The geopolitics of Bangladesh

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					                  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

       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

       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

        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

       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

       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

        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.


      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

        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- 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

        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.