This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Partition of British India. South Asia is today a polarised region as ever before, and not simply in terms of inter-state relations, but in terms of internal political systems as well.
Forty-six years after the Liberation War, Bangladeshi politics remains highly divisive. Indian politics is buoyed by both secular and Hindu nationalism to the point that the country’s democratic deficits, such as human rights abuses in Kashmir and Northeast India, are overlooked, if not defended.
Pakistani politics still lack the vital element of parliamentary supremacy, with not a single prime minister being able to complete their tenure due to interference from the military or judiciary, however legal or illegal the interventions have been.
Mistrust among the three South Asian countries remains robust. As the three countries spar over terrorism and genocide denial, the nationalists on all sides work to undermine the losses of each other. The India-Pakistan peace process is stuck in a limbo, despite the fact that more complex conflicts in the world have been resolved.
There were times when things were simpler. It was not too long ago that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh convened an economic summit in Dhaka in 1998, primarily as a result of the goodwill generated by the Gujral doctrine.
As a young boy, this author had the privilege to meet Prime Minister IK Gujral during the summit, where the other attendees included Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Nawaz Sharif.
It was also not too long ago in the early 1990s when Benazir Bhutto convened a conference of opposition leaders in Karachi, which was attended by Sheikh Hasina.
This author met Benazir Bhutto, when she was prime minister in 1996, and remembers her interest about the Battle of the Begums in Bangladesh.
There was a time when people in the districts could travel between Pakistan (including East Pakistan) and India during the weekends. My grandfather would export his goods by train using the British Raj-era railway network. You did not need a visa.
But the liberal travel regime ended in 1965, following the second Indo-Pakistani war, and the borders have remained indefinitely closed.
Before Partition in 1947, there was the free flow of trade in the British Indian Empire, which included Burma until 1937.
The river ports and seaports were often tax free and complemented commerce on the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Trade barriers appeared after Partition in 1947, even as the world embraced globalisation.
Today, the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India meet once only in a few years. A former Bangladeshi foreign secretary believes that, given the breadth of issues involved in the bilateral relationship, the meeting should take place every six months.
The lack of bilateral engagement with Pakistan is also ridiculous, as regional neighbours should be striving to reach a fair consensus on disputes.
India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should work together to safeguard each other’s freedom and democracy
What is perhaps most important is to build on our common values in South Asia. Common values will not come from religion or nationalism but from governance. The three countries today have parliamentary systems of government, albeit with shortcomings.
A regional treaty is needed to provide a framework for protecting democratic values and due process.
The European Convention on Human Rights can serve as an example. Regional countries need to be there for each other when democracy is undermined and regional countries should speak out against human rights abuses.
While developing comparative advantages, the three countries should cooperate in initiatives to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and red tape.
The three countries can partner to improve their Ease of Doing Business rankings, which currently hover below 100 for all three. Liberalising the travel regime can help poverty eradication by spurring economic activities, especially in border areas.
An important legacy of Partition is migration and cosmopolitanism, which is reflected among the immigrant communities of South Asia.
This legacy promotes greater tolerance and multiculturalism. In Bangladesh, immigrants have built several of the country’s most successful enterprises.
But a part of that legacy is also the millions of victims who lost their lives during the migration. The first Partition museum recently opened in Amritsar this year and more should be opened across the sub-continent.
The most enduring legacy of Partition came as a result of electoral mandates for self-determination, including the general election result of 1946 and the Sylhet referendum of 1947.
India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should work together to safeguard each other’s freedom and democracy.
A framework of common values and democratic solidarity should be formed in the interest of peace and economic development.
Umran Chowdhury is a law student in the University of London International Program.