo-Bangladeshi border, a project stipulated to end this month. This will include a combination of actual border fencing (2409 km) and border roads (797 km). But with the fencing near completion, why has India thus far failed to stop the flow of Indian goods through informal routes, a smuggling trade that comes to around USD 2 billion per year? A sub-puzzle may be added here: Why spend INR 11.3 billion, when it takes only ten rupees (the cost of a pair of scissors) to cut through the barbed and concertina wire?
Enclaves. Between them, Bangladesh and India have as many as 225 parcels of land that are geographically located in the other country. Out of these, 119 are ‘exchangeable’ and 11 ‘non-exchangeable’ Indian enclaves in Bangladesh – this last referring to land that may be legally Indian, but to which India lacks even access. Bangladeshi enclaves in India total 95, out of which 72 are exchangeable and some 5129 acres are non-exchangeable. In May 1974, both countries agreed to exchange the enclaves, and to allow the areas’ inhabitants to decide whether to stay or move to the parent country. While Bangladesh enacted legislation to actualise that agreement in November 1975, India has yet to do so three decades later.
Crossborder militancy. India and Bangladesh each periodically blame the other for harbouring insurgents antagonistic to their national interests. India accuses Bangladesh of allowing access to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), while Bangladesh alleges India’s role in harbouring the Shadhin Bangabhumi Andolon (SBA) and United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), as well as criminals or local mastans wanted in Bangladesh. India currently claims there are 119 anti-Indian insurgent camps inside Bangladesh, while Bangladesh alleges the existence of 39 in India.
Illegal immigration. In 1998, the West Bengal government said that one million Bangladeshis were living illegally in its territory; the Bharatiya Janata Party then put that number at ten times that figure for the whole of India. Samir Guha Roy, of the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta, says both of these estimates are “motivatedly exaggerated”, and puts down West Bengal’s population problem to migrants from neighbouring states of India. Regardless, there is no doubt that the term ‘illegal’ in this situation is a misnomer. There can be illegality only when there is something legal. In the case of Bangladesh and India (as well as Pakistan), legal migration is impossible other than through the arduous process of marriage. Indeed, in the absence of a ‘legal migration regime’ in Southasia, migration has come to hold meaning only in the sphere of illegality, and as such remains vulnerable to the power of the non-state (ie, the ‘dubious and shadowy’ elements), with the state becoming a mere spectator. Only a ‘legal migration regime’ between India and Bangladesh could end this misnomer. Anyone violating it could then be rightly called an illegal migrant.
Goods transport. The territoriality of India and Bangladesh and the legacy of Southasian politics have made the transport of goods from the Northeast to the rest of India (and the world) a laughably cumbersome process. Assamese and Tripuran goods, for instance, must currently travel 1400 and 1645 km respectively to reach the Calcutta port. This distance and subsequent transport cost could be reduced drastically if the Chittagong port were to be used instead, or if goods were simply transported to Calcutta through Bangladeshi territory. Why is Bangladesh not taking charge of this issue – for instance, developing the required infrastructure – and making a reasonable if not a hefty profit from it? Trans-shipment would require some reciprocity, and the opening of the Northeast market to Bangladeshi business would be an obvious one.
Trade deficit. In 2005, India’s official exports to Bangladesh stood at USD 2.1 billion, while its imports from Bangladesh amounted to only USD 144.2 million – a trade deficit of about USD 1.8 billion in New Delhi’s favour. At the same time, recent figures have shown that China has replaced India as the largest exporter to Bangladesh. This only indicates that Bangladesh’s trade deficit with China – which stood at USD 1.6 billion in 2004-2005 – is destined to become even larger, surpassing even that with India. If this is the case, why is there so much fuss in Dhaka about Bangladesh’s deficit with India, with hardly any corresponding furore regarding China? Is India’s nationalist fervour in the age of globalisation helping China to befriend Bangladesh – and to further capture its markets? Trade deficits, it seems, are a political issue, conveniently expressed in the language of economics.
Water rights. There was hope in Bangladesh that, with the 1996 signing of the Farakka Agreement (which stipulated that any Indian activity that may affect the Ganga River would require Bangladesh’s consent), water disputes with India would come to an end. But with the planned construction of the Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River in Manipur, there is now a creeping fear that in order to assuage India’s thirst for irrigation and urban water, all of the 54 rivers that Bangladesh shares with India will be made to dry up. Water disputes have now returned to civil and political agendas with a vengeance in Dhaka. Added to this is the idea of river-linking, mooted in India, which strikes fear in Bangladesh. Although the grandiose project’s implementation is currently limited to South India, there is no guarantee that the rivers in the north would not follow once the southern linking is implemented. Indeed, if India’s conscience is to be found in the words and deeds of activists such as Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy, then that crossborder ‘water war’ has already begun.
Multiversity of globalisations
With the persistence of and the dynamics between all of these issues, it is easier to understand the widespread worry of ‘invisible hands’ in Bangladesh and India that have vested interests in keeping alive these puzzles and in creating new ones. Over the years, theories have arisen that the CIA, ISI, RAW, DGFI, South Block, Hawa Bhavan, the Jamaat, the Jewish lobby, the RSS, the World Bank, fanatics, fascists, communists (the list is unending) must have had a hand in the deterioration of Bangladesh-India relations.
But successfully unlocking these puzzles is significantly more difficult. Falling back on conspiracy theories would be to fix the contention to post-Westphalian notions of bilateralism, while discarding the quantum leap that has been made in the past three decades in multilateral engagements between people, communities and enterprises – nationally, regionally and globally. Emerging regional and global scenarios have added fresh munitions to these puzzles, and have transformed Bangladesh-India relations both positively and negatively.
Reforms and economic globalisation have had a spectacular impact on India’s economy, and India’s steady integration into the global economy is inevitably felt across the border in Bangladesh. There are currently more than 100,000 Indians working in Bangladesh, mostly in globalised ventures. Now that production has become international along with trade, investment and finance, the opportunity exists to engage in creative economic ventures for both India and Bangladesh without the prejudices of the post-Westphalian or ‘modernist’ nation state. Take, for instance, the French cement plant in Sylhet, on the border of Bangladesh and Meghalaya: it uses limestone transported by a conveyor belt from a quarry in Meghalaya across the national border and to the plant. But economic globalisation is only one of the versions of globalisation. Two other versions – reverse and subaltern – are equally critical.
Two good examples of ‘reverse globalisation’ are Bollywood and what goes internationally in the name of Indian cuisine. While the Southasian diaspora has certainly played a role in reproducing these particular examples, reverse globalisation has had its most formidable impact with regard to religious discourses. The post-national Southasian diaspora, particularly in West Asia and coupled with the reality of global anti-Muslim sentiments, has inevitably become attracted to a puritan form of Islam – subsequently helping to promote Wahhabism back home and thereby adding to the power of fundamentalist forces. Similar dynamics can be seen with the India Development and Relief Fund, a US-based charity that has long funded efforts to champion the cause of Hindutva outside of India.
The third version of globalisation, that of the ‘subaltern’ or the dominated and marginalised, has had both positive and negative variants. The former in particular refers to the global networks that have been set up to resist economic globalisation – the profusion of activism on environmental, labour and human-rights issues. But there is also a further subaltern variant, very negative in nature. This refers to the relationship between and amongst those ‘dubious and shadowy groups’ – the smugglers of goods and people, producers of illicit weapons, and the like. These networks now go beyond nationality, ethnicity, race and religion. It must also be noted that a national resolution of regional or post-national insecurity further empowers the dubious elements of subaltern globalisation.
While the puzzles informing Bangladesh-India relations have attained new dimensions due to these various new forms of globalisation and multilateral engagement, the response can never be national isolation or a hyper-reproduction of the national-security state. Rather, for unlocking and resolving these puzzles, a greater hope lies in the regionalisation of Bangladesh-India relations.
Indo-Bangla relations and SAARCisation
The UNESCO Constitution, echoing the words of an anonymous poet, proclaims that “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” If so, it must be admitted that the puzzles informing Bangladesh-India relations result from a precise mindset, and that any resolution of these puzzles must be sought in first changing that mindset – particularly that ingrained in notions of bilateralism and mutual intolerance. And what will come as a surprise to many is that putting the India-Bangladesh relationship on stable foundations requires looking beyond Dhaka-New Delhi bilateralism to SAARC regionalism or multilateralism.
A Southasian University could be a good starting point, an idea to which Manmohan Singh committed India during the last SAARC Summit. In fact, over the past decade, a team of Southasian scholars have been looking into this idea, exploring possible curricula and organisational structure. Their conclusion is to have issue-based faculties spread throughout the region, which would provide an environment for post-national discourses free from the constraints of the reasoning of the state. Such an idea of a regional centre of learning would ipso facto define the future terms of Southasian relationships, including that of India-Bangladesh. Preliminary technical meetings for such a university are slated to take place in March.
A second idea is for a Southasian Mobile Museum. When post-colonial India requested that the famous Koh-i-noor diamond be returned, Pakistan also quickly laid its own claim to the piece of rock, as did Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The British could only enjoy this intra-regional bickering, and discarded the claims as unworkable. The Koh-i-noor could easily be brought back to Southasia after the creation of a post-national mobile museum, where the diamond and other artefacts transferred during the colonial era could be brought back and displayed in each of the Southasian countries on a rotating basis. Millions in Southasia would line up to have a glimpse at the things that had contributed so much to the making of the Westphalian state – and to its healthy demise.
Finally, a Southasian Library could also make a difference in this exercise of de-puzzling the mind. The modern age could not have come about without the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the first public library in modern times. Similarly, a Southasian Library, with thematic branches spread throughout the region, could have a significant hand in connecting Southasians. Regional scholarship would at once cease to suffer for want of access to knowledge. In an age that has transformed the dictum knowledge is power into power is knowledge, one must be wary of the fact that ‘borrowed knowledge’ is bound to produce ‘borrowed power’ or ‘colonised minds’. Both India and Bangladesh must wake up to this reality and make knowledge-production a Southasia-wide exercise, if puzzles are to be resolved and breakthroughs to be made in the state of their relationship.
Puzzles are created by humans and can only be resolved by humans. What is required above all is trust, free from the ‘realist psychoses’ of fear and inferiority complexes. When it comes to Bangladesh-India relations, the latter, mainly for reasons stemming from 1971, has an advantage over the former, due particularly to its accumulation of good friends and lobbies across the border. Bangladesh, on the other hand, devoid of any such experience of helping India, remains largely without a crossborder lobby. The failure to cultivate time-tested friends in India lies squarely with the Dhaka government and the Bangladesh elites. But it must be added that civil-society groups, too, have had limited success on this front. There is, however, some hope to be found among Indians who have lived and served in Bangladesh, including the 100,000 or more who today function as professionals within the Bangladeshi economy. Ultimately, by reaching across multiple borders, that number can be dramatically increased in all directions.
~ Imtiaz Ahmed is a professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. This article is based on a keynote paper presented at a seminar organised by the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh, in April 2006.