The geopolitics of Bangladesh* VEENA SIKRI* The unique geopolitical significance of Bangladesh results from myriad interwoven strands, each representing facets of this nation’s complex historical evolution which, in turn, are crucially influenced by specific features of its geographical location. The geographical features of this deltaic nation have evolved in tandem with the changing courses of three of Asia’s great rivers: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. The ancient city of Pundranagara (known today as Mahasthangarh in Bangladesh’s Bogra district) and Vanga (south and south-east districts of present-day Bangladesh) find mention in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. By the 5th century BC, the Indo-Aryan civilization, moving eastward along the Ganges river, was at the doorstep of the Bengal region. The ‘Aryanization’ of Bengal was a gradual process rarely displacing the already deep-rooted local traditions. Little surprise that even today the people of Bengal successfully retain many elements which are non- Aryan and even pre-Aryan in their life and culture. The first Indo-Aryan empire, the Mauryan (321-181 BC) incorporated Varendra, with the capital at Pundranagara, as its easternmost province. Written during this reign, Kautilya’s treatise, Arthasastra (third century BC) has references to the fine cotton fabric of Vanga as an important item of trade throughout India. Beginning with Emperor Ashoka (ca.273-236 BC) Buddhism put down deep roots in Bengal. Subsequently, the Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled Bengal for 400 years beginning in the mid-eighth century. The powerful kingdoms of deltaic Bengal flourished and prospered as a result of their maritime trade with China and other countries, equally when they were part of a pan-Indian empire, such as under Samudragupta in the fourth century AD, or in later centuries, when these kingdoms asserted their independence. This region was renowned for religious tolerance and coexistence where a succession of Hindu and Buddhist rulers patronized the other’s religion. The deltaic region of Bengal was the hub of two overlapping trade diasporas. The one extending westward towards the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by Arabs or Persians; the other extending eastward from the Bay of Bengal was dominated by the Bengalis. The tenth century Arab geographer Masudi recorded the first evidence of Muslims residing in the Pala domains involved in the textile trade. The conquest of Bengal in 1204 by the Turkish cavalry officer Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji (operating in the service of Muhammad Ghuri who had conquered Delhi in 1193) signalled the initiation of the independent Bengal Sultanate that continued right up to the Mughal conquest of Bengal. Bakhtiyar Khalji constructed mosques, madrasas and khanaqahs (shelter for the Sufis and saints). Under the Bengal Sultanate the influence of Islam remained primarily in the urban areas. Bakhtiyar Khalji’s conquest in 1204 was followed by the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Turkey, Iran, Abyssinia, Arabia, Afghanistan, Central Asia and North India. They came as noblemen, judges (qazi), administrators, religious officials (ulema), traders, soldiers and Sufi saints and their followers. They were all part of the Muslim elite or ashraf where foreign origin, either their own or that of their ancestors, was the key element of their identity. Their presence was concentrated in the major towns and cities. Side by side but socially distinct from the ashraf was the increasing number of Muslim urban artisans or industrial workers, grouped into communities according to their occupation, not unlike the jatis of Hindu society. These included weavers, loom-makers, paper-makers, tailors, bow and other weaponry makers, fishmongers and wandering holy men (kalandars). These were the earliest known groups of Bengali Muslims. All this indicates a process of religious conversion that was slow, even leisurely and above all, interactive. The Sufis who came to Bengal were pious mystics rather than holy warriors or ghazis. There is hardly any contemporary evidence of violent conflicts or wars. Rather, there is evidence that the early Sufis of Bengal, attracted by the yogic and cosmological traditions that were widely practiced in Kamrup (Assam), sought to integrate elements of these into their religious lives. The consolidation of Mughal rule in Bengal was a gradual process, begun under Emperor Humayun, pursued with vigour under Emperor Akbar, but completed only under Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627). The provincial capital was moved to Dhaka, which was renamed Jahangirnagar. The incorporation of Bengal as part of the vast Mughal empire in India effectively ended the region’s isolation from the rest of the subcontinent. This brought economic prosperity to Bengal as it greatly stimulated demand for textiles and other manufactured goods. It also hastened agricultural development in Bengal’s huge forested hinterlands. Bengal’s Mughal rulers maintained a clear distinction between matters of religion and matters of state. Mughal officials did not patronize Islam as a state religion. They followed a strictly non-interventionist position in religious matters despite pressure from local mullahs (Muslim preachers) and Sufis to support Islam over other religions. It seems paradoxical that despite a policy of non-intervention, it is precisely during this period that Islam spread beyond the urban areas to become the religion of the cultivators in the vast rural hinterland of Bengal. This is particularly true of East Bengal, the present-day Bangladesh. Prior to the 1550s, the lack of direct riverine contact between East Bengal and the areas to the West, including upper India, had inhibited the development of this region. After this, however, the Ganga intensified its steady move eastwards and by the late 17th century had linked up with the Padma river and begun flowing through the heart of Bengal. This had a dramatic impact on the development of East Bengal. The alluvial silt of the Ganga allowed wet rice cultivation in increasingly large tracts of land. Cash crops such as cotton and silk flourished. The easy availability of fertile land led to the rapid expansion of rice-production and of population-density in the East as compared to the western regions of Bengal. In order to meet its objective of maximizing revenue collection, the Mughal revenue system recognized the importance of keeping the cultivators content and incentivized so that they would continue to bring more and more virgin forest lands under the plough. The forest pioneer became the key figure who was carefully chosen and given zamindari (land rights) on favourable terms, including tax-free tenures of land as well as grants in exchange for certain conditions. These included maintaining loyalty to the Mughal state and encouraging religious development by building a temple or mosque on the land which would be supported in perpetuity by the yield produced. Subsequent religious and demographic patterns in the eastern region evolved in direct proportion to the number of grants given to Hindu or Muslim land pioneers. Since the majority of such pioneers were Muslims, it was mosques and Islamic piety that developed throughout East Bengal. Those seeking tax-free land included local chieftains and pirs, mullahs and pilgrims returned from Mecca. The people attracted to the mosques came as peasant cultivators or ‘clients’ of the zamindar who gave them advances of rice, seeds and cash. They did not see themselves as being ‘converted’ to a new religion or as breaking with their past, but rather as accepting new ideas which gradually seeped into and became part of their own local cosmologies. The advent of Islam in Bengal has been an assimilative, composite and gentle process. Bengal’s Hindu and Buddhist traditions, stretching into the ancient past have seeped deeply into the cultural consciousness of the people of Bengal. The coming of Islam beginning with the 13th century greatly added to the richness of Bengali civilization, thinking and culture: Islam metamorphosed and strengthened these, without supplanting or destroying them. Indeed, the spread of Islam into the rural areas of Bengal during the Mughal rule had been so accommodative and non-confrontational that the successor regime of British colonial rulers remained unaware of it. It is only the results of the first official census of Bengal province in 1872 that revealed Muslims as 70% or more in the districts of Chittagong, Noakhali, Pabna and Rajshahi and over 80% in Bogra. With the exception of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, where the population of Muslims was less than 10%, all the districts of east Bengal, corresponding approximately to present day Bangladesh, had a Muslim population exceeding 50%. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company acquired full control over the Bengal delta and over large areas of land to the West in the Gangetic plains. The new system of land taxation introduced in the early years of the British colonial period, which came to be known as the ‘permanent settlement’, made the zamindars the de facto land owners. Over time the composition of the zamindars changed. While Muslims had predominated during the reclamation of the eastern deltaic lands during the Mughal period, the British colonial period saw the Hindu landlords emerge as the dominant group. In the 19th century efforts were made to ‘reform’ Bengali Muslim society that was perceived to have been influenced by Hindu traditions. The Wahhabi, Faraizi and Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya movements sought to shape a distinct identity for the Bengal Muslims. Smultaneous reform movements in Hindu society also created divergences between the two communities. The conservative elements stressed ‘purist Islam’ and urged the Muslims to give up Sufi practices. Despite this, Bengali Muslims and Hindus, particularly in the rural areas, continued with their older way of life to a remarkable degree. Islam in Bengal retained its strong Sufi and syncretic traditions. Many historians see the British decision to partition Bengal in 1905 as a calculated move to break the anti-colonial movement, which was particularly strong in Bengal, and to ‘divide and rule’ the Bengali speaking population. The partition of Bengal politicized the relationship between the two major religious communities in a way that had never happened before. In many ways this was the culmination of the process begun by the British after the 1872 Census, namely treating the Muslims as a separate community, thereby encouraging the development of political consciousness on the basis of religious identity. Even though in 1911 the British reversed their decision on the partition of Bengal in the face of staunch and unremitting nationalist opposition, already by 1906 the idea of a political party representing all Muslims had become a reality with the establishment in Dhaka of the All-India Muslim League. The Muslim League received huge popular support in Bengal in the 1945-46 elections. All this laid the foundation for the partition of India at independence in 1947. Though the Bengali Muslim voted overwhelmingly for the creation of Pakistan in 1947, this did not in any way weaken the umbilical cord that tied him to his strong cultural and linguistic heritage. The people of Bangladesh have always been dynamic participants in the political process, clear-headed about their goals. They cannot forget that for millennia the way of life in Bangladesh has been non-communal. For the Bengali Muslim peasantry the idea of Pakistan meant economic emancipation and freedom from exploitation by the largely Hindu zamindars, though efforts were made to give uniquely religious overtones to the exploitation of Muslim peasants by Hindu landlords. Yet, in the words of A.K. Fazlul Haq (his Krishak Praja Party-KPP had a non-communal basis, representing peasant interests irrespective of religion) speaking in the All India Muslim League Conference in Delhi in 1918, ‘As regards the oppression of Hindu landlords, money lenders, lawyers and others, I do not think that the Mohammedan representatives of these sections of the society are more merciful to their respective victims. The relations between a landlord and his tenant, between a money-lender and his debtor, between a lawyer and his client are merely personal and individual and one seldom affected by communal considerations.’1 In 1971, less than a quarter century after independence from colonial rule in 1947, the Muslims of Bengal in the then East Pakistan, reasserting their Bengali identity, destroyed the Pakistan they had been instrumental in creating. Religious symbols were superceded by linguistic and cultural ones. Disaffection with the political and economic policies of the Government of Pakistan led to a reassertion of the regional identity, the traditional, syncretic identity that has for millennia defined the people living in what is today Bangladesh. That East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, has had such a tumultuous history over the last six decades is in many significant ways a direct result of the repeated disappointments that its people have faced in their yearning for democratic and participatory governance that could bring an end to exploitation and lead to stability, prosperity and a better life for all. Every military dictator that has taken over power in Pakistan and in Bangladesh after 1971 (Generals Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad and the army-backed caretaker government in 2007-08) has come in with pious assurances that he considers himself or his regime as a ‘temporary caretaker’, that he has no personal political ambition other than the creation of conditions conducive to the establishment of a constitutional government, that he is interested only in ending corruption and bringing in administrative reforms in order to ensure free and fair elections. Invariably, after an initial honeymoon, the people’s hopes have been belied, their patience exhausted as their sufferings increased manifold beyond all tolerable limits. Each time in Bangladesh, the gathering strength of the people’s movement has then forced a return to democracy or, as happened in 1971, led to the birth of Bangladesh. The Pakistan Army’s military crackdown in Dhaka beginning 25 March 1971 was so aggressive and cruel that it has been described as ‘a planned genocide.2 Over 10 million refugees from East Pakistan came to India, seeking shelter and escape from the marauding Pakistan Army. It is a tribute to the remarkable resilience and courage of the people of Bangladesh that despite such formidable odds, they remained unbowed. The Pakistan Army’s terror tactics of indiscriminately killing intellectuals, women, peasants, eminent civil society and minority community members made the people of Bangladesh rise up as one. Young people, particularly students, as also farmers, teachers, political workers and government employees thronged to join the Mukti Bahini, where they were given rudimentary military training before they went off to fight. Over a period of nine months, these freedom fighters strengthened their operations from uncoordinated resistance to increasingly spectacular guerrilla operations, daring well-coordinated exercises, capturing police stations, ambushing military formations and killing Razakars/collaborators. By October 1971, the freedom fighters were holding large areas under their control. The mutual cooperation between the Mukti Bahini and the Indian forces was formalized by setting up a Joint Command and finally, on 16 December 1971, the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Joint Command. After this epic struggle to attain nationhood, it is not at all surprising that the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh embodied the four pillars which define Bangladesh’s core interests namely, nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as the fundamental principles of state policy. The liberation war had been fought to protect Bengali culture and language (nationalism), oppose economic exploitation and subjugation (socialism), fight against military dictatorship and bring about participatory governance (democracy), and ensure a non-discriminatory, non-communal society, where religion would play no role in politics and the state would be equidistant from all religions (secularism). Religion-based political parties were banned under this Constitution. For all this, the people remain indebted to the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangladesh’s Constitution has gone through several amendments, particularly at the hands of its military dictators. Ziaur Rahman amended the Constitution to replace the word secularism with ‘absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah’ which should be ‘the basis of all actions’. Religion-based political parties were no longer banned. H.M. Ershad brought in a constitutional amendment that declared Islam the state religion. These constitutional amendments still stand. Even so the people’s commitment to the core principles enshrined in the 1972 Constitution continues to run deep. The strength of this commitment forced a peaceful return to democracy in 1991 after more than 15 years of military rule: a unique example which has few parallels anywhere. In the December 2008 elections the people of Bangladesh voted with an overwhelming majority to bring the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina back to power. The youth of Bangladesh (more than 50% of the electorate were first-time or second-time voters) put their faith in the Awami League manifesto which promised good governance based on the principles enshrined in the 1972 Constitution, including secularism, fight against militancy and religious fundamentalism, economic growth with social justice and good neighbourly relations with all. Significantly the December 2008 vote was equally a rejection of the negative focus chosen by the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition. Their anti-Awami League slogans such as ‘Islam in danger’ and ‘Bangladesh’s sovereignty in danger’ did not resonate with the youth of Bangladesh. Thirty seven years after the 1971 liberation war, the issue of holding war crime trials has become among the evocative and central issues debated before, during and after the December 2008 elections. The Awami League government is committed to holding these trials. The vote for the Awami League reflects the realization and acceptance that those ideologically opposed to the creation of Bangladesh (and their supporters) cannot help the nation in any way, and so do not deserve support. The December 2008 elections, among the most free and fair to be held in the country, are a positive, healthy sign that the process of democratization has put down strong roots in Bangladesh. Nonetheless, there is no room for complacency. The challengers of this process, those who have a vested interest in destabilizing democracy in Bangladesh are many, both within the country and without. The geopolitical sensitivity of Bangladesh’s location has made it a conduit for targeting neighbouring countries. Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides by India with whom she shares a long border, a little over 4000 km. This border is porous and, for the most part, densely populated. India, too, has its longest land border with Bangladesh, more than with China or with any other neighbour. This makes for a strong interdependency between India and Bangladesh that does result in a sensitive and sometimes troubling bilateral relationship. A good relationship with India is among the more important geopolitical imperatives for Bangladesh. The same holds true for India as regards its relationship with Bangladesh. Throughout history, the Bengal province has had a balanced and integrative relationship with the rest of India, either as part of a pan-Indian empire or as an independent kingdom or group of kingdoms. Bangladesh has prospered whenever it has joined its fortunes to the region in which it is located, namely South Asia. Bangladesh has vast reservoirs of resources in terms of manpower skills, fertile land, abundant water and natural gas to name just a few. The most effective development of these resources needs the hinterland of South Asia. The value added products can then be remuneratively traded across the world. The partition of India in August 1947 and the formation of East Pakistan completely disrupted, even destroyed, the traditionally interactive and mutually beneficial economic, social and political relationship that had existed for millennia within this region. First came the demographic disruption. It has been estimated that by early 1948 about 800,000 people from India had migrated to East Pakistan, and about a million people from East Pakistan had crossed over to India. There was a second surge in such cross-border migration in 1950 after the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Khan Agreement of April 1950. Often there was a fair amount of return migration after each exodus, but after the third surge in 1952, just before passports and visas became compulsory for moving between East Pakistan and the rest of India, cross-border migration reduced substantially, though only for a while. In 1971, after the genocide launched at the end of March by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, around 10 million refugees fled to India. Most of them returned to Bangladesh at the end of the liberation war. Nonetheless, demographic issues continue to be of major significance and geopolitical concern to Bangladesh and to India. Fertility rates in Bangladesh have most commendably halved since 1971. Despite this the nation’s total population is well over 140 million today and is expected to reach 250 million by the year 2050. Population density is around 1064 persons per square kilometre in Bangladesh, compared to 124 for Asia and 345 for India. Two thirds of the population is still employed in agriculture, even though this sector now generates only twenty per cent of the GDP. The resultant disguised unemployment or under employment in Bangladesh has created huge pressures for external migration of unskilled labour. Most of the nation is low-lying with much of the deltaic region being at most a few metres above sea level. Bangladesh is likely to be among the most severely affected nations if the dire warnings about climate change, global warming and rising sea levels come true. The pressures for emigration will increase manifold, with India being first in line to face the brunt of this pressure. Already, illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India, which includes trafficking of women and children, is a matter of serious concern for the Government of India. Changes in the demographic structure and pattern in the districts bordering Bangladesh in five Indian states indicate that the problem does exist and is continuing. It is only once, in May 1992, in the Joint Communique issued at the end of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s visit to India, that there was an acknowledgement of ‘the problems being caused due to large-scale illegal immigration of people across borders.’ Subsequently, most governments in Bangladesh have been in denial mode on the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India. However, on 17 June 2008 the Home Adviser under the army-backed CTG accepted that ‘every day 50 Bangladeshi girls are lured across the border and sold… Reportedly 400,000 Bangladeshi women are engaged in forced prostitution in India while 300,000 boys have been trafficked to that country.’3 This admission can in itself be the starting point for solution-seeking discussions. Bangladesh routinely has bilateral discussions on immigration issues relating to their nationals living and working abroad (even quasi-legally) with foreign governments, be it Malaysia, South Korea, Italy or the UK. There is no reason why similar issues concerning Bangladeshi nationals living and working in India (even illegally) cannot be included in the comprehensive dialogue with India. The Government of India must seriously tackle the crucial matter of issuing unique identity cards for its citizens, something that the Government of Bangladesh has very effectively done over the last two years (2007 and 2008) under the army-backed caretaker government. In economic terms, the 1947 partition ‘amputated’ East Bengal and cut it off from the prosperity that its participation, along with West Bengal, in the regional economy with Assam, Tripura and other regions of Northeast India had ensured for centuries. Immediately after partition, the road, rail and riverine transport connectivity between and through East Pakistan to the rest of India remained in place. Most of these links were snapped after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Formal trade links with India were almost immediately prohibited by the Government of Pakistan after 1947. Thus East Pakistan, which grew most of the world’s jute, could no longer supply this raw material to the more than 100 processing factories that now fell within West Bengal in India. This interdiction of formal trade resulted in unauthorized cross-border exchanges. Since then this brisk and ever-growing illegal smuggling has proved to be difficult, if not impossible, to stamp out. Today, the illegal smuggling and unauthorized border trade is estimated to be as much as if not more than the officially documented bilateral trade between Bangladesh and India, over US $3.5 billion a year. This has generated its own sub-group of vested interests, which impinge adversely on border management and related security issues. Trade, economic and investment cooperation issues lie at the heart of the India- Bangladesh relationship. The largest numbers of people on both sides, for the most part small and medium traders and entrepreneurs, are involved in some form of trade and allied economic activity between Bangladesh and India. Facilitating trade and economic cooperation between India and Bangladesh is crucial for generating goodwill and bringing shared prosperity to both countries. The balance of trade is hugely adverse against Bangladesh. This is a matter of great sensitivity in Bangladesh, even though there is, in most years, an even larger adverse trade balance for Bangladesh with China. In recent years the Government of India has been positive and liberal towards Bangladesh on trade related issues through a number of unilateral concessions, both bilaterally and within the ambit of SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). Major steps have been taken to dismantle any perceived or real non-tariff barriers in trade between Bangladesh and India. A significant pathway to strengthening economic interaction between Bangladesh and India lies in promoting cross-border investments. Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India can be managed by encouraging large investments from India. Bangladesh can then emerge as a manufacturing base for exports to India. The Agreement on Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection signed between India and Bangladesh in February 2009 is one such important facilitator. This should ease the consideration and approval of major investment proposals such as the one made by India’s Tata group of companies for a $3 billion investment in Bangladesh. Both countries should be willing to consider innovative mechanisms and ideas wherever feasible. One such proposal is to create an investment fund or stabilisation fund to encourage the investment of bilateral trade surpluses into Bangladesh for projects that would improve connectivity and promote infrastructure development. Indeed, if it is to be lasting and effective, this process of trade and investment facilitation must encompass almost every aspect of the bilateral relationship, including transport, communications and connectivity. Connectivity or ‘transit’ issues (by road, rail and water) have become highly sensitive and politicized in the context of India- Bangladesh relations. The very emotive debate within Bangladesh on this issue has sought to draw a distinction between well-established global practices on transit and the case for India on the grounds that allowing transit through Bangladesh to two parts of the same country (India) is somehow ‘different’. In reality, however, connectivity issues are far less complex than they are made out to be. Today the younger generation in Bangladesh, the first and second time voter that brought the Awami League to power with an impressive majority in the December 2008 elections, appears more interested in a rational discussion rather than an emotive response on issues like transit and water resources. Senior ministers in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet have urged that this matter be considered from an economic rather than just a political perspective. Security related issues are today the single most important concern for both Bangladesh and India. The partition of India in 1947 tore asunder the shared security space and the common concerns of pre-independent India in this regard. The security situation within East Pakistan deteriorated rapidly between 1947 and 1971. The 1962 Sino-Indian War sharply altered the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent. Its aftermath saw the emergence of a new ‘all-weather’ friendship between Pakistan and China. This is when East Pakistan began to be increasingly used as the base for logistics, training and infrastructure support to insurgent groups in India’s north eastern states. This was perceived by India as a grave security threat. The support for Indian insurgent groups from the soil of Bangladesh has continued, particularly after 1975. In recent years, Bangladesh has also seen a spurt in the activities of Islamist and religious fundamentalist groups based in its territory, most of whom are involved in violence and terrorism. Perhaps the sharpest rise in such groups and activities took place post-2001. The coming to power of the BNP-Jamaat alliance government led by Khaleda Zia in October 2001 coincided with the post- 9/11 end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Foreign supporters of the Taliban dispersed to their respective countries. Those returning to Bangladesh found tacit support for their activities through the proverbial blind eye policy adopted towards them by the government of the day. It is only now, after the December 2008 elections returned the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League to power with an overwhelming majority, that corroborative evidence of such activities is coming to light. Fresh investigations into the infamous 2004 Chittagong arms haul case have revealed the deep nexus between Pakistan’s ISI, Bangladesh’s intelligence agency NSI (National Security Intelligence) and India’s ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom), the Assam-based terrorist insurgent group. Similarly, in May 2009, the Bangladesh police, acting purposefully on a tip-off received from Interpol, were successful in unearthing the substantial network throughout their country that is being run by well-known mafia don, Dawood Ibrahim and his second in command, Chhota Shakeel. This further confirmed India’s assessment about agencies, institutions and terrorist groups in Pakistan using Bangladesh as a launching pad for operations in India. The September 2009 visit to Delhi by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has been path-breaking in the spirit of accommodation and solution-seeking approach shown by both sides. After long years, mutual benefit rather than mutual recrimination was the order of the day. The decisions announced in sectors such as water resources, trade and economic cooperation, security and jointly combating terrorism as well as on connectivity by road, rail and water show tremendous potential. These are expected to be firmed up as agreements and projects during the forthcoming visit to India by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. India should not hesitate in extending generous grants and soft loans to Bangladesh for important projects such as the Ganges Barrage project and the modernization of the Bangladesh railway system. This will go far in bridging misunderstandings. It will demonstrate to the people of Bangladesh India’s genuine interest in their prosperity and well-being. It will yield rich dividends by developing to its full potential the geopolitics of Bangladesh’s relations with the sub-region that surrounds it. From 1969 onwards Pakistan was the conduit or back-channel in the rapprochement between USA and China, leading to the breakthrough secret visit by Henry Kissinger to Beijing in July 1971. This visit took place via Pakistan. As a result, both USA and China had very different perspectives from India’s about the events in East Pakistan leading to the liberation war of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh, tending to see events much more through the prism of Cold War politics. China and USA were apprehensive and seriously concerned about the drastic changes in the geopolitics of the subcontinent that could result from the break-up of Pakistan, in particular if the new state of Bangladesh held different views (from Pakistan’s) on relationships with India and the then Soviet Union. This meant that it was Pakistan’s interests rather than the situation on the ground that became the key determinant in USA’s and China’s approach to the events of 1971. The mass genocide unleashed by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, the untold sufferings of the people of East Pakistan, their determined struggle for representative and participatory governance, all these cut little ice with the governments of the day in USA and China. China accorded diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh only after the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975 by a group of army officers. Prior to this China had exercised its veto power in the Security Council in 1972 and in early 1973 to block Bangladesh’s membership of the UN. Subsequently, however, after the military regime under Ziaur Rahman signalled changes in the nation’s foreign policy by distancing itself from India, Bangladesh and China have developed close military, economic and commercial ties. According to a report submitted to the UN by China in 2006 (pertaining to its exports and imports of major conventional arms), Bangladesh is now among the single largest buyers of weapons and defence equipment made in China. The Bangladesh Army has Chinese tanks, sub-machine guns, rifles and pistols, the Bangladesh Navy has Chinese frigates and missile boats, and the Bangladesh Air Force flies Chinese fighter jets. In 2002 China and Bangladesh signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement which covers military training and defence production. The Times of India on 12 September 2008 reported that Bangladesh has set up a missile launch pad near Chittagong port (Kutubdia Island) with assistance from China. The maiden missile test was carried out on 12 May 2008 with the participation of Chinese experts, with the successful test firing of an anti-ship cruise missile C-802A with a range of upto 120 km. China has extensive trade, economic and commercial linkages with Bangladesh. China is Bangladesh’s second largest trading partner, after India. As with India, the balance of trade is heavily tilted in favour of China. However, Bangladesh’s exports to China are much lower than their exports to India. China has very few investments in Bangladesh but China has been generous in building a major convention centre, as well as six ‘friendship bridges’ over various rivers throughout the country. China has also been awarded several lucrative contracts by the Bangladesh government for construction of power plants, in the coal mining sector and in the modernization of Chittagong port. Since 1975 China has extended assistance totalling over US $1.5 billion to Bangladesh. This includes US $321 million as grant, $227 million as soft loans and $928 million as supplier’s credit or hard loans. In July 2009, at the meeting of the Bangladesh- China Joint Economic Commission held in Beijing after a gap of four years the Bangladesh delegation sought further assistance of more than US $5 billion from the Chinese government to implement 28 projects in the telecommunications, infrastructure, energy and health sectors. As against this China has offered US $1 billion for five projects (largely on supplier’s credit) including a seventh friendship bridge, an exhibition centre, a fertilizer factory, a water treatment plant and digital telecommunication networks in the metropolitan areas. Some acolytes see all this adding up to Bangladesh now falling in the same category as Pakistan, namely an ‘all-weather friend’ for China. It is not quite clear whether this is merely an expression of desire by certain quarters in Bangladesh or a ‘status’ accepted by both sides. In either case one cannot escape the geopolitical reality that ‘over time, Chinese postures towards Bangladesh shifted from opposition to support, adjusting to the broader strategy of denying influence in the region to its perceived major adversaries, the Soviet Union and India.’4 The Pakistan-Bangladesh relationship is much more complex. The Government of Pakistan has rarely shown any interest in or concern about the people living in what was first East Pakistan and later became Bangladesh. Even today the people-to-people contacts and exchanges between Bangladesh and Pakistan remain minimal. In 1971 the Pakistan Army inflicted genocide on its Bengali compatriots rather than let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman become Prime Minister of Pakistan. The average Bangladeshi still feels that his Pakistani counterpart does not consider him an equal. The Pakistan Army’s geo-strategic interests in Bangladesh remain intense even after it suffered a humiliating defeat with the birth of Bangladesh. With its predominantly Muslim population, Bangladesh gets factored into the Pakistan Army’s strategic calculus as part of its anti-India stance. After the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975, two successive military regimes in Bangladesh once again ensured a fertile ground for Pakistan to launch its anti-state activities in India’s northeastern states, in Jammu and Kashmir and in other parts of India. The Pakistan Army seeks to inculcate its virulent anti-India stance among its interlocutors in Bangladesh. The Pakistan-China strategic nexus is brought into full play to influence Bangladesh in this regard. The Pakistan Army and ISI have successfully retained active links with the Bangladesh Army, with Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies (DGFI, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, and NSI, National Security Intelligence, both officered from the army), and with religion-based political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The results of these linkages were seen most prominently during the BNP-Jamaat alliance government between 2001 and 2006. Evidence is now emerging regarding Pakistan’s involvement in the 2004 Chittagong arms haul and several other events in Bangladesh. It is only in 2005 that the Bangladesh government could for the first time appoint as chief of army staff an officer, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, who had been trained in the Bangladesh Military Academy as opposed to all previous army chiefs who had begun their careers with the Pakistan Army. As a result there has perhaps been a subtle yet distinct shift in the civil-military relationship in Bangladesh over the last two to three years. There is a group of officers who would like to see a predominant role for the army along the lines of the Pakistan model. However, larger numbers, particularly junior officers (Lt Colonel and below) favour stable civilian control, with continuation and strengthening of Bangladesh’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations. Gen. Moeen Ahmed has on two crucial occasions (just after the BDR mutiny and carnage on 27 February 2009 and when he ended the emergency on the eve of the December 2008 elections) publicly acknowledged that the armed forces are always ‘subservient to the government’,5 and that ‘the army would be deployed only as per government directives.’6 The December 2008 election results in Bangladesh are in many ways a clear indication of the younger generation’s aversion both to a stronger role for the army in Bangladesh and to interference by outside powers in domestic issues. The Pakistan government has come out openly against the resolution adopted by the Bangladesh Parliament in January 2009 on holding war crime trials. They are seeking the support of the Government of Saudi Arabia to bring pressure on the Bangladesh government to go slow on this. Pakistan is also resisting renewed demands in Bangladesh for a formal apology from Pakistan for the events of 1971, particularly the ‘killing of three million Bangladeshis and rape of 300,000 women by the Pakistani army during the bloody nine-month war.’7 These recent developments have weakened the hitherto strong linkages between the armies and intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Whether this is a temporary phenomenon or an irreversible process only time will tell. Throughout 1971 and for long years after that, the USA has continued to look at Bangladesh through the prism of Pakistan’s geopolitical interests and ambitions. Eminent authors like Nurul Islam,8 Lawrence Lifschultz9 and Ali Riaz,10 the latter quoting US Department of State documents (‘Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), XI’) released in 2005, have estimated the extent to which the US government had prior knowledge about events leading up to and during the liberation war of 1971, as well as the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975. US military assistance to Bangladesh began only after August 1975. This was justified as necessary to ensure the ‘stability’ of the then Government of Bangladesh, described as ‘dominated by pragmatic military leaders.’ Such assistance, it was said, would ‘help to improve an institution which contributes to stability in Bangladesh and in the region.’11 Even in January 2007, when the army-backed caretaker government assumed power in Dhaka, there were apprehensions expressed about the extent to which this regime had the blessings of the USA, UK and other donor countries. The western donor countries strongly contest the description in the International Crisis Group (ICG) Report that the 11 January 2007 events were ‘an internationally inspired military coup.’ Nonetheless, this report quotes a senior Bangladeshi military official as claiming that ‘the British, Americans, Australians and the Canadians were heavily involved in bringing the military in’ and that there was even ‘low-key support from (UN) headquarters for it (the coup).’12 Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s South Asia correspondent, Peter Lloyd, writing on 8 June 2007, quotes influential Bangladeshi newspaper editor Nurul Kabir as saying that the western countries ‘not only courted military intervention but campaigned for civilian politicians to accept it back in January.’13 During these years the USA’s assessment about religion-based political parties in Bangladesh, too, has tended to coincide with that of Pakistan. There has been a sea-change since January 2009 with the almost simultaneous coming to power of President Obama in Washington and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. The three D’s of US policy towards Bangladesh are now described as focusing on democracy, development and depriving the terrorists (and extremists) safe haven and freedom of action. This coincides well with Sheikh Hasina’s own priorities. The million- strong Bangladeshi origin community in USA and the vibrant trade exchanges between the USA and Bangladesh are receiving fresh attention from both countries. The US Ambassador in Dhaka has welcomed the Bangladesh government’s proposal to conduct war crime trials. In a public speech in Dhaka on 2 September 2009 he described the role of his country during the 1971 liberation war as a ‘tragic mistake.’14 These positive signs that the USA is now assessing Bangladesh much more on its own merits rather than through the prism of Pakistan were reaffirmed during Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s visit to Washington in mid-September 2009. During their joint press conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that US support to Bangladesh is now focused on strengthening democracy and democratic institutions, promoting economic development and countering terrorism. The location of Bangladesh gives it immense geostrategic significance. True, it is hemmed in by India on three sides. There need be no negativity associated with this, no feeling of claustrophobia. Successive military regimes and BNP-Jamaat coalition governments have sought to exploit public sentiment by creating a bugbear, the Indian hegemon, in order to perpetuate their hold on political power. They fan anti-India sentiments by creating phobias about any over-dependence on India impacting adversely on Bangladesh’s sovereignty. Third countries have tried to exploit such feelings by using Bangladesh for their own selfish purposes, against India or at least as a trouble-maker for India. The western countries too, have not been immune from such propaganda and process. India, on its part, could have done much more, much earlier, to allay such feelings and shore up its bilateral relationship with Bangladesh. The fact is that India needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India. The synergy and complementarities between the two are evident, whether deep in the historical past or in contemporary times. Once these are developed it can only be a win- win situation. If India needs connectivity through Bangladesh to access its northeastern states, Bangladesh can benefit enormously from such connectivity for sourcing raw materials and finding new markets for its manufactured products. Similarly, improved connectivity for Bangladesh through India to Nepal and Bhutan will do wonders for the economic prosperity of this sub-region, comprising the growth quadrilateral of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India’s Northeast. The power-grid interconnectivity that is now being planned for Bangladesh and India will go far in meeting Bangladesh’s crippling energy deficit. It will allow Bangladesh to tap into the regional and sub-regional power surpluses even on an intra- day basis, so that its burgeoning industrial growth is not hampered in any way. Bangladesh and India can better equip themselves to face the challenges of globalization if they work together, in tandem with each other rather than against each other’s interests. Effectively tackling the entire gamut of issues relating to security, including terrorism, fundamentalism and extremist violence is another area where the commonality of interests is increasingly evident. At one time not so long ago certain Bangladesh leaders described the insurgent groups in Northeast India as ‘freedom fighters’. Knowingly or unknowingly allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for activities against a neighbour by terrorist or fundamentalist groups has in no way helped Bangladesh. Rather it has caused a manifold increase in the violence and instability within Bangladesh. This realization, reflected by the Awami League through their pledge not to allow the territory of Bangladesh to be used against any neighbour, brought them overwhelming public support in the December 2008 elections. Bangladesh and India have now decided to sign a bilateral agreement on combating international terrorism, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking. Good relations with India do not in any way preclude the development of strong and positive partnerships for Bangladesh with other nations, be it China, USA, the EU, Pakistan, Malaysia or anyone else. Rather, Bangladesh will feel more confident in direct proportion to the extent and strength of its interaction with nations across the globe. Already, Bangladesh has earned an excellent reputation for its participation in UN peacekeeping operations. This professional appreciation from all quarters is bound to grow in the years to come. Similarly, Bangladesh’s steady rate of growth and industrial development will enhance its standing in the regional context, and will bring it internal stability by alleviating poverty. The people of Bangladesh have shown their determined commitment to democracy and a better economic future for themselves. Sheikh Hasina’s government plans to transform Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021. However, vested interests need to be neutralized for Bangladesh to once again emerge as a regional hub. As a maritime and trading nation Bangladesh can serve as an effective bridge between South and Southeast Asia. Regional groupings such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) which straddles South Asia and Southeast Asia can help Bangladesh reach its full geopolitical potential. Footnotes: 1. Quoted in Dr. Smruti Pattanaik, ‘Bangladesh’s Contested Nationhood : Sacred Versus the Secular’. Paper presented at IDSA (Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses), New Delhi, August 2004, p. 9. 2. A.M.A. Muhith, Bangladesh: Emergence of a Nation, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, second revised edition, 1992, p. 248. 3. ‘50 Bangladesh Women Trafficked to India a Day, says Home Adviser’, The Daily Star, 18 June 2008. 4. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury ‘A Method in the Dragon’s Moods: Why China Behaves as it Does’, ISAS Working Paper No. 75, 12 July 2009, p. 14. 5. Quoted in New Age, an English daily published from Dhaka, on 28 February 2009. 6. Daily Star, 17 December 2008. 7. Report carried by IANS (India Abroad News Service) on 8 June 2009. 8. Making of a Nation: Bangladesh by Nurul Islam, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2003, p. 109. 9. Lawrence Lifschultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, Zed Press, London, 1979. 10. ‘Beyond the Tilt: US Initiatives to Dissipate Bangladesh Movement in 1971’, published on 13 February 2007, accessed on http://www.mukto- mona.com/Articles/ali_riaz/US_role122305.htm on 11 September 2009. 11. Lawrence Lifschultz, ibid, p. 109-110, quoted from US State Department, Congressional Presentation, FY 1978, Security Assistance Program, Volume 1. 12. ‘Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh’, Asia Report No. 51 of the International Crisis Group (ICG), April 2008. The ICG, based in Brussels, was founded in 1995 as a non-partisan, non-governmental organization working on conflict analysis. They annually publish around 90 reports/briefing papers as well as the monthly CrisisWatch Bulletin. 13. Peter Lloyd, ‘Evidence mounts of Bangladesh Mass Torture’, ABC News, 8 June 2007 at www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200706/s1945599.htm 14. Quoted in The Daily Star, 3 September 2009. *This paper was presented in the seminar “BANGLADESH TURNAROUND,a symposium on the country's return to democracy” held in November 2009 in India. * Veena Sikri, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh; currently Professor, Ford Foundation Chair, Bangladesh Studies Programme, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.