Delhi to Dhaka, with love

Bangladesh is conscious of its contiguity with India... As the smaller of the two, Bangladeshi sensitivities are easily bruised

Looking back in the 40th year of independence of Bangladesh, the War of Liberation in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan can be militarily encapsulated into two stages, first as a predominantly low-intensity conflict of insurgency and terrorism by the Mukti Bahini, from around April to December of that year, and the next as a decisive, high-intensity conflict of two weeks, from December 3-16, in which the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force participated in support of the ongoing freedom struggle.

Opposing them in both stages were elements of the regular Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force, supported by a large body of armed civilian auxiliaries recruited locally and absorbed as Razakars, Mujahids, Ansars and the East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces. The subsidiary conflict between the Razakar force and the Mukti Bahini involved Bengalis on both sides and was ferociously fratricidal.
India shares its longest land border of 4,095 kms with Bangladesh, running contiguous with the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, with many shared commonalities of ethnicity, language and culture in each segment. It needs no reiteration that Indo-Bangladesh relations constitute an especially sensitive “handle with care” issue for India, in which the linkage of a common Bengali identity between the people of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal constitutes a very significant factor in the development of friendly relationships between the two countries. This must be capitalised to the fullest extent.
For its part, Pakistan will never forget that the sovereign country of Bangladesh was once its own eastern wing, neither will it forgive India for providing effective support to the liberation movement which culminated in the humiliating surrender of 93,000 troops on December 16, 1971, in Dhaka to the joint forces of Bangladesh and India. Pakistan has adopted “Badla for Bangladesh” as the guiding principle for its foreign policy vis-a-vis India, but realises that it is incapable of posing a credible military threat on its own without Chinese assistance. It has, therefore, selected the long war option of terrorism and low-intensity warfare to hit back at India. There are efforts to influence individuals in positions of authority in Bangladesh to support ties with Pakistan and facilitate the establishment of an infrastructure of sanctuaries, training facilities and provision of material aid for anti-Indian fundamentalist and tribal militant groups. India for its part must learn to cope with this unstated “Pakistan factor” which is present as an unseen background entity to erode goodwill for India and be prepared to forestall attempts to procrastinate and obstruct the timely progress of Indo-Bangladesh negotiations for amicable resolution of whatever issues are under consideration by both countries.
Bangladesh is acutely conscious of its contiguity with India and the overwhelming disparity between the two nations. As the smaller of the two, Bangladeshi sensitivities are easily bruised and irritated by even small acts of apparent thoughtlessness or discourtesy on India’s part no matter whether unintended or how rapidly remedied. A gaffe by Indian diplomacy or bureaucracy even at individual level can thus create an adverse impact completely disproportionate to the issues or functionaries involved, and with the potential to reverberate all the way to New Delhi or Dhaka. In this context the major faux pas during the two-day visit to Bangladesh by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2011 has had serious repercussions on India’s goodwill in that country.
An ideological battle for the soul of the country is being fought on the streets of Dhaka between supporters of the Awami League and those of fundamentalist organisations like the Jamaat Islami. The new generation in Bangladesh born after the liberation struggle in 1971 find it difficult to connect with the past and perceive only inequalities in the present equations between India and Bangladesh. Many among them are labelled as “Indian agents” if they display any positive sentiments towards this country. Pro-India groups amongst them find it difficult going in view of the total lack of progress in addressing contentious issues between the two countries like the Tipaimukh dam, sharing the waters of the Ganga and the Teesta rivers or the recent Indo-Bangladesh treaty on resolution of territorial enclaves within each other’s territories. Even the affair of the nondescript Moore Island in the estuary of the Haribhanga River in the Bay of Bengal carries weight out of all proportion to its size.
Though Islam is professed by the majority of the population in Bangladesh, the Awami League established secular principles in governance after the War of Liberation in 1971. But they were forced out of office after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 by a group of Bengali Army officers repatriated from Pakistan. The Awami League was followed by a chaotic series of governments who adopted a pro-Pakistan, anti-India and anti-minority stance to develop relationships with Saudi Arabia primarily to obtain aid. Nevertheless, the Awami League managed to retain its political foothold until Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Begum Hasina became Prime Minister in 1996 and again in 2009.
The fluctuating politics of Bangladesh are difficult to untangle within the space available here. Suffice to say that India must make more efforts with far more energy and diligence than at present towards proactively countering Pakistan influence in Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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