( Talk delivered on February 6,2010, at a seminar jointly organized at Bangalore by the Asia Centre, Bangalore, and the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi )
During her recent visit to India from January 10 to 13,2010, we saw in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has completed one year in office, a greater confidence in herself and a greater feeling of political security. Having weathered without damage to her political strength the bloody revolt of the Bangladesh Rifles against its own senior officers and having brought to a successful culmination the long process of accountability of some former Army officers for the brutal assassination of her father in 1975, she now feels confident enough to move forward on the road to internal peace and prosperity.
2. However, the political challenges to her individually and to her Awami League led Government from a coalition of political and fundamentalist elements led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khalida Zia and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) show no sign of withering away. Their anti-Indian and pro-Pakistan constituency remains intact, but they are not yet in a position to pose a serious street challenge to her.
3.In her attempts to face their challenge, she has to see that her political instinct and enthusiasm for better relations with India and for the economic development of the Bangladesh-India region are tempered by caution so that she does not unwittingly hand over to them a stick to beat her with.
4. In assessing India-Bangladesh relations in security-related matters, one has to constantly keep in view the ground reality that there is a surviving anti-India constituency in that country. It is difficult to quantify the strength of this anti-India constituency. At the same time, it will be unwise to dismiss it as of no consequence. It is an important constituency carefully nurtured by Pakistan over the years and by Islamic fundamentalist organisations and charities operating from Saudi Arabia either directly or through Pakistan.
5.In our happiness over the return of Sheikh Hasina to power with an impressive majority over a year ago, we should not commit the folly of underestimating the lingering strength of the anti-India elements. Their power to attract votes might have received a set-back during the last elections, but their street power to create instability has not been damaged.
6.That Sheikh Hasina is aware of it became evident in her chat with a group of journalists at New Delhi on January 13,2010, before she left for Ajmer. According to the "Times of India", when she was asked about the anti-India mindset in her country, she replied: “ Perhaps that may remain. I cannot change that. But common people want better lives and if results are achieved in India-Bangladesh co-operation, these sentiments will not work.”
7.What she sought to convey was that the anti-India mindset in sections of public and political opinion in Bangladesh is a fact of life. It cannot be eradicated, but it can be prevented from coming in the way of better bilateral relations through the demonstration effect of beneficial results as a result of closer relations. What kind of results will be perceived by large sections of the population as beneficial to Bangladesh? That is a question, which one has to constantly keep asking oneself.
8.Gestures there were in plenty during her visit--- a one billion dollar credit line, an agreement to supply power, water-sharing etc, but the anti-India elements in Bangladesh tend to project such gestures of economic significance by India not as unilateral without India expecting anything in return, but as an alleged quid pro quo for security-related concessions made by the Bangladesh Government. Allegations have been made by the anti-India elements after her visit that these gestures by India were in return for a secret security treaty signed by her with India during her visit.
9. India has vital security-related concerns vis-a-vis Bangladesh---- the sanctuaries enjoyed by indigenous Indian ethnic terrorist organisations such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in Bangladesh territory; the activities of trans-border Islamic terrorist groups such as the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), the Independent Liberation Army of Assam (ILAA), and the People United Liberation Front (PULF); the activities from Bangladesh territory of pro-Al Qaeda organisations of Pakistani origin supported by the ISI such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM); gun running into India’s North-East from and through Bangladesh; the unchecked illegal migration of Muslims from Bangladesh into Assam and West Bengal, which could one day convert Assam into a second Muslim majority State in India after Jammu & Kashmir; the flow of funds from Wahabi charity organisations in Saudi Arabia to fundamentalist elements in the Bangladesh-India region; and the ISI's alleged use of Bangladesh and Nepal for pumping counterfeit currency into India and so on.
10.Any Government in New Delhi would be remiss in exercising its important responsibility for the protection of our national security if it does not take up in lucid terms our concerns over these issues with whichever Government is in power in Dhaka--- whether headed by Sheikh Hasina or Begum Khalida Zia or anybody else. Our security-related concerns have a long history dating from the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The Naga and Mizo insurgencies would not have lasted for as long as they did but for the sanctuaries enjoyed by them till 1971 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of the then East Pakistan. The ULFA and other insurgencies in Assam would not be surviving today but for the support which they have been receiving in Bangladesh territory. The free run of Bangladesh territory enjoyed by pro-Al Qaeda organizations shows no sign of being countered effectively by any Government in Dhaka. Other collateral problems such as illegal migration, gun running, fund flow and dissemination of counterfeit currency printed in Pakistan pose a serious challenge to our national security managers whoever be in power in Dhaka.
11. There has always been a misperception in India that such security-related problems arising from Bangladesh territory tend to decline in gravity and become manageable when the Awami League comes to power and increase in gravity when Sheikh Hasina’s opponents come to power. This is not correct. The gravity of the security-related problems has remained unchanged whether it was Sheikh Mujib or Sheikh Hasina or Begum Khalida Zia or any other leader, political or military, who was in power. The only difference we have noticed over the years is that when Sheikh Hasina is in power, there is a desire, which seems genuine, to address India’s concerns, but Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly shown an inability to translate this genuine desire into effective concrete action on the ground---- either because of fears of an exploitation of her actions by the opposition to discredit her as an Indian stooge or because of the continuing existence of anti-India and pro-Pakistan elements in Bangladesh’s intelligence and security communities, which drag their feet in implementing the promises or commitments made by her. In the case of Begum Khalida Zia and others, even the desire to address India’s concerns is not there.
12. Is this position showing signs of changing during the present tenure of Sheikh Hasina? Would her greater confidence in herself seen recently enable her to act more vigorously against elements, which pose a threat not only to India, but also to Bangladesh itself? There have been some positive actions by her Government during the last one year. Examples: Suspected pressure on Arabinda Rajkowa of the ULFA, which seems to have played a role in his falling into the hands of the Indian security agencies, investigation and prosecution of elements which were indulging in gun running under the Khalida Zia Government, neutralization of an alleged plot by the LET to attack the Indian and US diplomatic missions in Dhaka, pressure against one or two Indian Mujahideen elements living in BD territory which forced them to cross over into India and fall into the hands of the Indian security forces etc.
13. Despite such positive steps, one could see signs of abundant caution by Sheikh Hasina to ensure that she is not seen as rushing into full-throttled co-operation with India in security-related matters. In her pronouncements and comments while in New Delhi, she made a subtle distinction between co-operation with India against the international terrorism network, which posed a threat to both the countries, and action against indigenous organizations such as the ULFA, which posed a threat to India and not to Bangladesh. To prove my point, I would like to cite some of her remarks as reported by the Times of India of January 14,2010:
• The two countries are in the process of finalizing an extradition treaty.She did not specify how soon the extradition treaty could be finalized. Her Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said it could be concluded shortly given the friendly relations between the two countries.
• On January 11,2010, the two countries signed three agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, mutual transfer of convicted prisoners and co-operation in the fight against international terrorism, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking.
• Sheikh Hassina said: “ To end terrorism, we want to co-operate. We can go to any extent to co-operate.” She said that the agreements already signed between the two countries were “ enough” to combat terrorism. Side by side, discussions are going on the extradition treaty.
• “ To a specific question on whether Bangladesh would hand over ULFA leader Anup Chetia who is wanted in India, Hasina evaded a direct reply and said that she was not here to “discuss one name”, but broader issues.”
• Asked about ULFA cadres taking shelter in Bangladesh, Hasina said that many “terrorists” from Bangladesh were also living in India and that this was a common thing. She said the two countries should co-operate on this front. “If anybody from Bangladesh is in India, India should look into it and if anybody from India is in Bangladesh, we will look into it.” She also said that if “obstacles or problems” are encountered in the anti-terror co-operation under the three agreements signed, “we can discuss”
• She refused to reply to a query about terrorism finding support in Pakistan and whether that country seemed to be sincere in fighting terrorism for peace in the region, saying such a question should be posed to Pakistan.
14. We have to understand her cautious or even over-cautious attitude in security-related matters. It will be unrealistic to expect a qualitative change in security-related co-operation between the two countries during her current tenure as the Prime Minister. She has to take care of her own political standing. She has to pay attention to the continuing anti-India mindset in her country A durable qualitative change in security-related co-operation can come about only when our policy-makers take cognizance of the anti-India mindset in sections of the population and try to win over the anti-India elements.
15. A bane of our Bangladesh policy has always been that our policy-makers tend to put many, if not all of the eggs, in the basket of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League. The importance of building bridges of understanding with non-religious political elements such as those in the BNP, even if they are not well disposed towards India, is not realized. Unless we build such bridges, there will always be strong opposition in sections of the political and public opinion in Bangladesh to any meaningful co-operation with India in security-related matters.
16. How to address the surviving anti-India mindset in Bangladesh? How to convince public opinion in Bangladesh that the two countries stand to benefit in equal measure from bilateral co-operation----whether in security or economy related matters? How to create a demonstration effect of the beneficial results of such co-operation? These are questions which a seminar such as this should address.
17.In our relations with our neighbours in the sub-continent, we are always unfortunately seen as a big power with hegemonistic tendencies. We have failed to project ourselves as a huge market, with an increasingly prosperous middle class, which can absorb much of what they produce. How to make them see us as a highly attractive market and not as a repulsive power? Can a policy of unilateral gestures in trade-related matters help in creating a demonstration effect? This is another question which needs to be addressed by this seminar. The recommendations, which go out of this seminar, should be forward moving and not backward-looking over our shoulders all the time.
18.The Inder Gujral Doctrine of unilateral gestures towards our neighbours proved counter-productive because of the over-focus on gestures in security-related matters. What we need is a new doctrine based on a mix of firmness in pursuing our security interests, unilateral gestures in economy-related matters and taking cognizance of the concerns of anti-India elements and seeking to understand them instead of giving the impression of ignoring them. ( 5-2-2010)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )