Bangladesh and India should be excellent neighbours


by Fakhruddin Ahmed

BANGLADESH and India should be excellent neighbours. Without India’s assistance in 1971, Bangladesh’s independence would have been delayed. Indians, especially the West Bengalis, actively supported Bangladesh’s Liberation War, and hosted thousands of Bangladeshi refugees. Indian soldiers died liberating Bangladesh. Therefore, India should be the most popular nation in Bangladesh. It was, initially.

Relations soured subsequently because of India’s big brother attitude. Bangladeshis are simple folks, but, when pushed and shoved they turn into tigers. Just ask the Pakistanis! Bangladeshis believe in Rabindranath Thakur’s maxim: “Achhe Bol Durbolero” (The weak, too, have power).

Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides by India.  India has constructed barbed wire fences along the border. Those are killer fences. Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) have killed many Bangladeshis near those fences over the years.

The fences stop illegal immigration, we are told.  There is enormous population pressure in Bangladesh. Historically, fertile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), the bread basket of India, had the highest population density in India. Because of the proximity to the sea, people from East Bengal were well known for migrating not only to the rest of India, but also the rest of the world.

My relatives around Feni lost vast swaths of land to India because of partition. India (1,222, 559 sq. miles) is roughly 22 times bigger than land-starved Bangladesh (56, 980 sq. miles). Yet, India fights Bangladesh tooth and nail for every inch of disputed land.  How about some elder brotherly generosity?

Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the British, 111 enclaves in India and 55 in Bangladesh need to be exchanged. The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was signed by both countries, and ratified by Bangladesh in 1974. Forty years on, India is yet to ratify it.

 In 2011, Premier Manmohan Singh was stood up by the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee, who refused to accompany him to Bangladesh to sign the Teesta river water sharing agreement. One hopes that Mamata will show some mamata for her thirsty East Bengali cousins, and agree to share Teesta waters 50/50. Every nation needs water to survive. From many of the 53 rivers that cross into Bangladesh from India, India siphons off water before the rivers enter Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s biggest worry is India’s plan to link major rivers flowing from the Himalayas, and divert them south to India’s drought-prone areas. This will transform Bangladesh from a fertile land into a waste land. It will threaten the livelihoods of more than 100 million Bangladeshis downstream; 80% of Bangladesh’s 20 million small farmers grow rice and depend on that water.

India’s water diversion has already devastated Bangladesh. The Farakka Barrage, built across the Ganges 11 miles from the Bangladeshi border in 1974, diverts around 40,000 cusec of water from the Ganges to the Hoogly River, reducing the flow of the Ganges (known as the Padma in Bangladesh) downstream by 50% to 90%.  Consequently, hitherto fertile lands have turned into deserts, rivers have become un-navigable, and salt water has invaded pristine fertile lands.

Indian barrages, canals, reservoirs and national water grids are slowly strangling Bangladesh. The mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, needs fresh water to survive. Because of the Farakka Barrage, fresh water is unable to reach it, and the rivers are silting dangerously.

India’s decision to build 16 more barrages, one in every 100 kilometres of the Ganges, would ultimately kill the river and spell ecological and farming disasters for Bangladesh.  Under international law, diverting water from the upper riparian without consulting the downstream nation is illegal.

Transit is Bangladesh’s only trump card. Granting transit rights to India would be a monumental sacrifice for Bangladesh. India must compensate Bangladesh with at least twelve major concessions in exchange, starting with a corridor for Nepal and Bhutan to ship their goods through Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is eager to cooperate with India to eliminate terrorism. As the recent Burdwan incident showed, Bangladeshi terrorists also use Indian territory to carry out terrorism in Bangladesh.

As the leader of the subcontinent, India must set an example. Yet, in 2002 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat under the false pretext that they had set a train full of Hindu pilgrims on fire, while the government did nothing. The New York Times reported in October: “No serious official effort has been made to assess the lot of India’s Muslims since the publication in 2006 of a study ordered by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and seats in politics. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school.”  In May, the same paper reported that landlords refuse to rent properties to Muslims in major Indian cities.

India and Bangladesh are natural allies. We share the same culture, culinary traditions and ethnicity. We are proud of each other’s achievements. Even during the Pakistani period, Bangladeshis rooted for the Indian cricket team. Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi (among others) provided our cultural education. If India resolves the outstanding issues between the two neighbours with some elder brotherly generosity, it will find Bangladesh’s outstretched hand waiting.

Source: The Daily Star