Concrete approach towards Bangladesh needed

| | in Oped

India today shares deeper bilateral cooperation with Bangladesh than ever before. But it is time for New Delhi to move beyond just appeasing Dhaka with big-ticket projects and get down to the real work of helping it fight radical militants undermining rule of law in that country

Hullabaloo over headline-grabbing ‘big ticket’ projects between countries often makes us forget how to deal with immediate and practical issues which may have long-term implications for national interest. The development of bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh is a case in point. Recently, India and Bangladesh announced a number of railway connectivity plans  via Indian States like West Bengal and Tripura. The latest such deliberation is being conducted to connect Malda in Kolkata to Rajshahi in Bangladesh.

Ostensibly, these connectivity measures are being done to cultivate more trust between the two countries; to have better strategic cooperation; and foster people-to-people contacts. Beyond this rhetoric, it appears that India is also trying to offset Chinese influence in Bangladesh as the latter two countries are progressing leaps and bounds in developing economic and strategic relationship.

Unfortunately, for India, despite having given good amount of Line of credit to Bangladesh, easing the way in trading negotiations and supporting it internationally, we have not gained as much reciprocation from Dhaka as one would expect. On our part, we too have been at fault for not being more exacting and smart when it comes to the smaller neighbour. Deployment of hard measures on the Indian side should not be resisted and philanthropy must not be squandered away on a country when it comes to dealing with issues like terrorism.

India needs to keep a few things in mind while conducting itself with Bangladesh. First, the immediate issue is that deepening of ties between Bangladesh and India will pan out along different lines than that of strategic and economic cooperation between Bangladesh and China, which is going ahead in full steam. On the connectivity front, while India already shares porous borders with Bangladesh and faces the brunt of illegal immigration, railway connectivity between sensitive destinations like Kolkata and Rajshahi will have to be well-regulated to preempt potential threats. Malda and Rajshahi are communally-sensitive and terror-sensitive regions. We all know about West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s politics of minority appeasement which has made the State a communal hub. Most militants arrested across the country are from Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions. Rajshahi has been home to quite a number of busted ‘terrorist dens’.

Also, Rajshahi is close to C’nawabganj, which has emerged as a major route for smuggling of arms, and is soon becoming militants’ most preferred point for collecting illegal firearms and explosives. This is the route through which terror outfit ‘Neo JMB’ smuggled guns and bombs used in last year’s devastating Holey Artisan Bakery attack. Smuggling did not stop despite fencing of the border between Murshidabad and Malda about a decade ago. Under such conditions, does it make sense to have open connectivity between such destinations?

Neither Kolkata nor Rajshahi are known for sterling law-enforcement capacities. How the law enforcement agencies will scan for potential terrorists misusing these railway routes, is a big question. Fear is that such glamourous headline-grabbing infrastructure projects may lead to serious domestic security problems, especially for India.

The second long-term issue is that India needs to take hard positions on getting Bangladesh get its house in order so that it no longer supports radical militant mindset and stops atrocities against minorities. In fact, this is linked to the first issue as a deteriorating condition in Dhaka will bode ill for India which is going on a spree of deeper connectivity measures with the country.

How can India go about it? India already has deep cooperation with Bangladesh in a number of areas, and during Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s visit some time back, we also extended eight billion dollar Line of Credit — India’s third LoC to Bangladesh. Besides, States in the north-eastern region, like Assam, are already taking initiatives to foster local contacts.

With all this in hand, India needs to move over overall quasi-appeasement of Bangladesh and it should start taking to Bangladesh about ways to reform institutional biases that result in a boost to terrorist and militant elements by actively pressurising Dhaka to stop violence against minorities — an area where these militant leaders and their civilian proxies are most visible and can be easily trapped. Bilateral relations should be guided not only by bigger power shielding and giving to the other, but by also getting hard bargains in return — which India should consider doing.

The most immediate area of action should be the deteriorating condition of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh — a concern which is in line with the Indian Government’s redrafted Citizenship Bill, which is motivated by the condition of persecuted religious minorities in our neighbouring countries. And the condition of minorities in Dhaka is bad, despite the strongman image of Hasina Government as being hard on terror.

This image is betrayed in the case of Rangpur mayhem, since the beginning of November, where a propaganda campaign had been going on against the Hindus for a fabricated Facebook post ‘demeaning Islam’, culminating in the November 10 attack, where a mob of hundreds of people attacked the Thakurpara village Hindus. Such volatile politics, institutions where lines between shadowy security agencies and militants are indiscernible, and rising militancy create a vulnerable situation for India as it deepens its physical connectivity with Bangladesh. India needs a stable Bangladesh for which purging out popular support for militancy needs to go. But as analysis of cases show, many times, most support for militancy comes because of backing of security forces themselves ie the Government itself is culpable.

It is a well-known fact that radical groups like Jamaat-i-Islami have their sympathisers sitting in top administrative places in the country. The conduct of the lower judiciary in Bangladesh, in instances like the Lakehead terror case, is a shocking example. Its many verdicts and soft bent on terrorism is mind-boggling, but quite common — more so than the Government too.

These are the deep-rooted worms that seek to wipe out the Bengali heritage of Bangladesh and make its society and political system