The past 50 years have been a missed opportunity for India and Bangladesh. The two countries’ leadership not only failed to fully exploit the economic potential of the region, but they also couldn’t connect people on both sides of the border. As Bangladesh proudly celebrates its 50th birth anniversary, we need to see how we can tap into the possibilities that lie ahead of us.
Bangladesh’s rise since its liberation in 1971 from the despotic and often cruel rule of the Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan has been phenomenal. The Indian military forces fought alongside the mukti yodhas for the freedom of Bangladesh, but somewhere in the Indian psyche, it still remained as East Pakistan. The advantages of the unique relationship were never fully exploited by both countries. So, we can say that 1971 was an incomplete victory because it failed to connect people to their shared heritage.
Economic benefits never exploited
The Bengal region became victim to the religious narrow outlook prevalent in the sub-continent. Only half-hearted efforts were made to exploit the traditional trading routes of the region. The economic advantages became prey to the ‘trust deficit’ between the leadership of India and Bangladesh. Successive governments in Bangladesh shied away from establishing long-term economic linkages, because they felt it was politically dangerous, often pandering to the sentiments of the Right-wing groups.
At the same time, the Indian leadership too did not rise beyond semantics, often blaming Bangladesh for supporting radical elements in neighbouring states of India. Thorny bilateral issues took centre stage and became part of the political discourse, instead of the leaders looking at the larger economic factors that could have alleviated poverty on both sides of the border. It reflects poorly on the leadership of both the nations that they could not fully understand the economic potential of a once-rich region of the sub-continent. Remember, Bengal (present-day West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Bangladesh and Uttar Pradesh) was one of the most prized assets of the Mughal kingdom.
On the lines of Europe, India should consider having a soft border with Bangladesh that allows free trade and commerce. The region can once again prosper, and bring millions of people out of abject poverty. India and Bangladesh have a stake in each other’s prosperity.
Possibilities are beyond imagination
We should start with connecting Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur through Bangladesh. The issue has been on the table for many years. Transit facility through Bangladesh to these states can be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. Revenue from transit fees will help develop the road infrastructure within Bangladesh. It goes without saying that this will lead to huge economic development all along these motorways. It will also remove the vulnerability of India’s ‘Chicken’s Neck’.
This may not be possible as a standalone agreement, without offering huge economic benefits to Bangladesh. India will have to provide access to Dhaka to freely trade with Nepal and Bhutan through Indian motorways. Just the tourist potential between the countries is huge, provided we can shed distrust and look at the bigger picture.
Another huge advantage to India is that a large number of our forces guarding the borders will be freed for better utilisation elsewhere.
Inland water transport, too, has potential given the number of rivers in the region and it can connect the traditional areas again — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura get connected to the Bay of Bengal, thereby bringing around a new wave of growth, something similar to Europe and the US. The entire Bay of Bengal coast must be looked as one continuous line for common advantage of the people living in the vicinity, just the way it was before the Partition in 1947.
On the geo-strategic front, the gains are unfathomable. Bangladesh will be out of the Chinese influence, as would perhaps Myanmar and, to some extent, Nepal if this initiative succeeds. This will once again bring India to the leadership position in South Asia — only this time, all smaller states will be willingly cooperating for the common economic progress of all people. If China can plan to connect Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia on its own by having bilateral agreements with a large number of countries, why can’t India do it within its own region?
Jai Hind — Jai Bangla
Bengal was the crown jewel of the Mughals. British rule grew only after the battle of Buxar in 1764, when they got access to the revenue of Bengal.
The Partition of 1947 was political in nature. However, 1971 changed the dynamics of the region, but both India and Bangladesh failed to capitalise on the gains from the liberation war.
In the 50th year of the famous Vijay Diwas and the birth of Bangladesh, it is no one’s case that there be a political reunification, but an economic and emotional reunification is possible with a win-win for all. So, let’s stop anti-Bangladesh discourse and also resist calling their people ‘ghuspathiye’ (infiltrators). It is time to take them along for the economic prosperity and well-being of our people.
Forget that Bangladesh is East Pakistan, we have come a long way. As a leader in South Asia, India can change the subtleties as well as the destiny of the region. The opportunity is staring us in the face, it just needs bold leadership and will power.
Maj Gen Yash Mor (retd) @YashMor5 has served in South Kashmir and Punjab in counter-terrorist operations. He is the CEO of Save the Himalayas Foundation, an NGO working on environmental issues. He is a graduate from Command and Staff College, Mirpur, Dhaka. He represented India in the prestigious institution of Bangladesh. He also has a Masters in Defence Strategy from a university in Bangladesh. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)