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OP-ED: Friendship can’t mean servility

  • Published at 12:00 am August 6th, 2020
barbed wires border
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Formal and informal trade continues to be in India’s favour

Friendship between countries works both ways, with balance being the key. 

Dissonance is nothing new, not even among friendly nations. These are dealt with diplomatic nicety, maintaining protocol, and irritants are smoothed over across the table. Unfortunately, proxy disapprobation by India over how Bangladesh chooses to pursue its diplomacy is unwarranted, unfriendly, and akin to washing dirty linen in public. 

That the country chose a media blitz to press home their point of view leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The hollowness of the famed freedom of the press that has been bandied through the years, now lies exposed and bare. It adds to the growing allegations that the media is increasingly and sadly becoming a spokesman for the government under the steamroller of Modiism.

Their beef, the pun not intended, has been with a reaching out of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to improve relations through a phone call with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and an open castigation of our country’s taking advantage of China’s overtures of tariff benefits. In so doing, fingers have been pointed at so called “pro-Chinese and pro-Pakistan” elements in the PMO that have apparently gained the upper-hand over the pro-India lobby, thereby influencing decision-making. 

The flurry of reports began with what can at best be termed as stark interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The Indian media has chosen a fabricated report in the local daily Bhorer Kagoj that is so crass that it bites into the vestiges of patriotism and smells suspiciously of foreign sponsorship. 

The report in question goes out of the way to provide credence to an imaginary tiff over the supposed “inability” of the outgoing High Commissioner Riva Ganguli to obtain a farewell appointment with Sheikh Hasina despite four attempts. Bhorer Kagoj bases this on Indian media information, whereas the media quoted Bhorer Kagoj as the source. 

This led to a report in The Hindu that reportedly confirmed the information through a source in the Bangladesh High Commission in India. The headline was decidedly damaging and deprecatory, suggesting our prime minister had “failed” to meet the envoy. 

Too little, too late, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement saying the Dhaka High Commission of India had only sent one request for a meeting, that too in July. The point of reference was a meeting by the new High Commissioner of Pakistan with Foreign Minister Dr AK Momen. 

The positioning of the statement was as if favours were being done to Pakistan at the expense of India. This led to the Bangladesh government denying the allegation with a cryptic statement that we choose who to converse with or not. Envoys can always seek to meet our prime minister but that is her prerogative. The Indian report headline is therefore a downright insult.

Bhorer Kagoj has also been critical of an alleged slowdown of Indian funded projects since the Awami League swept back to power. Again, the daily cannot question the priorities of the government. The suggestion that Sylhet Airport’s expansion project awarded to the Chinese is in some way of concern to India’s security is sheer nonsense. 

If it were so, India had the channels to raise questions. Bhorer Kagoj can’t be their vanguard. That the Indian media should jump at such incompetent and nefarious reporting in a continuous flow is inexplicable.

India’s support in our War of Liberation can never be expounded enough. In return, Bangladesh never claimed any of the war-booty that was carted off at the time. There were little protests at the wanton stripping of equipment from jute-mills and emptying of university hostels. The generosity of almost fee-less transshipment allowing her to transport goods by road, rail, and waterways to the landlocked sister-states hasn’t hit the popularity charts. 

On the flip-side, resolution of border issues and the $2 billion Line of Credit has been well appreciated. 

Issues still remain that one hopes to be resolved in due course. The river water-sharing is grossly unfair and there’s no sight of the Teesta and other common river sharing agreements, despite assurances at the highest level. Ten years ago, India announced a raft of tariff concessions. 

That the items identified were mostly not in our basket hasn’t been re-looked at. On the contrary, export of several items has been stymied under anti-dumping protocols.

The current imbroglio is reflective of discontent. The National Register and Citizenship Act in India has refugee influx repercussions for Bangladesh. It is expected that we describe the Kashmir issue as being an “internal affair” of India. From a government perspective, it is a policy issue, no matter what public opinion is. 

And yet, we are expected to condemn the unfortunate death of the 20 soldiers in the border skirmish with China that puzzlingly isn’t an internal issue. The openly expressed dismay over our acquiring submarines from China and the so-far reluctance to buy Indian armaments are clear attempts at brow-beating Bangladesh, as is the acceptance of the tariff concessions by China, the twin-city concept, not to mention our arms purchases from that country.

Our prime minister has been snubbed repeatedly. From water-sharing, through the Citizenship Act, and now building the Ram Tower, our sentiments haven’t been taken into account. Denying her the standard protocol on her last visit, and the continuous murder of our citizens along the border aren’t viewed as being very friendly. Formal and informal trade continues to be disproportionately weighed in India’s favour. Sheikh Hasina knows what she is doing, and our policies, be it in diplomacy or trade are ours to decide on. 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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