Why Bangladesh isn't Pakistan
This week we can bury a misconception that has appropriated the subcontinent's discourse since 1947, when a Muslim League-British project partitioned the land in the name of religion. India's problem with Pakistan has nothing to do with Pakistan's emergence as a Muslim nation. The problem has always been, and continues to be, Pakistan's state sponsorship of terrorism against India.
Pakistan's initial policy of "war by other means" quickly evolved into the broader framework of "war by all means". Ninety percent of Bangladesh is Muslim. Till 1971 it was part of Pakistan. India has a much larger border with Bangladesh than with Pakistan, with a territorial dispute since the British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, nominated by London to demarcate lines of separation, deepened the wounds of partition by using a scalpel with an uncertain, and occasionally anarchic, hand.
This week Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a pact in Dhaka with his counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, that erases a dispute as old as Kashmir. The term 'historic' has become trite through general overuse, but this pact deserves such an accolade.
We tend to be sanguine or cynical about success, and so hypnotised by bad news that media often gets hypnotised by the negative. Moreover, major television channels have become so Delhi-centric that we forget India lives in its states. A municipal problem in the capital consumes time with the appetite of an elephant, while a game-changer in Bengal is sidelined to the margins.
We should not underestimate the Dhaka treaty. A wall that started as brick, transformed into stone and was turning concrete, is coming down. Once India and Bangladesh can put the past behind them, the east will discover a future through economic and cultural harmony.
An economy can always find its way through political boundaries, as Europe or North America or Southeast Asia have proved. But it cannot break through hostility. Economic success is always faster and, well, more economical, with cooperation.
The two Bengals and the northeast of India are natural partners in the timeless search for greater prosperity. But an equal partnership is only possible through trust and trust can only mature through experience.
This is also a major delivery axis for an important commitment made by Modi during the 2014 election campaign: the revival of the east, which has lagged behind the rest of India for a variety of reasons, of which the most important is surely the sterile, formulaic thinking of Marxists who ruled West Bengal for three and a half decades. The quality of Modi's leadership has been evident in the quiet, but effective, way he resolved both internal and external obstacles.
Thoughtful regional icons are responding to the Prime Minister's repeated exhortation that the people's interest must prevail over partisan politics. That is why Mamata Banerjee flew in to Dhaka. Battles are fought during elections. When over, state and Centre must cooperate to serve India.
Parties trapped in an ostrich mentality, like Congress and the Left, will lay nothing more productive than an infertile egg. Foreign policy, however, can only go as far as domestic opinion takes it. Why are Indians ready for a deal with Dhaka but wary of Islamabad?
There is, of course, a fundamental difference between Bangladesh and Pakistan in the fundamentals of the state; but esoteric reality does not get the public traction it possibly deserves. Indians are impressed by Sheikh Hasina's visible and sustained war against terrorists. She has contained faith-based political formations, and cracked down against violence-addicted extremists.
In this respect she has altered the dynamics of Bangladesh politics, and this legacy will be hard to subvert. In contrast, terrorism remains an integral part of Islamabad's catechism no matter who is in power.
Pakistan set the template for state-sponsored terrorism from the day it was born. In retrospect it is astonishing that its leaders were not deflected even by the human catastrophe that accompanied partition, or the economic burden of sudden birth.
Within days of entering office, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan began plotting an illegal war to seize the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This operation began in October 1947, and has not ended. Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif confirmed as much when he said that Kashmir is an unfinished agenda of partition.
The cost of such colossal irresponsibility has been extremely high, particularly for Pakistan. If Pakistan had not opted for war, the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, which had not joined either India or Pakistan in August, would have been resolved over the table, probably in the presence of Britain, since the legality of independence was determined by an act of the British Parliament. Pakistan destroyed the chance of peace for generations.
Bangladesh won freedom through a war of liberation. It was not simply a geographical departure from Pakistan but also an ideological recast. This has enabled Bangladesh to pursue its national interest on the basis of different parameters. Its differences with India, where they exist, are not based on the ideological premise that Hindus and Muslims are engaged in some form of permanent war.
India and Bangladesh can — if all goes well — walk, and work, together.
[The article was first published on June 4, 2015 in The Times of India.]
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.