The author is former foreign secretary of India
Semi-confrontationist rhetoric has characterized the governmental and media discourse between India and Bangladesh over the last three or four months. The smug, inaccurate, conventional wisdom of Indian analysts has been that this was to be expected of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party government led by Khaleda Zia. That interaction between India and Bangladesh is acrimonious is a bit of an anti-climax because at least the government of India and some knowledgeable circles were not subject to the prejudice mentioned above. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was among the first Asian leaders to send a message of congratulations to Khaleda Zia when she came to power after the Bangladesh general elections of last year.
The message was followed by a visit to Dhaka by Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary and national security advisor to the prime minister. The objective was to convey to Khaleda Zia that the government of India did not suffer from any a priori value judgment about her India policies. He also conveyed India’s desire for a positive and meaningful relationship with Bangladesh, a relationship which would respect and serve the mutual interests of India and Bangladesh.
Mishra made a special point to say during his visit that India would not impose on Bangladesh any aspect of Indo-Bangladeshi relations as long as Bangladesh’s policies did not affect Indian security and stability.
The Indian foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, continued the process of high-level political interaction in line with his foreign policy assessment that India should give particular attention to its relations with its neighbours instead of marginalizing them as was happening during the dispensation of his predecessor. Sinha had detailed discussions on substantive issues with his Bangladesh counterpart, including those related to migration, terrorism, economic cooperation, and so on. The visit helped in reviving a good atmosphere for structuring bilateral relations. But since December 2002, relations have taken a negative turn.
The government of India became critical of Bangladesh over two crucial issues, accusing the government of Bangladesh of not cooperating on them. The first was about Bangladesh being a base for terrorist and subversive activities against India sponsored by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan. The second issue was about the government of Bangla- desh not taking any meaningful action to prevent the illegal migration of Bangladeshis to India. The deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, and senior home ministry officials issued a number of statements over the last six weeks affirming this accusation.
The situation was compounded by a fortnight-long confrontation between the Border Security Force of India and Bangladesh Rifles in the northern sector of the Bangladesh-India border where a number of Bangladeshis tried to cross over to India and were stopped by BSF troops. This group of Bangladeshis remained stranded in the no-man’s land for more than ten days with an armed confrontation between the BDR and BSF barely avoided. This particular crisis was resolved after a telephone conversation between Sinha and the Bangladesh foreign minister, Morshed Khan, followed by the latter’s visit to Delhi between February 13 and 16.
It is worthwhile to examine the substance of the two issues of controversy in the current phase of India-Bangladesh relations. As far as Bangladesh being a sanctuary for separatist terrorist movements in the Northeast is concerned, it is a phenomenon stretching back to more than a decade. The government of India had definite and foolproof information about training camps for these movements run by the ISI in collaboration with some segments of Bangladeshi intelligence agencies. India also had definite information about the sanctuaries and the banks in which separatist groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom and the Bodos had their accounts in Bangladesh.
Between 1991 and 1994, the then home secretary, N.N. Vohra and I, as foreign secretary, visited Dhaka and gave detailed information on this matter to our counterparts in the government of Bangladesh. There was a two-point response from Bangladesh to our presentation. About sanctuaries and bank accounts, the response was that they would investigate the matter and take remedial action for closing them down. As far as the existence of training camps was concerned, Bangladesh categorically denied the existence of such training camps and the activities of the Pakistan ISI.
The Indian government has also referred to the critical issue of large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh to India for nearly a decade and half. Bangladesh has repeatedly denied its occurrence.
Estimates are that between seven to nine million Bangladeshis have migrated to India and are illegal residents within Indian territory. The phenomenon of migration is a more complex one. The origins of such migration perhaps predated the creation of Bangladesh. Our governments in Assam in the Sixties encouraged the migration of Bangladeshi Muslims and smaller number of minorities into Assam, allowing them to merge with the population of Assam and giving them voting rights. This was a deliberate and narrow exercise in electoral politics. The chickens came home to roost in the anti-Bengali riots in Assam in the Sixties.
The second wave of such migration was during the Bangladesh war in 1971. The third wave consisted of Chakma tribals from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts migrating into Tripura and Mizoram and, to some extent, into Manipur. Here also local political leaders had an inclination to absorb these migrants for electoral purposes. But fortunately, things did not go out of control. There was also a separatist movement of these migrants receiving support from the Indian authorities for a brief period. Fortunately, the issue was resolved through negotiations and many of them went back to the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The last wave of migration is a continuous phenomenon. In all objectivity, one must acknowledge that the government of Bangladesh is not actively sponsoring this migration. The land-to -people ratio of Bangladesh is becoming increasingly critical. Social and economic conditions in Bangladesh, particularly in the rural areas, are bad and the people are subjected to extreme poverty and unemployment. The consequence is large groups of Bangladeshis seeking opportunities across the border for employment and survival.
This migratory movement has been going on for nearly two decades. While the Bangladesh government may not be sponsoring this illegal migration, it certainly is not inclined to take any purposeful steps to stop it for the obvious reason that it reduces its own socio-economic burden.
The levels of migration must have reached a point where it is destabilizing the demographic, social, ethnic and linguistic balance in the Indian states. Hence the government of India’s open articulation of the issue and more assertive stance on it. The solution does not lie in Indian accusations and Bangladeshi denials. The two governments should sit together and negotiate a practical solution. If regional economic cooperation arran- gements or sub-regional cooperation are to be in place, Bangladeshis could be given work permits for temporary residence arrangements, so that the migrants stand identified and do not become part of the political processes within India, which has obvious pernicious and negative implications for the Indian polity. Such a solution will take some time but some steps need to be initiated. The proposed arrangements should also include security considerations.
As far as Bangladesh being a base for anti-India terrorist activities goes, Bangladesh’s denials are not going to cut any ice. The involvement of Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies with the ISI is rooted in the Khaleda Zia government being in a coalition with the Jamat-e-Islami. The Jamat of Bangladesh has links with the Jamat and other Islamicist parties in Pakistan. Added to this is the undercurrent of Islamic affiliations and hostility towards India and therefore the reluctance to act decisively upon Indian concerns regarding terrorism.
The government of Bangladesh should realize that given the international campaign against terrorist violence, its credibility and internal stability depend on putting a stop to subversive activities against India within its own territory. Bangladesh should also realize that India is in a strong and convincing position to take counter-measures against terrorist activities sponsored by Pakistan from Bangla- desh. Bangladesh should also take note of the fact that fragmenting the northeastern states of India or the Indian Republic has been a continuing strategic objective of Pakistan’s policies since the early Sixties. Bangladesh’s being involved in such policies will unnecessarily identify Bangladesh with Pakistani policies, which is not good for Bangladesh’s security and for India-Bangladesh relations.
One cannot wish these issues away. They have to be tackled in a practical and peaceful manner through political means. It is a pity that neither government has come to grips with the prospects of cooperation for mutual benefit, the potential of which is enormous in the sectors of trade, investment, technology, transit, energy and the utilizing of water resources.
Purposive action to translate these prospects into reality is stymied not due to functional or practical reasons. There is no progress because Bangladesh remains a prisoner in some respects to the attitude and perceptions of its Pakistani past. And India is subject to the “we-did-so-much -for-you-and-you-have-behaved-in-a-negative-and-ungrateful-manner” syndrome. Space does not permit the listing of a number of other controversies which afflict India-Bangladesh relations and which really should not be points of contention. It is not only desirable but necessary that the two sit and reason together.