More Than Tagore, 1971 Or Hilsa
If the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was the first destination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has chosen Bangladesh. If the NDA government is serious about making a fresh start vis-à-vis Dhaka, then it has to make two major departures from the past.
First and foremost, any seasoned Bangladesh expert would agree that India does not have a Bangladesh policy but only a policy towards a particular political party in that country. Hence, the NDA should strike for a policy that is Dhaka-centric and not Awami League-focused. Ever since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, New Delhi’s policy revolved around Awami League and the bilateral relations were better when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and later on his daughter Sheikh Hasina, were in power. The Indo-Bangladeshi relations were in doldrums when other political forces were in power. After the introduction of multiparty elections in 1991, whenever the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Khaleda Zia was in power, the relations went frost.
It is widely recognised not just in Bangladesh but also within the country, that India has ‘favoured’ Hasina over Khaleda. It is true that whenever the Awami was in power, India managed to conclude agreements on many issues such as Chittagong or Ganges water sharing. Bangladesh is also more tuned to India’s security concerns when Hasina has been in power. Correspondingly, under the BNP relations were anything but good. When in office, Prime Minister Khaleda was extremely reluctant even to visit India. Despite this pattern or because of this, the NDA should avoid adopting a partisan position vis-à-vis Bangladesh. Indeed, since 1971 none of the Indian governments deviated from this pattern. Even during the previous NDA government, relations improved and waned depending upon which party was in power in Bangladesh.
This time, the situation is even more precarious. The main opposition party BNP and its ally Jamaat have boycotted the Jatiya Sansad elections held in January this year. Marred by boycott, protests and violence just over 51 per cent of the electorate took part in the polls. In the previous elections held in December 2009, the voter turnout was as high as 80 per cent. Hence, the legitimacy of the current Hasina government is far from resolved.
Moreover, India needs to recognise the ascendance of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its radicalism in Bangladesh. Jamaat and its brand of politics are more harmful to Bangladesh than to any outside powers. Yet, it is up to the people of Bangladesh to decide whether to embrace the Islamists or to mellow them down through electoral rejections. India needs to abandon its narrow preferences or blinkers and engage with all the political forces, including the Jamaat. While scope and levels of engagement should differ, New Delhi should not exclude any political force in Bangladesh.
The perceived preference for Awami also contributes to anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh especially during elections. Hence, while making Bangladesh as her first visit, Swaraj should reach out to all political forces in Bangladesh. This is easier said than done. In recent years, Indian leaders were unable to constructively engage with the BNP leaders. For instance, during President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit March last year, Khaleda cancelled her meeting at the last minute.
Second major focus of the NDA government should be the illegal migrants. People in the know agree to this problem in private but play ostrich in public. The estimates vary and some put it as high as 20 million. Except for those who live in a denial mode, a large-scale migration from Bangladesh is a public knowledge. Indian visas are difficult in Dhaka but crossing over the borders has been simpler, routine and even unending. Porous borders, political connivance and bureaucratic corruption facilitate daily flow of migrants and reports suggest that a large number of them have even acquired identities and official documents that make them full Indian citizens.
Despite courts declaring illegal migration as a ‘threat to national security’ of India, the identifying, let alone sending the illegal back, is herculean. Denial of the problem, thus, becomes the easier way-out. Some go to extent of depicting them as economic migrants and worse, undocumented workers. The political usefulness of the illegal migrants enable most political parties, especially in those in West Bengal, wipe up ethnic sentiments. As highlighted by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during the recent Lok Sabha elections, anti-migrants sentiments are seen as being anti-Bengali. Now that the elections are over, Prime Minister Modi should redefine the discourse and make a clear distinction between refugees and illlegals. While preparing to accept refugees of any faiths, India should draw the line against illegal migrants; not just from Bangladesh but also from other neighbouring countries. The conditions of Muslims in Myanmar, Christian Tamils in Sri Lanka or Shia Muslims in Pakistan are no better than the majority population in these countries. Making a clear distinction of the refugees and expressing opposition to all illegal entries into India becomes essential.
Once again this will not be easier. Dhaka, whether under Hasina or Khaleda, has always denied the illegal presence of its citizens in India. A formal admission of this would have forced them to act and even take them back from India. Therefore, it becomes all the more necessary for Swaraj to put the illegal migrants on the table. Even if no solution can be found immediately, it is essential that both countries recognise the problem and start preparing to deal with it.
In comparison to these two issues, others are relatively easier to solve and difficulties can be overcome is there is a political will in New Delhi. Problems of border demarcation, islets under each other’s possession or huge trade deficit in favour of India are less complicated. These require some sober and long-term thinking on the part of the Indian government. Some of them, of course, require Mamata start behaving like an elected leader rather than an activist. Water could be a major issue but this depends as much on nature as on the political will.
Thus, the key to reenergizing the bilateral relations rests on the NDA taking two critical steps: adopt a Dhaka-centric not Awami-centric policy and put the illegal migrants on the table. As they say, the Indo- Bangladeshi relations are more than Rabindranath Tagore, the 1971 war and the hilsa fish.
By P R Kumaraswamy
(The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University)