The border issue has once again come up in the context of Assam. India should adopt a measured approach.
The Assam problem should be viewed in the context of India-Bangladesh ties, which have fortunately taken a turn for the better. It would be instructive to go back in time in this regard.
After having agreed to demarcate the land boundary between India and Bangladesh to fulfil commitments made by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974, New Delhi is now being told by political parties in West Bengal and Assam that as 35,000 people in Indian enclaves, who have no passports or identity papers and have no great wish to leave their homes, will face problems, any Constitutional amendments to implement the border agreement, will be opposed.
It is important for national parties to agree to ensure that this Constitutional amendment is passed, especially as there is a national consensus on improving relations with Bangladesh. L.K. Advani had observed that the BJP’s campaign against illegal immigration from Bangladesh in no way detracts from its oft-stated desire “to see friendly and cooperative relations as befits two countries whose shared past far outweighs certain differences created in recent times”.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Ever since the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina was swept to power in December 2008, winning 230 out of 299 Parliamentary seats, the Bangladesh leader has spared no effort to improve ties with India.
The 2008 electoral victory was all the more creditable as she had faced persecution and trumped-up criminal charges by her political rivals. Interestingly, the judiciary in Bangladesh showed far greater maturity than its counterpart in Pakistan, in dealing with politically motivated charges. Significantly, when Bangladesh was under emergency rule from January 11, 2007, the army chose not to impose martial law and the de facto military ruler, General Moeen U. Ahmed, presided over elections that were largely free and fair. The minds of the present generation of Bangladeshi military officers have not been poisoned by the venom and hate that are integral to the mindset of Pakistani army officers. This is a factor that India will have to bear in mind.
The chasm between the ruling dispensations in Bangladesh — the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League and the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — is very wide. While the Awami league has an abiding commitment to secularism, it was General Zia Ur Rehman, the founder of the BNP, who removed the secular provisions of the country’s first constitution.
Moreover, Khaleda Zia has a known propensity for encouraging the use of Bangladeshi territory for separatist and Islamist violence against India and for giving the ISI a free hand to operate against India. Sheikh Hasina, however, has been a regular target of extremist anti-Indian groups. There is evidence confirming that the 2004 assassination attempt against her involved the Al Qaeda and members of the BNP who were linked to the Bangladesh chapter of the Lashkar e Taiba and the Harkat ul Jihad ul Islami (HUJI).
Sheikh Hasina has faced a virulent propaganda, because of allegedly “selling out” to India. Pro-Pakistani elements in the country have not been pleased by the manner in which she has firmly dealt with cadres of separatist Indian insurgent groups such as ULFA and taken on Islamist terror outfits such as the HUJI. India, in turn, has reciprocated, stressing cultural affinities in language, music, art, poetry and literature.
The India-Bangladesh relationship gained momentum with the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka last year.
Tariff barriers on imports from Bangladesh, including most importantly on textiles, have been removed, border-management procedures streamlined and a credit of $1 billion extended for development and infrastructure projects in Bangladesh.
An important aim has been to create an environment wherein Bangladesh becomes an active partner in promoting access to our North-Eastern States. Like elsewhere in the world, Indian economic assistance projects in Bangladesh are implemented more slowly than projects undertaken by China. This needs to be addressed. India should ensure that as promised, 500 MW of electricity is transmitted to Bangladesh by the summer of 2013.
The two most sensitive issues in Bangladesh are those involving sharing of river waters and demarcation and administration of the common land borders.
In April 1977, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram visited Dhaka for finalising an interim accord for sharing of Farakka waters. Ram, who spoke fluent Bengali, stopped en route in Kolkata to consult West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, before he inked the accord in Dhaka.
This accord was later approved by the Union Cabinet, despite objections from Charan Singh. Similarly, Prime Minister Inder Gujral held extensive discussions and even directly involved West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu in finalising the Farakka Accord of 1997.
But one of the most embarrassing diplomatic fiascos that India has faced arose when the current West Bengal Chief Minister torpedoed an agreement that New Delhi and Dhaka had finalised on the sharing of the Teesta waters last year. It is difficult to apportion blame for this fiasco, as there are differing versions about the extent of consultations between New Delhi and Kolkata. But ways have to be found to address this issue.
Has anyone examined the implications of not fulfilling our commitments on the political standing and stability of a friendly Government headed by Sheikh Hasina that has acted courageously against terrorist groups waging war against India?
It is imperative for the Union Government to fulfil commitments made to Bangladesh, rather than succumb to the “compulsions of coalition politics”.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)