Being neighbourly

When I visited Bangladesh in April 1972 — my first visit to Dhaka after the liberation — I felt depressed. I had dreamt of a prosperous society, oblivious to the fact that West Pakistan had exploited what was then East Pakistan. I saw at Dhaka airport a frustratingly long queue inching past immigration authorities and confusion at the baggage counter.
Still, I heard passengers shouting “Joi Bangla (Victory to Bengal)”. They looked like people returning to the “promised land”. I found signs of strain on their faces, but pride was also writ on each of them. There was a feeling that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the country, would solve all problems. As happens in every liberation struggle, a better way of life is expected from the day the guns fall silent.

The nine months of oppression by the Pakistani army had wreaked havoc. All tiers of administration had been replaced by the army apparatus. There was practically no official response to people’s dire needs. But what could the government do when Pakistan, as Mujib told me, had tried to “kill every Bengali and destroy Bangladesh”? I wondered then whether the country would ever make it.
On a recent visit, I found it confident and determined to cope with the problems of poverty and unemployment. Bangladesh has maintained a growth rate of 6.2 per cent for the past two decades. People from the rural areas do not now flock to Dhaka even after heavy floods. Villages have become self-sufficient. The result is that even villages have pucca houses. A top businessman who met me in Dhaka said he had recently flown over most of Bangladesh by helicopter and found that there would not be more than 2 per cent houses that still had thatched roofs.
What oppresses them, however, is corruption, even at the village level. Petty functionaries want money before processing even a routine paper. High-level corruption is beyond conjecture, and reportedly runs into millions of dollars. The disappointing part is that even the judiciary is not untainted. Allegations that the judges are on “sale” may be too sweeping. Yet, there is a grain of truth in this. Even worse is the case of appointments to the bench, which are manageable, if you have the wherewithal and right connections.
The two main parties, the ruling Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chaired by Khaleda Zia, are said to have made a lot of money when in power. This may be the reason why the leaders do not hurl charges of corruption at one another. Allegations are said to be there by the dozen, but these are only meant to score points and not seek punishment for the individuals concerned. This is in contrast to what happened in India, where political parties hound politicians and even provide lists of disproportionate assets. Yet, the plus point for New Delhi is that some ministers, however few in number, have been punished for corruption. In Dhaka, no one has been, as far as I know. There are so many reasons for mutual irritation between the two countries. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to see that relations were amiable. Both countries have been through rough weather. But they have now normalised the situation. Prime Minister Hasina has a lot to do with it, because she has worked hard to improve relations, even when the pro-India line does not go down well. Zia and her BNP tend to project themselves as pro-Pakistan, if not anti-India. Zia has, unfortunately, not given up her anti-India tirade. For example, she does not regret that she absented herself from the banquet in honour of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee when he visited Dhaka sometime ago. Nevertheless, my personal disappointment is that we, a democratic, pluralistic society, are diffident when it comes to playing any role in the region. There is a tit-for-tat tendency. The foreign ministry has officials with a particular mindset, who take the narrative to the assistance provided to Bangladesh during the liberation struggle and expect obedience. I found Bangladeshi youth to be confused and bewildered. They want employment or openings for business that a big country like India can provide. Delhi is hardly bothered. And since there is distrust between Dhaka and Delhi, relations do not reach the stage of friendship and mutual confidence. Things have, no doubt, improved a bit, but that is because the bureaucracy on both sides has reduced prejudice. Most people in Bangladesh did not doubt India’s secular credentials, but the phenomenon of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success has made them sit up. The growth of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the watering down of secularism in Bangladesh have made an ordinary person prone to fundamentalism, despite the fact that the fundamentalists were against the liberation of the country. No one mentioned to me their need for water from the Teesta river. But that is what they badly want. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is in the way, although Delhi wants to accommodate Dhaka on this point. Former West Bengal chief minister, the late Jyoti Basu, was farsighted and won over Bangladesh by being generous with the Farakka waters. Riparian countries must have a generous approach towards each other. In the case of Bangladesh, a more accommodating attitude is all the more necessary. India should not behave squeamishly. It should realise that a place where the blood of Indian soldiers mixed with that of its freedom fighters is sacred. Delhi cannot but be friendly when it comes to Bangladesh. – See more at:
Please follow and like us: