Monday, July 11, 2011

India-Bangladesh relations: Issues and Irritants

A partial list

Issues:
1) Water issues with Bangladesh -- Teesta and Feni rivers along with the festering lack of confidence due to a perceived Indian unilateral action at the Farakkha Barrage. There have been many incidents in the past such as with Tipaimukh where Bangladesh has openly helped planks in India (Manipur, specifically) to ensure the safety of its river flows. As China will continue to dam more of the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh will suffer the most. Plus, the high cyanide content in the surface water will ensure a huge burden on whatever limited potable water that is available. Global warming and the consequent rise in sea levels and pushing of Bangladeshis to upstream locations will ensure an even higher stress. Morally speaking, unbeknownst to much of India, there is a brewing water crisis evolving in not-so-slow-motion in Bangladesh that could become a potential water war in the not-so-near-future. A regional water-sharing agreement along the lines of Indus Water Treaty with India, China, Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand is the need of the hour, but the upper riparian in this matter will pursue a cold water war strategy unless forced to see reason.
2) Harboring of terrorists -- Various groups such as ULFA, NDFB, NSCN(IM), KLO, NLFT, ATTF etc. have been harbored in Bangladesh in the past and continue to be as we speak. The opposite case of Shanti Bahini is a moot point because as per the agreement with the Sh. Hasina government and the previous regimes, these have now been disbanded. It is in Bangladesh's interest to catch and hand over these terrorists as has happened in the recent past. This is just their duty, not an action that has to be seen in compassionate terms as they have been willingly harbored as pawns in a chess game.
3) Illegal immigration -- Bangladesh is one of the few countries (perhaps along with some regions of India) where population growth has not stabilized. With an area or an economy that is not expanding at a commensurate rate, this puts a massive stress on the available resources. In short, this problem cannot be handled by Bangladesh and often gets diverted to India, which borders it on three sides. In India, this problem is seen in terms of the illegal immigration issue. It is not a wishful or a fantastical conspiracy theory, but Demographic change in the border districts of West Bengal and Assam is a reality. It is more of a status quo in terms of politicians of different hues in West Bengal and Assam. There is really not much that can be done to fix this mess in the short-term, especially those who are already in. The fences are being built, but the progress is slow at best especially given the changing riverine border profile and natural calamities that lay to waste 2-3 years of hard work (e.g., Cyclone Aila). Just as with the border with Pakistan, maintaining the border fences is a continual task and not a once-in-a-life time event. Further, a BSF estimate shows that most of the illegal immigration is happening in the riverine territory than in fenced areas. Riverine structure make ~1/3 of the demarcated borders, so there is really not much that can be done except a huge vigil and raising multiple battalions of BSF. India needs to do more by seeking the judicial route in this matter vis-a-vis the implementation of the various stipulations under the IMDT Act that have been suspended. The case of D-Voters can be a test case in this matter. All this requires political will, unfortunate as it does not exist in India in a broad measure. Similarly, labor shortage cannot be wished away by grandiose claims to making Indians work harder.
4) Trans-shipment issues -- If Bangladesh wants to economically tie itself to the Indian growth engine, it has to see reason and enable trans-shipment of goods from India to Indian territories in the Northeast. A regional hub that helps Bhutan, East Nepal, parts of Burma and parts of Yunnan will only ensure the economic benefits for Bangladesh. Acting unilaterally and contrary to normative discourse as happened with the Asian Highway is only a fruitless path to hell. India (and especially parts of Tripura and Meghalaya) stand to gain a lot by having a shorter route to the Bay of Bengal and it should not be surprising that these states are at the forefront of the trans-shipment issue. But then, the concerns within the Indian establishment of its periphery better connected to foreign nations than to the mainland is not to be dismissed as flightful fancies of fear.
5) Sea boundary demarcation -- India and Bangladesh have reasonably wisened up to the possibility of joint exploration of contentious water blocks for oil exploration purposes. The same cannot be said about Burma and Bangladesh. There is an imminent possibility of a war between the trigger-happy (despite a numerically minority armed forces strength) Burmans and the Bangladeshis and India will be forced to pick sides rather than advise from a cautionary role.
6) Enclaves, adverse possessions and beyond -- Enclaves are pieces of territory contiguous and inside India (and Bangladesh) that are rightfully owned by the other Government. Adverse possessions are pieces of char (riverine) territory that are illegally occupied by the other Government. In terms of enclaves, we have the complicated of issue of even an enclave within an enclave within an enclave. Unfortunate as it is, this issue is best resolved by the future generations. Emotionally traumatic as is the case with people in these territories, there is really not much of a solution that is not zero-sum.

Irritants:
1) BSF is trigger-happy -- Whatever be the accusations against BSF, these deaths of smugglers of phenisidyl, cows, people, and merchandise under the illegal economy are dwarfed significantly by encounter deaths by the RAB. Not to compare apples with oranges, the BSF is doing a thankless job in a hostile environment and no amount of vilification is going to change course.
2) Power sector unification -- Not happening not only in the medium-term, but also in the long term. Bangladesh is a power deficient economy with a big anti-India bandwagon. The case of export of natural gas is also stymied by the same bandwagon. Anyone who denies the presence of this contingent has to only note the fact that even after 40 years of independence, people such as Golam Azam, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and the various Razakars are walking free in Bangladesh even today.
3) They will continue to hate us -- It is a fancy that Bangladesh can be unified into India as it stands today. It is another fancy that we should try. Even within India, there are multiple states where hatred to the government in Delhi is harbored in different forms and all it takes for this expression to come to the forefront is an incident of opportunism. Our neighbors will continue to hate us, because they hate the idea of India and the idea of India poses an existential question to them. Success of India results in further questions and as India succeeds more and more, questions become a comparison, then a crisis, and later a calamity. The twine will not meet and it is best accepted that they will not.
4) Treatment of minorities -- Unfortunate as it is, our policy (from Panchsheel to our secular polity to our non-interference as stated by our No-First Use) means that India really does not have much say in the internal affairs of other countries. Broadly speaking, while Hindus in India can and should have an empathy to the fellow Hindus of other countries, Constitutionally speaking, unless India amends its Constitution to become a Hindu nation with all the attendant baggage (reactions from other countries, etc.), we do not stand much in raising the issues of others on a priority basis. There is going to be no sea change in terms of priorities of the babus even if political tidings change on a democratic whim. All the above is true even if Bangladesh or even Pakistan can and often do raise issues on how India treats its minorities. The best retort to this matter is "India does not encourage meddling by other countries in its internal affairs nor does it meddle in the internal affairs of other countries."
5) Various cases in Bangladesh that are important to India in terms of their evolution -- the 10 truck arms-haul case, murder of SAMS Kibria, bomb thrown at Sh. Hasina, Pilkhana carnage trials, the 71 Razakar case. In India, it is normative to wait for decades to see a judicial light and to fruition the path of retribution for the victims, and it would be unfair to criticize Bangladesh in this matter. Nevertheless, important verdicts have been delivered in India on a priority basis despite the numerous stallings and stillbirths, and it would be expected that a question as basic as whether someone acted against Bangladeshi interests or not in the War of Independence would be settled early.
6) Easing of trade barriers -- Again these are matters that can be resolved under the stipulations of WTO, but it is not illegal under these stipulations to put para-tariff barriers because of quality and safety constraints. These are not institutional biases, but these are legalistic and every country pursues them. Even friends and allies pursue these measures, so there cannot be any special provisions for Bangladesh.
7) Internal politics in Bangladesh and West Bengal -- It is the policy instrument and historical baggage of Jamaat-e-Islami to hate kafir India. There is really not much to be done. Advising caution in expressing ground realities (especially if it comes from the PMO) does not solve problems or bring new solutions to the table. Further, India is a democrazy and everyone has a right to express ground realities as they perceive. Bangladesh has to seek its inner wisdom in expressing surprise at a noisy, chaotic and openly expressive India. Similarly, West Bengal and its politics are often tied to cater to its internal dynamics. The historical baggage of the region cannot be ignored at framing policy instruments or reacting to responses that have been arrived at after considerable thought by people who run the ship there.
8) Trade imbalances -- As India continues to get better at consuming its own raw materials and goods instead of exporting them (as is the case with cotton, cement raw materials, food grains etc.), there will be less that can be sourced from India. The reliability of India as a source of import for Bangladesh is contingent on ground realities of a growing and prosperous India. Bangladesh suffers a much higher imbalance vis-a-vis China than with India. Demonizing India while at the same time pandering to China does not augur well for the behavior of a rational nation. Surely, the negative list between India and Bangladesh have to go down, but then there are internal dynamics in India where different communities tend to lose their livelihoods if India silently accedes to Bangladeshi requests. Thus, it would be advisable for Bangladesh to understand these various dynamics instead of demonizing India for the lack of a strong reason.

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