Modi’s visit, the LBA and the Berlin Wall

The BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Photograph: AP

by M. Serajul Islam

Narendra Modi thought he had hit bull’s eye by comparing the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) ratification to the breakdown of the Berlin Wall (BW) on the eve of his maiden visit to Bangladesh. The professional diplomats at the South Block are extremely competent by world standard. Therefore the comparison fraught with so many problems that became obvious as soon as it was made could not have come from them. It is possible that this comparison was the outcome of the newfound twittering habit of the Indian Prime Minister. Tweeter, as readers are aware, encourages those who use this social media to express views spontaneously without too much consideration to consequences. And Narendra Modi is quite a Tweeter buff.

The comparison of the LBA to the breakdown of the BW was indeed a faux pas that anyone revisiting the history of the BW in the context of LBA would find without any effort. In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan on a visit to West Berlin had made his now famous challenge to the Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev to bring down the Berlin Wall, which then was the most infamous symbol of Communism’s anti-democratic foundations. The Wall was built by Communist East Germany to stop defections from East Berlin and East Germany to freedom. President Reagan’s famous call to President Gorbachev “Tear down this wall” still resonates in the hearts of all who aspire for democracy.

Is it a faux pas?
The LBA is the 1974 Agreement that was reached between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to finalize (a) the small but un-demarcated portions of Bangladesh-India international border; (b) exchange Bangladeshi enclaves in India for Indian enclaves in Bangladesh; and (c) exchange land in adverse possession of each other. There are no issues in that Agreement comparable in any way to the BW. The problems that LBA attempted to solve were those India inherited from the British and in case of Bangladesh, also from the British through the Pakistan. In 1974, both India and Bangladesh were functioning democracies. In fact, in 1971, Bangladesh had sacrificed the blood of hundreds of thousands for freedom and democracy.
Therefore the LBA was neither necessitated nor influenced for flowering of democracy but for correcting historical errors left by the British. Thereafter, it was democratic India that had for the next 41 years refused to correct the historical errors of the 1947 partition and thereby left hundreds of thousands of people stateless and suffering from inhuman problems. Bangladesh had handed to India Berubari, the biggest of the enclaves as a mark of its sincerity and commitment to bring to an end of the human tragedies that the British had left within two months of the signing of the 1974 LBA,
There is a BW like issue embedded in the Bangladesh-India international border but different from what Narendra Modi in his spontaneous LBA-BW remark tried to convey, perhaps inadvertently. Between 1974 to present, India has constructed on the 2545-mile long Bangladesh-India border the barbed wire fence that has literally caged Bangladesh. In case of the BW, East Germany had built the cage; in case of the barbed wire fence, it is India that built it to cage Bangladesh. In his excitement, Narendra Modi had also forgotten his claim made last year during the Indian elections that millions of Bangladeshis who illegally crossed to India before the barbed wire fence was built would be “pushed back” to Bangladesh unilaterally from day one of his government.

Modi was 41 years too late
The LBA-BW comparison was also insensitive from Bangladesh’s viewpoint. It is true that the LBA will be beneficial for Bangladesh. It has streamlined the remaining 6.1km of Bangladesh-India border that had for decades remained un-demarcated. It has also led to exchange of enclaves in which Bangladesh will receive from India 111 enclaves amounting to 17,160 acres and will give to India 51 enclaves amounting to 7,110 acres. Under land in adverse possession, India will receive 2,777 acres and Bangladesh 2,267 acres. And of course, the LBA has ended the miseries of thousands of individuals on either side of the international divide because they had no citizenship to make any meaning out of their lives.
However, there are other elements in the LBA for which many Bangladeshis do not see its implementation in the way that Modi tried to convey. In such a perception, they see little to be as excited, least of all to believe that it should be compared to the most important historic event for democracy in recent history, namely the tearing down of the BW. The LBA is an agreement that India should have implemented long time ago. In fact, Narendra Modi came to Dhaka to deliver it 41 years too late. Therefore, instead of trying to excite Bangladesh his way, he should have tendered to the people of Bangladesh an apology on his country’s behalf for this inordinate delay.
The more important and sentimental issue related to the Bangladesh-India land boundary is the issue of deaths of Bangladeshi nationals at the hands of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Global Post, an online news organization in the US that collaborates with the highly credible Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) had the following to state about the barbed wire fence in a write up in 2012: “Dubbed the wall of death by locals, the 4,000 km barrier spans the length of the fifth-longest border in the world, and is manned by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), whose guards kill both Bangladeshis and Indians with impunity.”

Has “India factor” dissipated?
The deaths on the border have continued unabated while India strengthened the barbed wire fencing. The LBA is neither expected nor intended to have any impact on the unfortunate realities that exist in the Bangladesh-India border.
The case of Felani, the teenager who was shot dead by the BSF in January 2011 and kept hanging on the fence touched the psyche of everyone in Bangladesh. India so far has not satisfied Bangladesh on the inhuman killings in the border. Narendra Modi’s reference to the LBA as the tearing down of the BW therefore resonated not what Narendra Modi expected or wanted but just the opposite. Narendra Modi, with little experience in Bangladesh-India relations was perhaps unaware of sentiments in Bangladesh about the senseless border killings, of the Felani tragedy and thus saw LBA as an issue relevant to the tearing down of the BW.
Narendra Modi perhaps was also not prepared to find that the “India factor” or the strategy of Bangladesh political parties led by the BNP in using India-bashing for political objectives totally absent for the first time in the relations of the two countries. He must also have taken note of the fact the “India factor” has not nevertheless dissipated in the people. Thus the quintessential politician that he is, he instinctively felt the need to reach out to the people of Bangladesh for long term and sustainable India-Bangladesh relations. Perhaps his reference to the LBA in the context of the BW was an effort to do that. However it was counter-productive because he made the reference spontaneously and failed to see it in the context of the history of Bangladesh-India relations of which he may not be well aware.
Nevertheless it is the thought that matters. His comparison of LBA to breaking the BW was a sincere one. He knew that he had no worries from the ruling party or the BNP that New Delhi treated as the real opposition in acknowledgement of political reality in Bangladesh over the expressed wishes of the Awami League.

NM’s unenviable position
In fact, he found himself in an enviable position that even Indira Gandhi did not find herself when she came to Dhaka in March 1972 soon after helping Bangladesh win independence in 1971. Narendra Modi could have asked for whatever New Delhi wanted including the much sought after land transit without Dhaka demanding the Teesta for which Manmohon Singh was treated shabbily on his 2011 visit. In fact, it was the Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi who defended India on the Teesta; that it needed time and that Bangladesh and India were talking behind the scene to resolve the matter!
New Delhi, instead, withheld Teesta and at the same time did not pressure Dhaka to sign the additional protocol for the land transit. It was deliberate. New Delhi could have easily given Bangladesh the Teesta deal because (a) Mamata Banarjee politically has no strength to oppose the BJP at present; (b) West Bengal needs Centre’s favour for its current precarious financial fortunes; and (c) The Centre has the constitutional power for signing agreement on an international river with or without the consent of a state over which that international river passes.
It did not do so because in the current state of Bangladesh’s politics, Teesta for land transit while pleasing the Awami League would have had more people in Bangladesh opposed to India. Surely, Narendra Modi’s advisers while no doubt excited with both AL and BNP willing to be on the right side of New Delhi, were also concerned with the palpably visible lack of enthusiasm for the Indian Prime Minister’s visit and the reasons for it.

Delhi is not in a hurry
Narendra Modi was silent over the LBA/BW issue while in Dhaka. Instead he laid the foundations for land transit without taking it aware that Bangladesh’s roads are far from ready to implement land transit now. Thus India signed a number of MOUs for financing construction of roads with Indian funds to be provided on soft terms to prepare the country for use by India once the land transit agreement would be signed. India therefore has given itself time for the people of Bangladesh to come around and join the AL and the BNP and accept India as a friend.
And that was also a reason why Narendra Modi went against the wishes of the AL and met Khaleda Zia. Therefore while he started the visit with an insensitive LBA-BW comment, he ended it with clear message that New Delhi is in no hurry in bagging its interests in Bangladesh. Now that both the major parties in Bangladesh have come on board for friendly relations with India, India would like the people of Bangladesh to be on board too for building bilateral relations that would be long-term and mutually beneficial for the peoples of the two countries. Therefore his implicit message has been for democracy so that the people of Bangladesh also could become a stakeholder in sustainable and mutually beneficial Bangladesh-India relations.

Source: Weekly Holiday