Before I did the research that forms the basis of this article, I used to wonder why India and Bangladesh aren’t the closest of friends. Consider this: India was responsible for the creation of Bangladesh. If Indian troops hadn’t invaded East Pakistan in defence of the Mukti Bahini, it is very unlikely that Pakistan would have allowed its eastern wing to break free. India lost around 2500 soldiers in the course of the 1971 war. Around 2 million Bengalis were killed and a couple of hundred thousand Bengali women raped by Pakistani soldiers in the events leading to Bangladeshi independence. Despite all this, Bangladesh seems to be at least as much friendly with Pakistan as it is with India!
One of the reasons for this frosty state of affairs on India’s eastern borders used to be the dispute over sharing of the waters of the Ganges. This dispute has now been resolved with the signing of a treaty in 1996. At present Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is in power in Bangladesh and traditionally, the Awami League has been much closer to India than the other major political party, Begum Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh National Party. However, despite a friendly government being in power in Dhaka, there has been no change in popular perception in each country of the other. The average Bangladeshi doesn’t seem to like India all that much and the common man on Indian streets doesn’t give two hoots about Bangladesh. Why is this so?
In my opinion, there are various reasons for this state of affairs.
To start with, Indians tend to (wrongly) assume that because East Pakistan revolted against West Pakistani domination, it has given up its aspiration to be an Islamic country. Bangladesh is doubtless proud of its Bengali culture, but it never gave up its Islamic character either. Consider these facts: Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the father of the Bangladeshi nation, was a member of the All India Muslim Students Federation since 1940. Mujib-ur Rahman was very close to Huseyn Suhrawardy, a leading member of the Bengal Muslim League, who worked actively for the cause of Pakistan. Mujib-ur Rahman was based in Kolkata in 1946, working under Suhrawardy’s guidance, when the Muslim League organised Direct Action Day, leading to large scale communal violence and deaths.
The East Pakistani fight against West Pakistani and especially Punjabi domination commenced soon after Pakistan’s independence when Jinnah announced that Urdu would be the national language for the whole of Pakistan. Mujib-ur Rahman led the Muslim Students League as it launched an East Pakistan wide agitation. Ever since then, Mujib-ur Rahman and other East Pakistani politicians were at loggerheads with politicians from West Pakistan. Their quarrel over the language issue was accentuated manifold when West Pakistani politicians tried every ruse in the book to prevent Bengali leaders from holding positions of power at the national level, not an easy task since East Pakistan had a larger population than West Pakistan.
In order to offset East Pakistan’s electoral strength, all four provinces in West Pakistan, namely Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, were sought to be treated as a single political unit. When East Pakistani politicians such as Khawaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bogra and Huseyn Suhrawardy become Prime Ministers of Pakistan, they did not stay in power for long before they were deposed by the President, backed by Pakistan’s powerful Punjabi-Pakhtun dominated military.
In the 1970 elections, when Mujib-ur Rahman and his Awami League (originally founded by Huseyn Suhrawardy) won a majority of the parliamentary seats, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proposed that Pakistan should have two Prime Ministers, one for each wing! When Mujib-ur Rahman refused, he was imprisoned and marital law was declared. The Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight with the intention of teaching Bengalis a harsh lesson they wouldn’t forget easily. Politicians don’t like to lose power, especially just after they have legitimately won an election. Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman’s declaration of independence was smuggled out to Chittagong and read over the radio by Major Zia-ur Rahman. The rest is history. The day Mujib-ur Rahman made the declaration of independence (26 March 1971) is treated as Bangladesh’s independence day, though it was not until 16 December 1971 that Bangladesh was actually liberated from Pakistani troops.
Would East Pakistan have revolted against West Pakistan if Bengalis were allowed to hold office after wining elections? I don’t think so. Mere imposition of Urdu as the national language would not have made East Pakistanis break off from their co-religionists in the West. Even in 1965 when India and Pakistan went to war, East Pakistan stood fast with West Pakistan though they complained that the Pakistani army was not present in strength in East Pakistan to defend it in case of an attack by India.
It must not be forgotten that even when the Pakistani army was systematically murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, many thousands of Bengalis collaborated with the Pakistani army. Doubtless such people were fired by their Islamic zeal, which made them want Pakistan to remain unified as a single Islamic nation.
Bangladesh’s Islamic nature started to reassert itself soon after independence. After a brief ban for suspected collaboration with Pakistani forces, the Islamic Academy was revived. Bangladesh sought membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank. In 1974, less than 3 years after independence, Mujib-ur Rahman made a trip to Lahore to attend an OIC conference and patch up ties with Pakistan. After Zia-ur Rahman came to power, Bangladesh moved much further into the Islamic camp.
Even now, Bangladesh has an Islamic fundamentalist base which fights for stronger ties with Pakistan and other Islamic states, rather than with India. In my opinion, it is wrong to assume that this core group of Islamic fundamentalists is something new. Bangladesh always had this hardcore chunk, for without them, East Bengal would not have voted to break off from West Bengal and the rest of India.
A fact which is easily forgotten when discussing the deaths of around 2 million Bengalis as a result of the Pakistani army pogrom is that a disproportionate number of the victims were Hindus. Most surviving family members of the victims fled to India as refugees. Currently Hindus account for around 10% of Bangladesh’s population, as opposed to around 28% in 1941 and approximately 15% before the Pakistani army pogrom. I am not for a moment suggesting that Bengali Muslims did not suffer under the Pakistani army. They did and most of the rebels who formed the Mukti Bahini were Muslims. However the present day population of Bangladesh doesn’t have among them as many victims and families of victims as such a large-scale genocide would otherwise have warranted. This is one reason why Bangladesh has been able to largely forgive Pakistan and not press for reparations or compensation.
Indians assume that Bangladeshis will be eternally grateful to India for its intervention in Bangladesh, which led to Bangladeshi independence. I feel that it ought to be the other way around. India ought to be grateful to Bangladesh for giving India a chance to split its arch rival Pakistan into two pieces! As a result of Indians assuming that Bangladesh has chosen to be just a Bengali nation that will intrinsically be friendly towards India, rather than an Islamic-Bengali state (which is what Bangladesh is), Indians expect a lot from Bangladesh without putting in the necessary effort. For example, Indians are disappointed when Bangladesh doesn’t crackdown on insurgents from India’s north-east sheltering there, even though India hasn’t exactly been ladling out favours to Bangladesh after its creation.
I feel it is very important that Indians realise they should not take Bangladesh for granted. Instead, for every favour India seeks from Bangladesh, India must be willing to pay back in double measure. India needs to fill Bangladeshi media with sound bytes about how deeply India cares for friendship with Bangladesh. India could provide scholarships for Bangladeshi students to study in India. It could be made easy for Bangladeshi commodities (like jute) and goods (like garments) to be sold in India. Leaders from Bangladesh, irrespective of the party they belong to, should be invited to India and treated with honour and respect.
Instead of treating all Bangladeshi leaders impartially and well, India has been taking sides in what’s called the ‘Battle of the Begums’. For those unfamiliar with the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khalida Zia, let me briefly summarise the reasons for the animosity between these two great leaders.
Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. Post independence, after a brief honeymoon period, Mujib-ur Rahman became more and more autocratic. In January 1975 he declared himself to be the absolute ruler of Bangladesh and President for Life. In August 1975, a few army officers staged a coup and took over power. They killed Mujib-ur Rahman and all his family members who were present in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina was in Germany at that time and so, she escaped death. She stayed in exile for 6 years and returned to Bangladesh in 1981 as head of the Awami League, when Bangladesh was under General Ershad. Democracy was reinstated in Bangladesh only in 1991 and in 1996, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League came to power.
Begun Khalida Zia (who heads the Bangladesh National Party) is the widow of Zia-ur Rahman, the army officer who had read Mujib-ur Rahman’s call for independence over the radio. Though a Bengali, Zia-ur Rahman grew up in West Pakistan and joined the Pakistani army, winning various awards and decorations for gallantry during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani army had very few Bengalis, especially in the non-administrative officer class, and Zia-ur Rahman was in a small minority. When Mujib-ur Rahman gave the call for Bengalis to rise up against oppression by West Pakistan, Zia-ur Rahman was one of the Bengali army officers who answered his call. Zia-ur Rahman distinguished himself during the Bangladeshi war of independence.
After Mujib-ur Rahman was deposed in a coup, there was a series of counter coups and Zia-ur Rahman became the Chief Martial Law administrator of Bangladesh and later its 6th President. Zia-ur Rahman founded the Bangladesh National Party. One of the things Zia-ur Rahman did after coming to power was to pardon many of those involved in the coup that overthrew and killed Mujib-ur Rahman. It has never been proved if Zia-ur Rahman himself was involved in that coup. Zia-ur Rahman reversed many of Mujib-ur Rahman’s policies. Whilst Mujib-ur Rahman was a socialist, Zia-ur Rahman promoted the private sector. Zia-ur Rahman moved Bangladesh away from the Soviet Union and started to develop close ties with the USA and later China. Bangladeshi demands for reparations and compensation from Pakistan were dropped. Many individuals accused of collaborating with Pakistan during the war of independence were rehabilitated. Close ties were forged with Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states. The constitution was amended to give it an Islamic slant. Zia-ur Rahman talked of a Bangladeshi identity rather than a Bengali one, seeking to integrate various minorities such as the Chakmas and Urdu speaking Biharis. He ruthlessly crushed all political opposition and in 1981, he was murdered by a group of army officers.
Unlike Mujib-ur Rahman who was dogged by allegations of nepotism and corruption, Zia-ur Rahman was known as Mr. Clean, even among his enemies. All his actions seem to have been motivated by a love for Bangladesh and ideology, rather than any personal vested interest.
As it would be obvious to anyone, the Indian establishment considers Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League to be much more India friendly than Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh National Party. Most Bangladeshis believe that India does its best to keep the Awami League in power. The net result is that even when the Awami League is in power, there is not much warmth towards India from the average Bangladeshi.
In my opinion, India should not take sides in the Battle of the Begums. Even though it is unlikely that Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP will ever be as friendly towards India as Sheikh Hasina and the BNP, India ought to treat both the ladies and their respective parties the same. Even more importantly, the average Bangladeshi on the street should not get the impression that India is partial towards one party. Not only should India be impartial, India must also be seen to be impartial. Currently, an Awami League victory in the elections is treated as a victory for India and a victory for the BNP is treated as a victory for Pakistan. Islamic fundamentalists inimical to India have an incentive in undermining the Awami League. It is even possible that the recent mutiny by soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles was instigated by Islamic fundamentalists who feel that by making Bangladesh unstable when the Awami League is in power, they are sending a message to India.
Another reason for the average Bangladeshi on the street to hate India is India’s treatment of Bangladeshi immigrants. As we all know, immigrant inflows and outflows are dictated largely by supply and demand. Poverty stricken Bangladesh has a large number of people willing to work very hard just to make enough to eat two square meals a day. India, despite its poverty and other problems, has many areas where an individual willing to work hard can make an honest living. And so a large number of Bangladeshis cross the border illegally to live and work in India.
India doesn’t have a system of giving work permits to unskilled workers from anywhere in the world, except to people from Nepal (who don’t need a work permit). However, India’s borders, especially its eastern borders are porous and India doesn’t have the sophisticated technology needed to prevent the inflow from Bangladesh. To be honest, not a single country in the world has been able to put a total stop to immigration.
Once the Bangladeshis are inside India, having run the gauntlet of corrupt border security forces and cops, they are at risk of deportation at any time if they are caught. One assumes that these illegal immigrants develop no love for India during their stay in this country. In various parts of India’s north-east, immigration from Bangladesh has taken place over many decades, even prior to independence. It is common for many landlords in Assam and Tripura to lease out their lands to hardworking Bangladeshi immigrants and take from them a part of the crop as rent. Many such immigrants have Indian ID cards and therefore have voting rights.
Since (as mentioned earlier) Bangladesh has always had a component of fundamentalist Muslims, it is only fair to assume that some of the illegal immigrants to India are fundamentalist Muslims. Not all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists, or even supporters of terrorism, but some of the Bangladeshi immigrants in India are capable of causing trouble. I have no idea what percentage such people comprise. I assume it is not very large.
To be very honest, there is no clear-cut answer to the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. In my opinion (and this is only an opinion), rather than having an outright ban on illegal immigrants, India should permit a fixed number of workers from Bangladesh to work in India on fixed-term, renewable, work permits. Work permits should be issued through employers or labour contractors who must shoulder some of the responsibility for the migrants once they are in India. Those given work permits will have their finger-prints and DNA on file and I assume it will be relatively easy to keep a tab on their whereabouts.
Legal immigrants have an incentive to be law abiding, irrespective of their personal ideology. Also, they will not be able to obtain fake Indian ID and vote in Indian elections. Regulating Bangladeshi immigration, rather than banning it outright, will also generate some goodwill towards India. It is very possible that some of those who come to India on work permits may indulge in acts that are harmful towards India. However, such individuals will not be stopped from entering India even if there is no work permit scheme in place.
As long as religion plays a major role in the life of the average Bangladeshi and the common Indian on the street, I don’t think Indo-Bangla ties will get warmer beyond a point. One could say the same for Indo-Pakistani relations, but that’s for another post.