We can choose our friends, but not our neighbours
Time and again, whenever our prime minister happens to meet her counterpart in India, whether abroad or in India, whether the subject is binational or international, the questions that are raised are invariably on the prickly subject of Teesta, murders along the border, or more recently, the Rohingya crisis.
The most recent visit of our prime minister to West Bengal and meeting with Prime Minister Modi on a purely cultural celebration is an example.
True, as a nation these are topics that bother us, and we want a resolution of our outstanding concerns with India. This is normal. What is not normal, however, is to expect that our priorities should be India’s priorities too.
We may have many disputes with India -- river waters, land and maritime border, adverse trade relations, and so on. India has many issues with us including transit, illegal immigration, cross border terrorism. The concerns are mutual, and have existed since the birth of Bangladesh.
While we may view our outstanding problems with great urgency in our bilateral relationship, India may not accord these the same priority as other problems it has at its domestic and international fronts. Bangladesh is not the only country in India’s neighbourhood; it has six other countries with which it shares borders -- some much bigger than Bangladesh.
But we have only one big neighbour, India, and we obsess way too much over this neighbour.
There have been two diametrically opposing sentiments that have ruled minds in Bangladesh since its birth. One is of gratitude and loyalty, and the other is suspicion and wariness. Gratitude and loyalty are easy to explain. These are rooted in India’s help during our liberation from Pakistan, and a general feeling that short of this help, Bangladesh probably would have remained still an idea.
Suspicion is harder to explain.
There are a number of reasons for this suspicion and wariness. Ironically, these sentiments also date back to the birth of Bangladesh when our newly liberated country saw Indian boots in the ground replacing those of Pakistan.
When the Pakistan army surrendered to India, suspicions arose if the victorious forces would ever leave Bangladesh. When they did leave (much earlier than expected at Bangbandhu’s request), sceptics still wondered if the new government would operate on its own and without India’s beckoning.
But even when the government began to function as a sovereign entity with Bangabandhu at the helm, cynicism about the country’s ability to shed Indian domination continued to mount in many quarters.
A number of factors contributed to this apprehension and distrust. First was the image of the government, which was really a continuation of the government in exile in India, except Bangabandhu.
It was difficult to sanitize the image of Indian patronage from this government as almost all the leaders had benefited from Indian help during their sojourn in India. To be fair to these leaders also, they were in a bind not to show their ingratitude by acting against India in speech or action.
Second is the Indian civilian presence in Bangladesh in the wake of relief operations in post liberation years. India was a major contributor to relief and rehabilitation efforts that time, helping with both men and materials.
Ironically, since a large part of this help came through non-government sources, there was large scale corruption in relief materials through collusion of Indian suppliers of food grains, building materials, clothing, etc.
A third and more perceptible cause was rampant smuggling of goods mostly to India in the initial years that led to deployment of army along the border by the government. Although untrue, people started to believe that smuggling was tolerated by India since it was a one-way traffic.
Along with these causes, some perceptible and other imperceptible, there was this propaganda of Indian domination resurrected by pro-Pakistan political elements who now played the communal card.
While the government tried its best to prevent the growing anti-Indian sentiment, inability to improve a fast falling economy and rampant corruption continued to strengthen the anti-government propaganda and the government’s India friendly image.
India “bashers” would finally have their day after the fall of Sheikh Mujib and its step-by-step replacement by Ziaur Rahman. Although the rise of Ziaur Rahman was primarily based on the political and economic failure of the previous government, the base that gave him political support consisted of elements that distrusted India and used communal division as a political weapon.
All anti-Indian feelings may not have been planted by the political forces that Ziaur Rahman corralled, but the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975 is a watershed in Indo-Bangladesh relations. Suspicion and cynicism in India’s attitude toward Bangladesh were given a new shape since then, which was one of distrust and fear.
But even Ziaur Rahman, as much as he and his politics may have engendered more suspicion and distrust of India because he wanted to shed once and for all the image of Indian patronage, realized later the importance of maintaining a friendly relationship with India. His subsequent efforts to minimize differences and solve outstanding disputes with two successive Indian governments show that in international relationships dialogue matters and keeping good a neighbourly relationship is a key to this.
We can choose our friends, but not neighbours.
But it is in the best interest of every nation to try to be on good and friendly terms with their neighbours, big or small. Bangladesh may be one twentieth in size of India and may have a 10th of India’s population. It is in India’s interest to keep Bangladesh sovereign and viable.
Our politicians, particularly those in the opposition, need to realize that our disputes with India cannot be resolved in a year or a few years. This is an evolving relationship and we need to be patient with our big neighbour. Teesta water-sharing, border disputes, transit issues, all of these cannot be expected to be solved in one or two meetings. These will take time.
At the same time, those at the helm of the government also need to be careful not to raise people’s expectations by making election promises.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.