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The Bangladesh Threat
August 23, 2005
Do good fences make good neighbours?
Not if the neighbours happen to be Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Not if the fence puts a crimp on their major exports to India: terrorists in the case of Pakistan and illegal immigrants, drugs and arms in the case of Bangladesh.
The leaders of both nations will of course swear till they are blue in the face that they do no such thing, and that all that they want is love and friendship with the big brother, and that such fences only damage this relationship.
In the case of Bangladesh, apart from those wishing to sneak into India -- be they economic migrants or terrorists -- Indian smugglers who sell thousands of heads of cattle each day to beef-loving Bangladesh stand to lose too.
So do the other smugglers on both sides dealing daily in women, narcotics and arms, besides other assorted items -- mostly fast moving consumer goods which are cheaper in India than in Bangladesh.
So do the mostly middle-class Indians who hire the cheap cooks and maids that sneak across from Bangladesh on a daily basis.
So do the Leftists who rule Bengal, though of late they have started supporting the fence while suggesting other measures like issuing work permits to labourers from Bangladesh.
This was, of course, not due to fears over security or demographic changes etc, but because they suddenly realised that a large chunk of the people that they issued ration cards to at the border no longer felt the compulsion to vote red once they became legal Indian citizens.
Hell, many even didn't even stay on in Bengal long enough to vote.
The latest round of firing on the border comes barely a week after External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh returned from a three-day trip to Dhaka.
External link: Fighting over fencing
As usual, each side accused the other of starting the firing.
According to the Indian side, the Bangladesh Rifles opened fire to prevent the construction of a embankment on the Mahananda, meant to prevent flooding and erosion.Given that the Mahananda forms the border at some points, I suspect the Bangladesh Rifles assumed it had to be part of the fencing work.
Days earlier, a series of blasts shook the entire nation, injuring at least a 100 people.
At a press conference two days later, Bangladesh's Industry Minister Motiur Rahman Nizami said the Jamaatul Mujahedeen, the radical outfit blamed for the blasts, was a creation of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, and harbored by Bangladesh's main Opposition, the Awami League.
Nizami heads the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, one of the major components of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's four-party ruling alliance.
Coming back to the fence, India has so far managed to fence off some 1,500 km of the border, or roughly a third, of the 4,894 km border with Bangladesh.
This has been done despite stiff opposition from the Bangladesh Rifles, which according to the Indian side fires on construction workers in an attempt to scare them off. Most locals are on their side, for they know the fence will change their lives forever.
Bangladesh Rifles lacks discipline: BSF
But the fencing has run up against some other obstacles too.
A boundary accord signed between the two nations in 1974 stipulates that neither side can indulge in 'defence work' within 150 metres of the no-man's land or the border. But difficult terrain and the dense habitation along the border makes it impossible to maintain this distance all the time.
Then, of course, rivers like the Mahananda are know to meander over the years, shifting the border along with their banks.
There are also the enclaves, (map) or small tracts of land ceded by the former rulers of the states of Cooch Behar and Rangpur to each other long before Partition put them on different sides of the border.
The Indian state of West Bengal has about 51 exclaves of Bangladesh and 111 enclaves of India are surrounded by Bangladeshi soil, says Wikipedia. Despite both sides repeatedly agreeing to resolve the issue, it remains on the backburner, stark reminders of the vagaries of Partition.
The other guilty neighbour
But let's take it from the top.
Apart from the first four or five years since India helped 'liberate' Bangladesh in 1971, relations between the two nations have never really been hunky dory.
New Delhi claims the massive influx of Bangladeshi immigrants poses a demographic (as in Assam) and security threat to India. Dhaka denies any large-scale immigration.
New Delhi says Dhaka allows rebels from India's northeastern states shelter on its soil. Dhaka denies this, and accuses India, particularly Bengal, of giving shelter to criminals from Bangladesh.
New Delhi is upset over the fact that energy major Unocal had to shelve a project to build a gas pipeline from Bangladeshi fields into India following objections from Dhaka. 'It seems Dhaka would rather lose money than do business with India,' an Indian observer remarked wryly.
Dhaka, however, cites domestic compulsions, which essentially means such a deal would be attacked by the opposition on the grounds that Bangladesh was selling gas to India at a time when the nation itself was facing a severe energy crisis, with huge chunks of the nation without adequate power.
New Delhi says the mushrooming radicalism in Bangladesh -- caused, as in the case of Pakistan, mainly due to extreme poverty -- poses a threat to India.
Analysts say the ding-dong battle between the ruling BNP and the Opposition Awami League, with both sides repeatedly bringing the nation to a standstill with strikes and counter-hartals over one issue or another, has not given Begum Khaleda Zia much time to truly govern.
Anti-bombing strike grips Bangladesh
Besides, her four party ruling alliance includes fundamentalist outfits like the Islami Oikya Jote and the Jamaat-e-Islami, further restricting her ability to crack down on radicals.
Bangladesh insists it is a 'moderate' Islamic country, and such reports were aimed at maligning the nation. Even if it was an issue, it would be an internal problem, and that India has no business commenting on it, says Dhaka.
The cancellation of the SAARC summit citing security concerns has not endeared India to Bangladesh. Nor have reports of Indian jets violating Bangladesh airspace several times in recent months.
Days after the explosions across Bangladesh and the firing across the border, a New Delhi datelined report in the Daily Times of Pakistan said Indian agencies have recommended economic sanctions against Dhaka until Prime Minister Khaleda Zia clamps down on extremists. This report, of course, was widely circulated in the Bangladesh media.
The same paper in a editorial a day earlier says that 'The tide of Islamic violence is rising in Bangladesh and it is more lethal than anything we have known in Pakistan.'
Scary thought, that.
But apart from the political issues, one of Bangladesh's main gripes against India is that it imposes non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi exports like hilsa, garments, jute and jute products, automotive batteries and vegetables etc, making it difficult for them to sell their products in India.
These non-tariff barriers, says Dhaka, take the form of anti-dumping measures, (the one most cited is that of India imposing such measures against a small batch of automotive batteries exported by a Bangladeshi producer) and various other restrictive rules and regulations like those imposed by the Bureau of Indian Standards, and recently introduced health, safety, sanitary and phyto-sanitary norms.
A Reuters report quoting the Bangladeshi commerce ministry, says Bangladesh's annual trade gap with India stands at $1.3 billion, with India exporting goods worth $1.4 billion against imports of just $100 million.
Instead of imposing economic sanctions, we should encourage imports from Bangladesh. Provided, of course, that they in turn address some of the Indian long-standing concerns.
While we obviously cannot allow items that violate health and safety norms, we can make allowances for other items on a case by case basis, thereby removing the long-standing ill-will on this issue.
As for the fence, I am all for it, provided one can ensure that it is completely and totally impregnable. So far, it is not.
In the case of Bangladesh, we must remember that we, as in the Leftists, encouraged mass scale migration to ensure votes. It is only when we stop trading Indian citizenship for votes that the fencing will really work.
Also, when the partial fencing of the border disrupted its export of terrorists to India, Pakistan routed them through Bangladesh and Nepal, another disaffected neighbour.
No marks for guessing which border we are going to fence off next.
Ramananda Sengupta is Deputy Managing Editor (Foreign Affairs), rediff.com
More reports from Bangladesh