Living with a big neighbour
Since its very birth, Bangladesh has been seized with the arduous task of determining the best ways of co-existing with India. Except perhaps Mexico, there is no other parallel situation. And perceptive Bangladeshis can very well understand the psyche behind the utterance of a Mexican President when he cried out, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the US", which was both an expression of frustration of dealing with a powerful nation as well as a rueful acceptance of the fait accompli - the proximity of a big neighbour. But Bangladesh is not Mexico.
India has been intimately involved with our birth and the sacrifices of the Indian soldiers as well as the people can never be adequately recompensed. Consequently, determining and steering the course of our relationship have been one of our greatest foreign policy challenges. And it still remains so, a fact made so vividly clear by the flurry of activity in the diplomatic front related to the PM's visit to India in April.
The pressure that our PM finds herself in has been clearly evident from the very speculative comments, mainly from Indian commentators, on the likelihood or not of a 'defence agreement' between the two countries. The very loud reticence of the establishment on this and indeed on details of any issue related to the visit has only added to the confusion about the nature of the likely compact in the defense sector.
In fact, our defense cooperation with India has predated our victory against the Pakistanis. There has also been increasing cooperation between the two militaries in recent years. And there have been memoranda on defense cooperation with other countries too. However, it is not so much the nitty-gritty of a likely deal or the character of the compact as the motive behind India's suggestions of a long term deal at all. What is its compulsion to ink a formal understanding when in fact all its security and strategic concerns have been more than adequately addressed by the present government?
It will be very easy to ascribe India's position to the overall thwart – China policy aimed at reducing the Chinese strategic footprint in South Asia. And it makes that even more convincing when conflated with the American objective in South Asia vis-à-vis China, which is co-terminus with that of India. But we forget easily too that China has had a very significant presence in South Asia from the early seventies when every other nation in the region sought in it a countervailing force to India's perceived domineering attitude in the region. Admittedly, this has significantly deepened, particularly with Nepal coming out of the restrains of mutual understanding with India to forge greater strategic cooperation with China in recent times, notwithstanding the Indo-Nepal treaty of 1950.
While all the above factors may well be a motivation, those are not the only stimulus for India.
For that one has to dwell on the past and carry out an inquest of the opinions offered by the Indian strategic thinkers and think tanks regarding the security architecture of South Asia as perceived by them. And this has evolved over several millenniums, stemming from the thoughts of a famous Indian political thinker nearly two thousand years ago advocating a sphere of influence or the 'mandala'. South Asia is the India 'mandala'. And as we have said in the past there is, interestingly, a continuity of thought in the enunciations of Indian scholars and strategic thinkers, from that of Panikkar, to Dixit to Raja Mohan. In the articulation of the latter two are reflection of the former's characterisation of South Asia as being under India's security orbit. And to ensure that the balance is not hampered by whatever means is a right that India has arrogated to itself.
For a good part of the last 46 years since the birth of Bangladesh, India had felt that it has had to contend with two fronts (both in its west and east), contrary to what it had hoped would be obviated by the changes in the regional geopolitical scenario following December 16, 1971. And a defense pact or treaty or understanding with Bangladesh, call what you will, may be an attempt to obviate the possibility of twin threats on either side of its flanks instead of one. This is a reflection of the threat potential of Bangladesh to India, which it thinks a military cooperation formalised through a long term understanding would remove.
But a defense cooperation with provisions for sale of arms could also be an effort on India's part to enhance its level of arms export and enlarge its participation in the international legal arms bazaar, reportedly, aiming to reach a figure of USD 3 billion, a twenty fold increase in the next decade.
Come April 7, our Prime Minister will be on her way to pay a second official visit to India in seven years as the prime minster. We are told 33 agreements and understandings are likely to be signed, but Teesta is not one of those. That the government is not in sync with the sentiments of the people when it comes to the issue of water sharing with India was once again exhibited by the dismissive and insensitive manner our foreign minister dismissed the Teesta issue, saying it mattered very little if it was not on the list of agreements.
It must be unequivocally stated that our equation with India and the tone and tenor of the bilateral relationship will be patently of a different nature from that with any other country because of our historical association with it. What that means is that we should be prepared to go the extra mile but not at the expense of our national interest. The only forumla for a sustained relation with India is win-win for both sides.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.