Silence is a major feature of diplomacy
When Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin in Finland a few years ago, there was a lot of fuss over his one-on-one session with the Russian leader. There shouldn’t have been anything amiss except that neither leader revealed much about what they discussed.
That too, isn’t unusual when two heads of state meet. The spanner in the works was delivered by the American media, followed by Democrats in suggesting there had been concessions given to the country that at the time was accused of influencing the 2016 presidential elections.
Putin went public in denying that his government had been involved in any shenanigans. He did not allude to whether certain Russian groups were complicit. For the next few weeks, the White House fought off demands that the interpreter, the only other person present at the meeting, be asked to testify before a House of Representatives committee. The US has a law whereby the president cannot provide inaccurate facts and figures on economic and security issues to the American people. Most other countries including Russia don’t.
Thereafter, horse trading of sorts took place and the matter was quietly swept under the carpet. Today, it is openly acknowledged that the “meddling” had taken place. This stops short of directly suggesting that the Russian government was behind it.
There is a distinctive divide in the way the US media reacts and reports on Trump’s statements and actions. He chooses to describe those that are more critical as generating “fake news.” That’s where lies the beauty of freedom. Their constitutional guarantee does come with an unwritten caveat. With freedom comes responsibility.
As is the case in the US and indeed, the world over, freedom is being taken to debatable proportions as the sources and information they provide to the media are increasingly turning out to be less reliable and at times “sexed up.”
Nearly two weeks after the Indian foreign secretary made a “sudden” visit to Bangladesh, the confusion over the purpose and outcome of his meetings continue, largely fuelled by the Indian media. They were the ones who used their sources to be first in reporting the visit, leaving ours with red faces. They were the first again to inform that a two-year roadmap for strategic cooperation, an offer for Oxford Covid-19 vaccines to be trialled in Bangladesh, and further avenues of connectivity between the two countries were discussed.
The visit was initially termed “official” and then “unofficial” going as far as to quote the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka. Again, our media was caught ham-handed. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen did not mention any two-year roadmap while talking to the local press. The more sensitive issue was that of Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
There was confusion over whether the meeting had taken place at all, though reports say that it had been postponed thrice. A source at the PMO is reported to have denied any such meeting. India’s media reported that it took place with only Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka Riva Ganguly present, and no one assisting the prime minister.
On return to India, Shringla has described his visit as “successful” and the media speculated that the message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been a gentle nudge to prevent Bangladesh from becoming too cosy with China.
Most of the information had to be leaked by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, given Indian press didn’t accompany their foreign secretary.
This despite the fact that the Bangladesh government has made no comment on the meeting with our prime minister. Any thoughts that the matter ended there were put paid to by a flurry of opinion pieces that went deeper. From revealing that Bangladesh was dissuaded from availing a $1 billion loan from China as far back as 2014, shortly after Modi took office, to insinuations that awarding Sylhet airport’s expansion project to China and not India had left India unhappy, the messages were clear.
Bangladesh’s bonhomie with China was upsetting a few stomachs. The proposed Chinese funding of Teesta river development is another sticking point -- that too for India that has promised over 10 years to share waters equitably and has failed to do so. The main stumbling block behind that purports to an internal difference of opinion between the centre and a state.
One section of the Indian press also highlighted that the “sudden” visit had been agreed by high officials of the two countries. If that is so, one wonders why Foreign Minister Abdul Momen was conspicuous through his absence from Dhaka.
Over the past 12 years, Bangladesh has enabled dream solutions to India by way of stamping out terrorist operations, and providing river, port, and road trans-shipment facilities to connect with its eastern states. In return, apart from a generous line of credit, most of which has only recently been disbursed, not much has been forthcoming.
The free road movement between Bangladesh, India, and Nepal has been floundering. The massive trade imbalance remains unresolved in spite of Dhaka’s repeated requests. The transit trade with Nepal and Bhutan is also stuck. The implications of the Citizen’s Act and National Register hasn’t been lost on Bangladesh. Why too, did India shelter one of Bangabandhu’s killers, Abdul Majed, for so long?
One opinion piece did a virtual running commentary on Shringla’s meeting with the prime minister, starting from how the security apparatuses were unshackled at Bangabhaban, including her initial comments, as well as highlighting that these were the first foreign visitors to have met her.
However, it is the opinion piece by Indian journalist Goutam Das, published on his Facebook account and reproduced by local daily Naya Diganta, that requires a quick riposte. In his article, Das has suggested that the 1/11 events were part of a deal by the US to placate India by having a pro government installed.
He questions the intent of the persons involved, and suggests that it was not in sync with the anti-Indian sentiments that exist.
The insinuation casts aspersions on the Awami League, disrespect to the voters that turned up in their numbers, and conveniently overlooks the obvious role of foreign diplomats who were shuttling between politicians from across the canvas at the time.
Silence is a major feature of diplomacy. It sends powerful messages -- mostly. At times, it can cause confusion. That it is from India we hear of a virtual meeting between the two foreign ministers of India and Bangladesh later this month suggests a disconnect with the local media.
Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.