Indo-Bangladesh Bonhomie Blows Away ‘Gaffe’
Indo-Bangladesh ties remain on a high note despite the so-called gaffe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to have made by making public his fears that as many as 25 per cent of Bangladeshis could be under the spell of anti-Indian outfits like Jamaat-e-Islami in cahoots with Pakistan’s ISI. The Prime Minister was made to look rather foolish after his “off-the-record” remarks to a select group of Indian editors were posted on the government’s own website and then withdrawn after being criticised as a howler. Perhaps it wasn’t a gaffe after all, which need not have been withdrawn. It was a statement of ground reality in the neighbouring country, which, by and large, is pretty friendly but does have a sizeable anti-Indian lobby.
Very possibly the Prime Minister’s fear is exaggerated as the Jamaat’s following may be of the order of 10 per cent rather than 25 per cent. After all, it won only two seats in the last general election. Most likely it was a cautionary alert to the friendly neighbour as also to authorities in India. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s blunt remarks on Pakistan’s involvement in export of terror to India and elsewhere did the UK no harm nor did he make any apology, retraction or withdrawal. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have been in good company had his media advisers not withdrawn the “gaffe”.
Refreshingly, however, Bangladesh government has taken the whole thing in good stride and the two countries are on the move to greater cooperation. Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s visit to Dhaka this month and Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visit earlier in May have gone very well in preparing the ground for a series of agreements expected to be signed during the Prime Minister’s visit in September. A number of projects are being taken up under the $1 billion line of credit offered to Bangladesh by India. Protocols for sharing of Teesta and Feni river waters and use of Mongla and Chittagong ports by Indian ships for mutual benefit are only a few signatures away. So is a border rectification deal for the transfer of adversely held enclaves under a long-delayed package on the lines of the 1974 Mujib-Indira land boundary agreement removing the irritant leftover from 1947 Partition days. As many as 130 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 95 Bangladeshi enclaves in India are up for exchange or transfer with perhaps a small net transfer of land in favour of Bangladesh.
Two power deals are at an advanced stage under which India would supply 250 MW electricity to Bangladesh at a concessional rate while another 250 MW would be supplied on terms to be agreed a little later. Electricity supply could begin from 2012 or early 2013. The Indian Supreme Court’s clearance this month for the export of Indian limestone from Meghalaya by the French industrial group Lafarge for its cement plant in Bangladesh is a timely boost to bilateral cooperation. Krishna’s visit also saw the signing of two agreements for entry of goods trucks from land-locked Bhutan into the territories of India and Bangladesh
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Dhaka later this month to receive a special award from Bangladesh government to mark her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi’s contribution to the liberation of Bangladesh is being billed as another highpoint in bilateral relations. “Sonia Gandhi wears many hats. She is a family member of Indira Gandhi who was our great friend during our war for freedom, (she is also) the president of Congress and chairperson of UPA. We are very much looking forward to her visit,” Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni said on the sidelines of talks with Mr Krishna.
While all this looks very promising for both countries, there are signs of unmistakable unease, even suspicion, among opposition parties of Bangladesh. The main opposition BNP’s leadership does not seem to be too happy either. Former foreign minister and BNP leader Morshed Khan adroitly worded his comment when he said that such remarks (of the Indian PM) would not help bilateral relations. “I think he has been misguided and given wrong information by different agencies or some international quarters.”
Fortunately, over the recent months Indian leaders, from Vice-President Ansari to Mr Krishna, have been meeting principal opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia while visiting Dhaka. It is extremely important that Bangladesh opposition is kept in the loop for lasting development of Indo-Bangladesh relations. Even Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami should be welcomed in the extended dialogue, especially after Jamaat leader Abdul Razaak’s “welcome” to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whom he complimented as “an honourable politician and economist” but whose “advisers are misleading him”. “We will never be shy of criticising India, but the Jamaat is not philosophically opposed to engaging with India.” Amen. If India can continue talking to Pakistan even after Mumbai 26/11, there should be no problem in holding a constructive dialogue with Jamaat too. All hands to the ship of cooperation.
Nonetheless, going by the history of the Jamaati and other fundamentalist elements, there is a real challenge, which needs to be recognised and met squarely. The politics of violence and terror in the name of religion are a reality in much of South Asia. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh re-emphasised his concern at another forum when he called terrorism by the name of cancer. “The scourge of terrorism has taken a huge toll on all our societies. It is a cancer that, if not checked, will consume us all. I would like to believe that we have the will and foresight to prevent such an outcome,” he warned while opening a conference of Speakers and parliamentarians of the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in New Delhi.
By Subhash Chopra