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CROSS FIRE

Neighbours should ideally be friends in their own interest; but geopolitics does not always create ideal situations. The exchange of fire between India’s border security force and its Bangladeshi counterpart is an unfortunate testimony to the deteriorating relations between the two countries. The gunshots reflect the mutual suspicion and mistrust that have overshadowed their relations in recent months. The problem is that the firing was provoked by an incident about which the two sides have diametrically opposite viewpoints. The Indian side was trying to send back across the border fifty-odd Bangladeshis who were alleged to have been living in India illegally. Dhaka disowned them in the same spirit in which it had always denied any illegal migration of Bangladeshis to India. That New Delhi refuses to countenance Dhaka’s denials showed once again in the complaint by the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K. Advani, that nearly two million such Bangladeshis were living in India. The hardening of the Indian position is also evident in Mr Advani’s other — and far more serious — charge that Pakistan-backed terrorists are increasingly using Bangladesh as a base for their subversions in India. The attacks on the Indian Parliament in December, 2001 and on policemen outside the American Center in Calcutta a month later proved India’s concerns over terrorist threats to be realistic. International events should convince Dhaka that terrorism is a monster that devours its creator.

Yet, there were indications of a turnaround in bilateral relations between the two countries after the visit of India’s external affairs minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, to Dhaka last year. The two sides agreed to leave aside contentious issues such as illegal migration, repression of the Hindu minority and transit facilities for Indian goods through Bangladesh and promote cooperation in other areas. Mr Sinha also tried to allay Dhaka’s suspicion that the toughening of the Indian position was linked to the former’s refusal to export natural gas to India. The two sides followed up his initiative in a crucial round of trade negotiations, in which India agreed to lift the tariff barrier on Indian imports of thirty-one more Bangladeshi products . Even if the tariff relaxation did not fully satisfy Dhaka’s expectations, it was a move in the right direction. Even the recent firing across the border came within days of the first meeting of the India-Bang- ladesh joint working group in two years.The former Indian prime minister, Mr I.K. Gujral, was right when he suggested that the two sides had better bury confrontational rhetoric and return to “quiet diplomacy”.

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