Nationalism and anti-Indianism often go hand in hand.Photo: AFP
Even if one likes the Indian cricket team, he or she would be afraid to express that aloud in the presence of a room full of Bangladeshis because there will be several for whom it would be too much to take. However admiring individual Indians like Vidya Balan or A.R. Rahman is okay. But collectively anything Indian is bad in the opinion of a considerable section of Bangladeshis. My recollections are drawn from the days long before the Tipaimuk controversy. How can we account for the widespread anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh?
Are neighbouring countries always suspicious of one another? As one wise man said: a solid fence is a precondition for friendly neighbours.
As a student in Canada long ago I noticed that Canadians were not very fond of their neighbour to the south. Some fellow students complained of their airwaves being dominated by the US media while others made fun of US ignorance of Canada. As I went to study in an American university later I was appalled to find out how little they knew about their northern neighbour. But never did I meet a Canadian who said that she or he is anti-American.
In Mexico, there is a saying: "God is so far and America so near." This is understandable because Mexico lost a good portion of her territory (California, Texas and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, etc) to its powerful neighbour.
Several years ago, while on a visit to New Zealand I had a friendly conversation with a gentleman serving juicy veal steak at a party at Massey University, Palmerston North. We discussed the quality of New Zealand veal and lamb and gradually moved to cricket. At some point, I dropped the question, if there is a cricket match between New Zealand and Australia which team would he support. His response was that it was a political question. He avoided an answer.
Once at the famed teachers' lounge of Dhaka University, I found only one colleague who like me was offended by the fact that everyone we knew supported the Pakistani cricket team. It took me quite some time to understand that supporting the Pakistan team is not the same as supporting the state of Pakistan.
Professor Amartya Sen admitted in one of his essays that he is a big fan of the Pakistani team and that does not make him anti-Indian. Professor Sen gave the example of his admiration of the Pakistan cricket team by way of criticising right-wing Hindu nationalists in India who often question the loyalty of the Indian Muslims for their alleged support for the Pakistani cricket team.
While in Singapore I noticed that many Singaporeans would go to Johor Bahru, across the border into Malaysia for seafood dinner, which was considerably cheaper with Ringgit values hovering at half of the Singapore dollar. The pragmatic Singaporean while filling their stomachs with delicacies would also fill their automobiles with cheaper gasoline in Malaysia.
At some point, however, the Singapore government imposed a new law to discourage this practice by making sure that the departing cars' gas tanks are at least half-filled. And yes, randomly, cars were checked at the border and violators were fined. Singapore and Malaysia had their share of disputed issues ranging from water sharing to a Malaysian railway station in Singapore to the ownership of some islands.
The leaders sat across the tables and talked it over in a bid to resolve these issues. Malaysia and Singapore even went to international arbitration over the claim of a disputed island but never did such frictions impact the cordiality of the citizens of these two countries.
Never had I met a Singaporean who called himself anti-Malaysian. I had Malaysian Chinese friends and students who having finished their studies in Singapore returned to Malaysia while others chose to stay on and took up Singapore's residency while keeping their Malaysian citizenship.
Social scientists from these two neighboring countries as well as from other Asean countries meet routinely in conferences and seminars. Sporting events and educational exchanges are common yet there is a sense that more can be done. Disagreements between governments do not translate into disagreements between people. It is the people to people relationship, the public diplomacy par excellence, that provide the basis for building sustainable good-neighbourly relationships.
Neighbouring countries are likely to have contentious issues but they need to be resolved not through megaphone diplomacy but by engaging in reasoned dialogue through quiet diplomacy. Anti-Indianism which has become the "first principle" -- almost a default position -- for many in Bangladesh stands in the way of trust-building between the two neighbours.
It is this sentiment that is both nurtured and exploited by self-seeking, opportunistic politicians to score points. Politics of hegemony, trade-imbalance, and other outstanding border issues play an important role in the prevailing skepticism about India in Bangladesh.
However, for many, anti-Indianness emanates from an attitude of bigotry, which is impervious to reason. Once I pressed a senior Bangladeshi professional in UAE to give me a reason for India's alleged role against the interests of Bangladesh (again before Tipaimukh), in a low voice he confided: "You can't trust the Hindus." The gentleman's honest answer was very revealing.
Habibul Haque Khondker is a professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.