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Bangladesh–India relations: Challenges and prospects

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Routledge Taylor & Francis Online


Given our historical and geopolitical realities, there is no reason why India and Bangladesh cannot adapt to these realities in achieving their common goals. These goals can best be achieved if pursued in a transparent manner and for mutual gains. One also needs to focus on winning public confidence for the sake of sustainability and, importantly, pursue these goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The test of dynamism of a foreign policy and its success lies in its ability to resolve outstanding issues and irritants, not in keeping them alive, writes Begum Khaleda Zia

The relations between Bangladesh and India are important and have a strong historic basis. The prospects for these relations to grow in strength are indeed enormous if they are pursued for mutual benefit and with mutual respect. Our geographical proximity, cultural affinity and shared history should form the parameters of our relations.

The challenges that confront policy makers, as well as the general public, aremostly due to negative legacies that may have their roots in our colonial past, where both our people were victims of the divide and rule policies of the Colonialists. This has created a sense of fear and distrust. There are forces in both of our societies who have played, and continue to play, on this fear psychosis to perpetuate mutual suspicion and thereby keep us apart. It is therefore imperative that we work together to lay a new foundation on which to build strong, broad-based, durable and cooperative ties, free from the thinking of the past, and generate greater trust amongst our people. In short, the need of the time is a changed mindset.

I think the first step in that direction is to sit down and address all our outstanding issues and seek mutually acceptable solutions through free and open discussions. The major issues that agitate the public mind in Bangladesh are the sharing of the waters of our common rivers, killing of unarmed people in the border areas and the resolutions of our boundary issues (one of the legacies of our colonised past). We must, at the same time, take into account the security concerns on both sides of the border and ensure that none shall be allowed to use our territories against the interest of the other. Seeking solutions to these burning questions has to be a matter of top priority.

In today’s post-ideological world, countries and governments are able to position themselves between what may appear to be conflicting goals without having to squander any of their perceived and real national interests. In any event, foreign policies and cross-border relations cannot remain static; they need to be dynamic. Given our historical and geopolitical realities, there is no reason why India and Bangladesh cannot adapt to these realities in achieving their common goals.

These goals can best be achieved if pursued in a transparent manner and for mutual gains. One also needs to focus on winning public confidence for the sake of sustainability and, importantly, pursue these goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The test of dynamism of a foreign policy and its success lies in its ability to resolve outstanding issues and irritants, not in keeping them alive. Unlike the issues that affect India’s relations with some of its other neighbours, the issues that involve Bangladesh are solvable.

It is important to realise that any positive and mutually beneficial outcome to the issues that currently impact on good neighbourly ties between Bangladesh and India can only generate favourable public opinion on both sides. The one thing that is needed most is genuine political will and an abiding interest in having a durable relationship and friendship based on transparency, mutual benefit and mutual respect. This is the overarching, and the underlining, factor.

Management of our borders

Bangladesh and India share more than 4,000 kilometres of land boundary. The manner in which this boundary was drawn by the departing British Raj leaves a lot to be desired. It has created enclaves of one country inside the other’s territory and lands in adverse possessions. Such uncharacteristic land boundary demarcation has created distortions and has impacted on people’s lives, especially in the border areas.We must resolve this distortion without any further delay.

This should be done with political will, keeping ground realities in mind and without displacement of people who have lived in those areas for generations. Technicalities emanating from the colonial past should not be allowed to interfere with a realistic resolution that meets the people’s aspirations and expectations. This also explains the large numbers and frequency of movement of people through this border, often without proper documentation.We should both endeavour to simplify cross-border movement of people when they have an economic purpose.

There are prevailing international laws, conventions and practices that guide movement of people along international boundaries. Such time-tested conventions should be followed in managing cross-border movements between our two countries. The management of our borders should reflect the nature of our relations. Killing of unarmed people on a regular basis is certainly not the answer.

Cooperation for combating terrorism

Terrorism and its threat has the potential of becoming a major problem for most of our countries today, if it has not become one already. Some of the terrorist threats are home-grown while others transcend international boundaries. Physical and structural mechanisms needed to combat this menace mean diversion of huge financial and material resources that otherwise could have been used for our much-needed development efforts. It also creates a sense of fear among our people. We all need to cooperate and work together to contain and eliminate it. There exist various mechanisms to form a regional approach to achieve this.

I believe the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism signed in Kathmandu in 1987 and the Additional Protocol to this Convention signed in Islamabad in 2004 provides the best and the most comprehensive institutional mechanism for taking a regional approach to this issue. I am indeed surprised that not much has been done to apply these two legal documents by our countries in moving effectively forward in our shared goal of fighting terrorism. Such cooperation must also extend to combating piracy, drug trafficking and human trafficking.

Regional cooperation

As everyone will remember, it was Bangladesh that first championed the cause of institutionalised regional cooperation in South Asia. It was initiated by Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman in 1979 when he wrote to all heads of states and governments in our region, emphasising the imperative need for regional economic cooperation to reinforce our individual efforts to improve the quality of life of our people. Overcoming cynics and sceptics, it was sheer perseverance by our political leaders that eventually led to the emergence of SAARC in 1985 in Dhaka. Although SAARC’s progress over the years has not been at a pace that one would have desired, it is nonetheless the only and most viable tool for regional cooperation on a whole range of economic and social issues.

All our countries continue to suffer from endemic poverty in varying degrees and we all still have a long way to go to reach the desired social indices. I am confident we can achieve these goals faster if we work together in a collective and collaborative spirit. The fact that more and more countries and international institutions have signed up for collaboration with SAARC is a strong testimony to its huge potential.

Looking east and connectivity

When we assumed office following a massive public mandate in 2001, our foreign policy featured a ‘Look East’ policy. This meant enhanced cooperation, bilaterally and regionally, with and among the countries of South Asia, South East Asia and the Far East, including China, Japan and Korea. It was a manifestation of Asia’s potential emergence as the world’s fastest growing economic region. This policy has brought rich dividends for all of us in terms of trade, economic integration and people-to-people contacts. We now need to work to develop connectivity amongst us through a network of road, rail, air and sea lanes that will link South Asia with South East Asia and the Far East, all the way to China, Japan and Korea. The benefits from this cannot be overemphasised.

Message for the people of India

My message for the people of India is one of friendship and understanding. Being immediate neighbours, we are destined to live with each other and we must do so in peace and harmony. We cannot mean any ill to each other; neither can we afford any malice between us. We must learn from our rich cultural heritage, enhance peopleto- people contact, work to resolve our differences and generate greater trust amongst our people. Sustained and open dialogue and discussions for our mutual interest and benefit should form part of the very core of our relationship. At the same time, respect for each other’s independence and sovereignty must be all-pervasive.

 

 

This article was published in Strategic Analysis, September-October 2012, Routledge Taylor & Francis Online. The item was also posted in The new Age BD

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