Saturday, July 10, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
Dr. Manmohon Singh has disappointed many in Bangladesh by his remarks about the country and its politics in a recent meeting with Indian newspaper editors. The Prime Minister’s website carried these remarks for a few days. When it caused criticism in India and in unofficial circles in Bangladesh, the remarks were hastily withdrawn with no serious explanation.
India is a major player in world affairs. Hence what its Prime Minister speaks officially, particularly about a neighbour that is suspicious of it, is spoken after due consideration. Hence his offensive remarks about Bangladesh and its politics must have been discussed with his aides and other concerned officials. It could not have just dropped into his head the moment he made these remarks. Therefore the remarks cannot be forgotten simply by deleting it from the PM’s website.
Dr. Singh said 25% of the people of Bangladesh are Jamaat activists who are in the clutches of the ISI. He also mentioned that the same percentage of the people of Bangladesh is also very anti-Indian. These negative facts notwithstanding, “generous” India, although not a rich nation, has offered Bangladesh a US$ 1 billion line of credit for economic infra-structure development in Bangladesh. Dr. Singh however acknowledged Bangladesh’s gesture in meeting its security concerns.
It is incredible that Dr. Singh would believe that 25% of the people of Bangladesh are Jamaat supporters. If that is a fact, with the BNP, the two would have by now made the AL history. The fact is Jamaat’s support among the people has always been in the low single digit. In the last elections, it polled 4% of the votes against 7% by President Ershad’s Jatiya party. His remarks about the extent of ISI influence in Bangladesh are offensive. It is true that past military governments and BNP have given in the past ISI leverage in Bangladesh’s politics. It is nevertheless way off the mark to suggest that 25% of Bangladeshis “are in the clutches of the ISI.” Perhaps Dr. Singh is not aware of Bangladesh’s history to suggest that 25% of the people would be so “controlled” by Pakistan’s military intelligence!
On the issue of Indian generosity, Indian line of credit of US$ 1 billion can hardly be called a generous act. 80% of the loan is tied to buying goods and services from India. Most importantly, it will be spent mostly for building infrastructure to facilitate transit of Indian goods from mainland India to Indian northeastern provinces through Bangladesh that has long been a major desire of India. Such land transit is expected to have major impact on the seven provinces’ economic and social development by cutting down of cost of transportation of goods and services and time. The successive governments of Bangladesh, in the past till the present, considered the land transit card valuable enough to help Bangladesh negotiate with India outstanding issues like share of water of common rivers, trade deficit, land and maritime boundaries favorably. It has given away this card without any reciprocal gesture. The US$ 1 billion is hardly one because it will be spent for the benefit of India more than for Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has done even a far bigger favour to India by handing over to Indian security the top ULFA insurgents that has broken the back of this long standing insurgency. It has also committed itself fully to India’s security interests. Since the present government came to office, it is generally believed in Bangladesh that it is not the ISI but Indian security agency RAW that has been given unhindered access in the country.
In fact, in history of Bangladesh-India relations, it is Bangladesh that has always shown generosity and India, the reverse. In 1974, after the Indira-Mujib agreement on land boundary was signed, Bangladesh kept its commitment while India, 37 years after the agreement was signed, is still dragging its foot on its commitments. In fact, one of the “generous” concessions that India would be making to Bangladesh in the near future is giving Bangladeshis 24 hour’s access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota, something it had committed almost 4 decades ago.
Bangladesh also gave India concession to install the Farakkha Barrage on a trial basis in April, 1975 that India unilaterally extended without Bangladesh’s concurrence to withdraw water from the Ganges at will. The trial agreement was finally converted into a bilateral agreement 25 years afterwards in 1996. In early 1990s, after the SAPTA agreement was signed, Bangladesh lowered its tariff against host of Indian goods that India never reciprocated fully.
In the face of all the above, it is absurd that Dr. Singh could have been so insensitive to have twisted truth in the manner he has. It is also hard to believe that his comments were inadvertent for it fits the mindset that the Indian bureaucracy has shown over the years in negotiating with Bangladesh. During a recent visit of journalists to India, even the Indian Finance Minister has acknowledged about this negative mindset in the Indian bureaucracy about Bangladesh.
Thus it was equally incredible that the Bangladesh government would react the way it has to Dr. Singh’s offensive comments. One senior Minister said Dr. Singh’s statements were “taken out of context”. The Foreign Secretary saw no necessity to make a formal complaint as he was fully satisfied by the explanation given by the Indian side. It appeared as if the Bangladesh Government was being apologetic that in India itself Dr. Singh’s comments created such widespread criticism that was the main reason why these were deleted from the PM’s website.
The nature of Dr. Singh’s comments, its withdrawal from the official website and the official reaction from Bangladesh left many wondering what is happening in Bangladesh-India relations. It is incredible that Bangladesh side would show such subservience to India as not to even raise an eyebrow, let alone a note of protest, on such a serious faux pas by the Indian Prime Minister that insulted and humiliated the nation. It brings back to memory the long delay that the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry took to register a note of protest on the Felani murder by the Indian BSF that incensed Bangladeshis. It also makes one wonder why senior officials of Bangladesh government are taking up Indian causes more aggressively than the Indian themselves where India, except for 1971, dealt with Bangladesh with not much generosity. One senior official even said that Bangladesh would prove itself uncivilised to charge from India any fee for granting it transit!
Indian Foreign Minister is in town at the time of filing this piece. So far what has been known of his visit is that India would be granting Bangladesh “concessions” that it had committed to Bangladesh decades ago! The Indian Home Minister is expected to come soon and the Prime Minister will come in early September. These visits are being undertaken way too belatedly for politics in Bangladesh has turned a bend towards dangerous pastures. With the caretaker government issue, the ruling party has created the most fertile grounds for confrontational politics that is bound to create equally fertile grounds for the opposition to play the India card. Dr. Singh has also helped in this respect by his insensitive remarks.
India can achieve the fullest benefits of land transit and its security concerns, two extremely important foreign policy goals for it, only when the Bangladesh government led by the ruling party has full and total control with the opposition in no position to do anything. It is just possible that Dr. Singh by his faux pas may have unwittingly spilled the beans; that there is a game plan involving the two governments to use Islamic extremism to strengthen the position of the ruling party in Bangladesh. One wonders!
The writer is a former Ambassador