Saga of Indian rice to Bangladesh!

Saga of Indian rice to Bangladesh!

Cyclone Sidr on the 15th November last year caused nightmare in Bangladesh. Ripping through the south western coast, killing thousands of people, demolishing houses, crops, and livestocks, the cyclone left a trail of devastation over thousands of square kilometres.

It is estimated that besides the death of more than 2,300 people in 23 districts and nearly 4,000 people injured, the cyclone has affected 887,000 families of 103 upazilas, killed 242,000 livestock and destroyed crops on 23,000 acres of land and flattened nearly three million houses.

Sympathies and assistance poured into Bangladesh for the victims from neighbours and international community. India’s External Affairs Minister came to Bangladesh and it was agreed that India would sell 5 lakh tons of rice to Bangladesh at $430 per tonne to meet its needs.
People of Bangladesh felt pleased that at a time of need, India came forward to assist Bangladesh.

But that sentiment steadily evaporated as the days passed on because rice from India had been seen to be made too difficult to reach Bangladesh through land borders, partly because of stoppage of India’s customs on export of non-basmati rice and partly because the price of rice in India reached $1,000 per tonne.

Although the ban or the price was not applicable to export rice for Bangladesh as agreed earlier, the conduct of Indian customs at the borders created confusion and some anger in the minds of people in Bangladesh. To many, it seemed that India’s customs department was independent of other agencies of the Union government.

Why was this problem of implementation?
Bangladeshi people were asking, among others, three questions:

Is it because of the lack of coordination between the agencies of the Union government in New Delhi? Or

Is it a deliberate attempt by Indian rice- traders to get more money by delaying export of rice to Bangladesh? Or

Is it the disagreement or rivalry between the traders of West Bengal and those from Delhi to capture the Bangladesh market that delayed reaching rice to Bangladesh?

We do not know the real story.

Whenever questions were asked to Indian officials, the standard reply was nothing was wrong and business continued as usual, even when the TV footage showed a line of trucks carrying rice was held at India’s land border stations. Bangladeshi people were obviously amused because the situation on the ground did not bear any relation with “nothing-wrong” statements.

The TV footage has created a perception among the majority in Bangladesh that India has put procedural obstacles in transporting rice to Bangladesh. Perception is very important than reality among ordinary people.

Bilateral relations are the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private manage relations between Bangladesh and India. Whether Indian traders or somebody else were responsible for the delay is not the point because the ultimate responsibility rests on the government to facilitate the smooth sale of rice to Bangladesh.

Friends of India in Bangladesh see it a great missed opportunity for India to create a positive image in Bangladesh. It is a pity that the Indian government authorities or its representatives did not make it clear to general public that Indian government had nothing to do in delaying the export of rice.

Indo-Bangladesh relations are complex one, vacillating between being very close at certain times and not so close at other times. The ups and downs of relationship appear to arise from different perception on each other’s policies by governments of the time. Added to this is the physical size of the two countries.

Bangladesh is placed into a dilemma because it cannot ignore powerful India and at the same time its closeness with asymmetrical identity, such as India, is felt like a “bear hug”, somewhat comparable to relations between Canada and the US, which a former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that living with the US is “like sleeping with an elephant, no matter how friendly and even tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”.

It cannot be denied that in some quarters there is an anti-India feeling in the country and so also in India, there exists among certain groups an anti-Bangladesh sentiment.

The anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh appears to be the manifestation of “small country syndrome”, just as a New Zealander has towards Australia or a Canadian towards the US. But anti-Bangladesh sentiment in India arises from a view that Bangladesh does not cooperate with India in many matters that are vital for India’s interests.

It is a pity that perception of India’s non-cooperation in sending rice to Bangladesh is likely to strengthen anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh.

There appears to be a contradiction in India’s behaviour within the region. While India considers itself the dominant power in South Asia, in bilateral relations it appears to believe in exacting equal benefits from its smaller neighbours on the principle of “eye for an eye”. India is aware that it is a regional power but it forgets that it has certain responsibility that arises from it.

The bilateral relations exist independently of governments and their policies. Mere good government-to-government relation is not enough because at the end of the day, people make or unmake governments. If perception of a country is poor to people, it has impact on the conduct of relations of government with that country.

Whether it is correct or not, the saga of sale of Indian rice to Bangladesh appears to have left a poor impression in Bangladesh. It may linger for some time. India seems to have lost credibility in certain quarters as a reliable trade partner for Bangladesh. Whoever is responsible for the perception, it does not help in fostering bilateral relations.

For India, there is no excuse for inadequate understanding of Bangladeshi people. Although there is goodwill for India in Bangladesh, four factors seems to work against it:
India’s lack of sensitivity of Bangladesh’s interests, misperception over India’s future role in South Asia, fear in Bangladesh of rise of extremist view of Hinduism (such as in Gujarat) through RSS, World Hindu Congress–allies of BJP, and negative sentiment for not resolving pending long-standing issues with Bangladesh.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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