Bangladesh’s government has reversed Indian public opinion by creating a favourable atmosphere. It is time India does the same
Ten years ago, the results of such a survey would have sent shockwaves. After all, in 2003, Bangladesh was considered a dangerous terror hub for anti-India groups — it was the headquarters of the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI), the group that was responsible for gun-running and coordinating several attacks in India, a haven for the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and a training ground for ISI-backed groups. Bangladeshi forces exchanged fire with jawans from the Indian Border Security Force frequently. The image of the bodies of 16 jawans killed in Pyrdiwah in 2001, hanging from poles like animals and being carried by Bangladeshi villagers, was etched in every Indian’s memory. Not to mention India’s constant worry of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, an estimated million-plus at the time, crowding the country’s cities, wrecking the economy and straining resources. Yet in 2013, in a survey commissioned by The Hindu and conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), more Indians had a favourable opinion of Bangladesh than of any of the other countries named. According to CSDS, when asked which countries India should trust a “great deal” or “somewhat”, 48 per cent chose Bangladesh, even ahead of India’s old friend Russia (46 per cent).
Reasons for turnaround
There are several reasons for the turnaround in Indian public opinion. The first, of course, is the election of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister in 2009, which transformed relations from those of the hostile regime between 2001-2006 of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Begum Khaleda Zia, allied with the anti-India Jamaat-e-Islaami. Within months of being elected, Prime Minister Hasina embarked on a crackdown of anti-India terror groups. She shut down camps and handed over more than 24 wanted militants to India. Ms. Hasina also ordered the prosecution of others who may have colluded. In several instances, like the sentencing of Paresh Barua along with 13 others including 2 former Bangladeshi ministers in January 2014, these efforts were backed by court judgements. The 4,000 km-long India-Bangladesh border has been largely peaceful, with weekly border haats (markets) taking over from the once-regular flag meetings. Adding to the favourable impression was Bangladesh’s own economic progress at 6 per cent, rivalling India, as well as improved human development indicators that bettered India. In 2013, for example, Bangladesh ranked higher than India on life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index.
However, while Bangladesh has worked hard on bettering India’s impressions, India’s own standing with its neighbour has suffered. Every broken promise made by the UPA government has played havoc with India’s image in the country. The failure of former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to deliver the Land Border Agreement (LBA), first agreed to by Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974, must rank as the biggest missed opportunity here. While the Congress blamed the BJP for refusing to ratify the agreement in Parliament, despite assurances from former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and former Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj in meetings with Bangladeshi officials in February this year, the BJP held that the Congress simply hadn’t made the issue enough of a priority to bring it before the House in time. It is only fitting then that Ms. Swaraj make some sort of a commitment on her visit to Bangladesh beginning June 25, to bring the LBA to its logical conclusion in Parliament at the earliest opportunity.
The UPA disappointed on other scores too — it failed to sign the Teesta river water settlement because of opposition from the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and blocked market access to Bangladeshi companies that former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had promised many years ago. Perhaps the biggest broken promise was contained in Mr. Mukherjee’s own words when Ms Hasina visited Delhi in 2010. He said in an interview, “If you deliver on terror, India will deliver on every other promise.”
Signs of disillusionment
Already, the signs of that disillusionment are visible in Bangladesh. The worry for India will always be a return to the period from 1975-1996, when the Army and the BNP-Jamaat turned public opinion against India despite its assistance in Bangladesh’s birth. Textbooks were changed, history was rewritten, and Jamaat activists worked assiduously to Islamise the population while attacking all signs of Bangla culture that ties the country to India as “un-Islamic.”
It was this atmosphere that allowed groups like HuJI and ULFA to make inroads in Bangladesh, along with a sense of ill-use by ‘big brother’ India. In the first worrying signs this time around, there has been a rise in criticism of India’s actions in the past year. Of particular concern has been the reported increase in firing by the BSF against civilians who were allegedly trying to cross into India. In the past decade, Bangladeshi officials say, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed by the BSF at the border. The reported rejection by the Home Ministry of a proposal to give Bangladeshi senior citizens and children visa exemptions has also received widespread critical coverage. The Hasina government has been restrained in expressing any criticism, in part because of the support India has given it, including during the January elections. But the opposition may get more vocal soon. Already Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat leadership are threatening another round of hartals and bandhs after Eid ul-Fitr in July-end. Bearing the brunt of that anger is often the minority Hindu community, which faced hundreds of targeted attacks. Dozens of temples were destroyed by Jamaat activists in 2013.
Ms. Swaraj’s visit to Bangladesh at this juncture then carries an urgent responsibility: to assure Bangladeshis that India intends to keep the promises it has made, while being mindful of the ones that Bangladesh has kept. Small steps like extraditing wanted criminals to Bangladesh and increasing India’s infrastructural commitments on ports and highways maybe a start. In the light of developments in Iraq, and the poor working conditions for labour in parts of West Asia, India and Bangladesh may discuss a coordinated approach to evacuate overseas workers, as well as a united front in dealing with Gulf countries that enforce strict laws on them. Ms. Swaraj has already shown her concerns on this issue when she coordinated meetings of MPs on the situation of overseas workers, even as the Ministry works its 24 hour-helpline to manage the fallout of the Iraq crisis.
In a sense, the light at the end of the tunnel for India-Bangladesh relations was switched on in November last year when Bangladesh connected its electric grid with India for the first time, importing 500MW of electricity, with India promising an additional 100 MW from the grid in Tripura. Soon, say officials, India hopes to draw power from its own plants in the remote north-east via transmission lines across Bangladesh, showing just how quickly the two countries can create easy interdependencies between them.
It is for India to now take the next step down that road with this visit of the External Affairs Minister, to ensure that the two countries can return to the trust and the friendship they shared during the birth of Bangladesh.