Does Begum Khaleda Zia step out of anti-India posture?

Does Begum Khaleda Zia step out of anti-India posture?

Bangladesh people have to grasp geo-political realities of the country. One can choose friends but not neighbours because geography dictates the neighbours. Bangladesh shares borders with only two countries-India and Myanmar .

India is not a neighbour only but surrounds Bangladesh except in the south east. This unique geographical position of India makes Bangladesh ’s interaction with other countries limited. Bangladesh cannot have a direct trade with Nepal and Bhutan because India ’s territory separates both countries from Bangladesh .

China has an uneasy relationship after the brief war in 1962 in which China defeated India . Both now contest the borders after the war and their soldiers face each other on the borders.

China ’s answer to India ’s refuge to Tibet ’s Dalai Lama in India is reportedly to keep restive the northeastern states, one (Arunachal Pradesh) of which China claims its territory. Bangladesh shares borders with the northeastern states and strategically Bangladesh is important to China .

Furthermore, Pakistan and China are good friends and the common bond is that both countries have territorial disputes with India and the territorial disputes do not admit easy solution.

One Indian security analyst reportedly believes that no other Asian country has ever supported and armed another Asian country as China did for Pakistan over the 40 years or more in such a consistent matter. Whether the statement is correct or not, China and Pakistan have demonstrated all weather- friendship towards each other.

India ’s stance under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi towards the rule of the founder of BNP, President Ziaur Rahman was tough. Indira Gandhi took hard line on all issues with Bangladesh and it was impossible to move forward on any issue through negotiation.

Some analysts say Indira Gandhi was wrong to identify the people of the country with a leader who emerged after the tragic event of 1975. Her hard line policies towards sharing of common rivers (the Ganges), the early opening of Farakka Barrage without sharing the Ganges waters, and disputed maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal annoyed Bangladesh people. An anti-India sentiment started to spread among people.

China recognized Bangladesh after the tragic event of August 15 1975 and President Zia realised that closer relations with India were not possible and found China as a “new friend” of Bangladesh . China ’s interest also was to keep friendly terms with Bangladesh , close neighbour to India , particularly to the northeastern states.

India’s motive for engagement with other parties:

Bangladesh is likely to go to polls late 2013 or early 2014. The term of the present government ends in January 2014. The history of elections in the country shows that no political party has returned to power for a consecutive second term.

It is reported India ’s intelligence found that the Sheikh Hasina government may lose out to political rivals, Bangladesh nationalist Party ( BNP) at the next parliamentary election in 2014 because trends now suggest that the popularity of ruling Awami League is dwindling fast due to various allegations of corruption and governance issues. This has added to India ‘s worry.

Therefore India could out lose significant strategic gains it has made in its relations with Bangladesh since 2009.

BNP with the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist forces could turn the clock back for India and throw it back to the 2001-2006 period when, under Begum Zia, Bangladesh became the source of activities inimical to the interests of India .

The bottom line for India is to find a friendly government emerging in Bangladesh after the next parliamentary election in 2014. India fears that a change of regime in Bangladesh might hamper the security cooperation, impacting on the internal security scenario.

Reaching out to the BNP or Ershad’s Jatiya Party is aimed at maintaining the present momentum in the bilateral relation, especially the security cooperation that has been a major success during the past few years. Whatever progress achieved must not be reversed by the change of government in Bangladesh .

The relationship between the two countries has seen major progress after the Awami League came in to power in 2009. It was with the help from Bangladesh that India could check insurgency in the North East, with the detention of many top leaders of various insurgent groups who were running their subversive activities across from the border.

The visit of leaders of other mainstream parties in Bangladesh provides opportunities for India to break the past prejudices and mend fences, laying a bond to bring people of both countries closer to each other. It could also lay foundation for a lasting and stable relationship with Bangladesh , not just confined to one party, Awami League.

BNP and India in the immediate past:

Although Begum Khaleda Zia had visited India as the prime minister of Bangladesh in 2006, discord between India and BNP began when in 2004, when 10 trucks full of arms were seized in Bangladesh , which, India suspected, were being smuggled into north-eastern parts of India to aid separatist groups.

Mounting misunderstanding and tension was caused by leveling allegations and counter-allegations on the presence of insurgents and separatists in each other country. This has put relations on severe strains as India ’s Prime Minister was reluctant to attend the proposed Summit in Dhaka , scheduled on 6-7 February, 2005 for security considerations

Some analysts say that the period was one of the lowest points in bilateral relations between these neighbours.

New Delhi visit of the BNP leader:

On 28th October, BNP Chairperson and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia visited India for a week which was important for both sides.

During her weeklong stay in India, Khaleda Zia met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, newly appointed Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari , besides Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon . The meetings provided each others’ perspective on bilateral relations at the highest political level.

During her visit, it is reported that Begum Khaleda Zia made a number of commitments to top officials of the Indian administration. She had assured New Delhi that the BNP would not allow Bangladesh territory to be used by terrorists to target India . She was quoted as saying by various media reports that transit should be provided to India “as part of the total connectivity of the region.”

Earlier, BNP was firmly averse to Bangladesh providing transit to India . Even on July 13, 2011, protesting the provision of transit to India was one of the many motives behind BNP’s mass hunger strike in Dhaka . Back then, Khaleda Zia had said, “We got independence by sacrificing our blood. We will never let the government give a corridor to India through our land. We will resist such an attempt.”

Observers say the statements of Begum Zia suggest a change in the thinking of her party. She took pragmatic and forward looking steps to repair BNP’s relations with India for national interests. And it is likely to turn into a major breakthrough in the India-Bangladesh relations, marking a new beginning in the relations.

The question is whether she will be able to maintain the changed policy as some of the right-wing politicians of BNP are not happy with the altered position. They may argue that “anti-India” stance sells better to voters who are disillusioned with India ’s failure of keeping promises with Bangladesh on core bilateral issues.

Some say that only the young generation of BNP leaders are open-minded and realise that national interests of Bangladesh appear to stand on two pillars: security and development Security does not mean only territorial security, it includes security in water, food, energy, health, environment and the people. Development includes not only economic growth but alleviation of poverty among people.

Both of them can be achieved through sub-regional and regional cooperation. And here India ’s cooperation plays a major way.

Given the above context, Bangladesh has to keep friendly relations with India , China and Myanmar so that Bangladesh can turn into a hub of economic activities through regional connectivity. Bangladesh has to maintain a delicate balance between India and China in its relations so that none is annoyed.

Why India is friendly to Awami League?

The Awami League was the political party that spearheaded the liberation struggle in 1971. During the struggle for independence of Bangladesh many Awami League leaders took refuge in India and had worked hand in hand with the Indian leaders. Many Indian leaders knew them personally.

Indian leaders feel more comfortable with the ideology of the Awami League Party which is committed to four main principles – nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism.

Other parties including BNP:

India is not friendly to other parties in Bangladesh because both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Zia and the Jatiya Party of President Ershad were comparatively new political parties as they were created after the birth of Bangladesh . Both political parties were formed by military persons when they were in power.

Both the parties attracted large number of retired bureaucrats and armed military personnel in their fold. The ideologies of both parties emphasised “Bangladeshi nationalism”-a term meaning Bengali culture tinged with Islamic values.

In the second term of Begum Zia’s rule (2001-06), observers believe BNP titled towards the right and its alliance with Jamaat –e-Islami did not help its image. There was a perception Bangladesh under BNP’s rule made an alliance with Pakistan and China against India . It suits both China and Pakistan but does it suit Bangladesh ?

Why India can’t keep promise with Bangladesh ?

In a real world, the power equation among the neighbours needs to be assessed objectively. The pertinent questions for Bangladesh in relation to the settlement of any issue with India appear to be as follows:

(a)Are there any compelling reasons for India to settle any issue? (b) Is there any country or a group of countries capable of exerting influence on India ? (c) Do the global big powers accept or acquiesce to the status quo? (d) Will Bangladesh obtain the support of the key countries in raising the issue as an agenda item at the UN General Assembly? and finally (e) what would be the quid pro quo for India or what India would get in return?

It is noted India is a federal state and the constituent states have their own political goals different from those of the Centre. It has been now a rarity that the New Delhi and these states have the same party in power.

The earlier period in which the Congress Party dominated the political scene over all India is over. New Delhi since 1991 has a coalition government with as many as 22 to 26 political parties from regions.

Bangladesh ’s pending issues in some way or other affect one of the five states which surround Bangladesh (West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram).

Unless the involved state and New Delhi agree, India ’s central government, irrespective of its political affiliations, will find itself in difficulty in fulfilling the promises made with Bangladesh . For example, the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty was signed with the active support of former chief minister of West Bengal , late Jyoti Basu.

West Bengal blocks anything that it fears would place it at a disadvantage vis a vis Bangladesh or the Indian northeast. Indeed, the attitude of West Bengal has been at divergence even from the north-eastern states which are yearning for access to the rest of the country. The Teesta water sharing between the two countries could not be signed because of the opposition from West Bengal .

This is a harsh reality which Bangladesh government, opposition political parties, media and people may not ignore.

At the next election in India in 2014, the Congress-led government may not be in power and either BJP-led coalition or a Third party coalition may hold power in New Delhi . In that case, the New Delhi government will again find it tough to meet its obligations with Bangladesh unless the affected states concur with the centre.

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

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