Neighbourhood watch

sukumar muralidharan | Updated on January 24, 2018

Zero filter: India viewsBangladesh as alimitless source ofunwelcomeimmigrants creatingethnic strife inthe North-EastRitu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu;THE HINDU

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

Recent bonhomie between India and Bangladesh is a poor camouflage for the mutual suspicion that stems from our constant indifference to land, water and border issues

Failing a late mood shift, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will land in Dhaka today as part of an all-too-rare bilateral visit to Bangladesh by an Indian Prime Minister. Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh involves a substantive agenda, again a relative rarity in relations between the neighbours. Banerjee was on the invitee list when Manmohan Singh visited as Prime Minister in 2011, but pulled out at the last moment, forcing an important river-water sharing agreement off the agenda.

That remains one neighbourly courtesy India has continued to deny, four decades since an agreement with Bangladesh promised a future of mutual harmony. The Sheikh Mujib-Indira Gandhi accord of 1974 was to come into effect on an exchange of instruments of ratification between the two sides. Bangladesh managed its end of the bargain without delay but India, then under the imperious Indira Gandhi, who had a comfortable majority in parliament and virtually all state governments under her thumb, fell short.

India then basked in an aura of parenthood built on the support rendered to Bangladesh through its liberation war and the final military coup de grace it administered to vanquish the oppressors. But the glow did not last long. Perceptions began mutating rapidly on both sides following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In India, Bangladesh soon came to be perceived as a teeming landmass of truculent people, an impediment to cementing the country’s complex Northeast into the nationalist topography. A nation that India liberated was seen to have transformed itself into a demographic time bomb, a limitless source of unwelcome immigrants stirring the ethnic cauldron in the Northeast, reducing it to a state of permanent strife.

In Bangladeshi perceptions, the neighbourhood leviathan went from being a potential partner working for the shared good, to an enveloping presence, wrapping the entire country in a far-from-benign territorial embrace. It was a neighbour that failed to show the large-heartedness appropriate to its imposing size. When called on to work out a comprehensive land, water and border agreement in a complex terrain, whose ecology did not readily adapt to arbitrarily drawn national borders, India constantly changed the subject. And while disavowing the unwelcome identification as a fount of illegal migrants, Bangladesh was also known to argue that population shifts would continue if land and water management issues were not settled.

India, meanwhile, continued its dogged vigil over the baleful legacy of Partition, which created a host of irregular features along the border, virtually enclosing several citizens of each country in the territory of the other, subjecting them to the hostility of neighbours and suspicious border guards. India’s Border Security Force (BSF), as documented in a Human Rights Watch report in 2010 and again by the Bangladesh campaign group Odhikar last month, became a ruthless enforcer, subjecting marginalised and desperately poor border communities to an arbitrary reign of excess and terror.

The Tin Bigha lease in 1992 was a beginning in the effort to set right the anomalies of borders inherited from Partition. In Opposition at the time, the BJP equated this very modest territorial adjustment to a variety of high treason. In craven confusion, the Congress government withdrew, allowing the rightwing veto to stand and severely limiting the hours through which Bangladeshis would be allowed transit through the corridor.

The alleged influx from Bangladesh has always remained an uncertainly quantified phenomenon, allowing for every manner of wild surmise to gain traction. Consultations to get a true measure of a serious humanitarian problem have been rare, though fiery rhetoric has been abundant. In December 2014, India’s Supreme Court reprised the theme of ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ that it first broached nine years before, and took upon itself the onus of monitoring the progress of the fencing project along the Bangladesh border.

Could an impenetrable fence be constructed along a stretch of over 4,000km, among the longest land and riverine borders in the world? That question has never seriously been addressed as the barbed wire fencing continues apace. Yet with a substantial part of the fencing completed, perhaps to the extent of 90 per cent in the Assam sector, an assessment of how it has impacted border communities could certainly be carried out.

Recent bonhomie is a poor camouflage for the mutual suspicion that lurks just under the surface. From India’s side, the overtures of recent times are an offshoot of its ‘look east’ policy, a recognition that the centre of gravity of global economic dynamics is shifting to Asia. India’s Northeast is regarded as a springboard for the new economic linkages with the east and having Bangladesh onside is vital to bringing this designated role to fruition.

Though eager to be rid of the constrictions of its encirclement by India, Bangladesh is unlikely to relent in the matter of transit rights without greater accommodation on water sharing. And there India’s larger ambitions remain stymied by the smaller agendas that its diverse mosaic of states brings to the table.

Bangladesh is keen to ensure that India remains well-disposed as it deals with bitter internal convulsions, centred around unresolved issues of history and national identity. If India demands a price for its goodwill, it could easily be represented within the polarities of Bangladeshi politics as a betrayal of national interests. Without sensitive handling, the rapprochement with the neighbour could then become a partisan time bomb that could damage the cause of a more friendly and peaceful subcontinent.

( Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla)

Published on June 05, 2015

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