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India-Bangladesh: Sins of Omission & Commission

Aparna Pande

On June 29, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an off-the-record meeting with various editors stated that “at least a quarter” of Bangladesh’s population “swear by the Jamiat-e-Islami” and “are very anti-Indian” and “are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI.” In a faux pas, these remarks were posted on the Prime Ministers’ Office (PMO) website for almost 30 hours before they were edited out.

A massive damage control exercise was launched soon after with both Prime Minister Singh and Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna speaking with their counterparts to lower the tensions. Mr Krishna is scheduled to visit Bangladesh next week and Ms Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, in end-July.

It is said that you can choose your friends but not your relatives. In the same way, a country can choose its allies but it cannot choose its neighbors. And like in the former example it is not the ties of blood that make or break the relationship, it is the sins of omission and commission that do so. An analysis of Indo-Bangla ties in the light of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent remarks is critical.

Modern India has had a long and checkered history with all its South Asian neighbors. It is unique in the sense that India is the only South Asian country which shares a border with almost every other country in the region. Further, India has border disputes and tensions with all its neighbors, with the exception of Maldives and Bhutan.

Despite the legacy of 1971, when India helped the caesarean birth of Bangladesh, India’s ties with the country have been tenuous. The border conflict between India and Bangladesh is a legacy of the border dispute between India and Pakistan. Tied in to the border aspect is the issue of illegal immigration into India from Bangladesh. The entry of mainly Muslim immigrants into a mainly non-Muslim north east has contributed to riots in the region as well as ethnic tensions, especially in Assam.

India and Pakistan were able to resolve the Indus Waters Dispute in 1960. However, Bangladesh inherited the water dispute related to the two rivers it shares with India—the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. In recent months attempts have been made by the Awami League-led Sheikh Hasina Wajid government and the Congress-led Manmohan Singh administration to try to resolve the water related disputes.

Further, Sheikh Hasina Wajid and her party, the Awami League, have always been sympathetic and pro-India. Not only has Bangladesh tried to curb the use of its territory by anti-India insurgents but a few months ago Bangladesh even turned over the top leadership of the ULFA—United Liberation Front of Asom.

While Bangladesh has been stable and democratic for the last few years, New Delhi has always viewed any internal political turbulence and erosion of democracy as a matter of concern. The gradual rise of Islamist parties and groups, especially of the radical hue, during the 1980s-1990s was not looked upon favorably by India. However, in the 2008 elections the secular Awami League won by a landslide majority and the Islamist parties in Bangladesh—like their counterparts in Pakistan—have never won more than 5% of the votes. Hence, there is a need for more nuanced engagement, rather than black and white when India deals with Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, Indian foreign policy mandarins and analysts have widely differing views on how India should behave towards its South Asian neighbors.

For realists not only can India “not help its size or strength,” but “we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” So one might as well do what one has to do as one is going to be blamed anyway. The realists also believe that India has been a weak state and has let its neighbors take advantage of this weakness.

An extreme version of the realist view—or that of the hawks—was the so-called “Indira doctrine” whose key principles were that no foreign power would be allowed to cross the Himalayas or allowed to interfere in South Asia. In some ways it was akin to America’s Monroe Doctrine about pre-eminence in the surrounding region.

More moderate versions of the realist doctrine assert that India, by virtue of being the biggest state in South Asia, should be generous to its neighbors on economic and cultural issues. However, on the political and security front it must be firm. Thus unilateral removal of trade barriers or tariffs is acceptable as long as there is no cross-border terrorism or illegal immigration.

According to the liberals or doves, as the larger country and as part of the same civilizational heritage, India must be ready to make concessions without a quid pro quo. The best illustration of this view was the “Gujral doctrine,” which laid emphasis on the need for good faith and trust as the basis of India’s relations with its smaller South Asian neighbors.

India’s relations with all its neighbors, including Bangladesh, represent a history of omission and commission. Just as India is not to blame for all the problems, it cannot fully be absolved either.

It is said that “gratitude” is often the worst cross to bear. With Bangladesh, maybe that is what India needs to keep in mind. 1971 has passed and maybe that is the way Indian policy makers should look at it and not hope that after thirty-six years they will still be treated as “heroes” or “deliverers.”

Closer economic ties and people to people relations would help India’s image at that level. Along with this there is also a need for stricter border control as well as the need to enforce strict security measures.
India is the largest country in South Asia and just as no one likes big brothers, so at one level there will always be a certain resentment felt by India’s smaller neighbors. However, if the bigger brother watches where he walks and tries not to tread on the feet of the siblings it is possible to build a harmonious relationship.

Premier Manmohan Singh is extremely careful in what he says and most likely did not realize that his off-the-record remarks will be printed in public. The moral of the story is, however, that Indian leaders need to understand that as the big power in the region — and as an emerging great power — they need to be more careful about what they say and how it might be construed if it is ever released in the public.

Under the current Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajid, India has a historic opportunity to repair its relations. Bangladesh is important to India not only for economic but also security reasons. Further, with a rising presence of China in the region it is vital that in its relations with its immediate neighbors, India refrain from acting or being perceived as a hegemon.

India is a rapidly expanding economy and this economic growth can be shared with its neighbors. As a member of the South Asian community, India has a geographical responsibility and maybe even a civilizational responsibility to make its neighbors feel respected and cherished. It must avoid actions that can be construed as bullying. It is only if India has better relations with its neighbors that it will be able to rise out of the region and be able to play its role in Asia and the world.

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