Human Cost of Indian Agenda

The recent tension between Bangladesh and India over the later’s repeated attempts to push several hundred people with disputed citizenship into Bangladesh territory is fast escalating, embittering bilateral relations. Besides, the Indian attitude might contribute to further polarization of people on both sides of the border along communal lines, which will be bad news for those committed to the liberal democratic process. It all began with India BJP-led government especially its extremely fundamentalist Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, claiming on January 7 that “Bangladeshi immigrants, estimated to be over 20 million, posed the biggest threat to national security”. Mr. Advani, who had played a pivotal role in Babri Mosque demolition, said:

“Immediate steps should be taken to identify them (the immigrants), locate them and throw them out. The problem needs to be tackled firmly by all states.” Bangladesh rejected his claim as “absurd”.

Meanwhile, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, senior vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is a close ally of the BJP, announced in Guwahati on Jan 30, that they “would conduct a headcount of Bangladeshis staying illegally in India in March this year to “find out the exact number of Bangladeshi infiltrators and then set a timeframe for the federal government to deport them”. Claiming that the headcount would take two weeks, the Acharya warned of a “public revolt” if the government failed to deport the Bangladeshis within his prescribed timeframe.

But much before the beginning of Advani’s identification process of the so-called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants or the Acharya’s headcount drive, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) gathered several hundred Bangla-speaking destitute from different parts of India, largely on Bangladesh’s northern frontier, and tried to force them into Bangladesh territory. The only proof India is putting forward is that the people in question are Muslims and speak Bengali, conveniently forgetting that Indian national of West Bengal also speak Bengali, and that there are still supposed to be Muslims in India.

The BSF has so far made at least 46 attempts to push a few hundred people into Bangladesh. The border security guards of Bangladesh, BDR, on the other hand, have reportedly been foiling the attempts amidst what Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes has described as a beefing up of Indian troops near the Bangladesh border. Bangladesh has repeatedly expressed “deep concern” over the Indian attempts to force out “several hundred Bangla-speaking Indian Muslims” and had refused to allow “any of these people to enter”.

Caught in this severe predicament, the hundreds of poor men, women and children – Hindu or Muslim, Indian or Bangladeshi – are living a miserable life under the open sky. Reports have it that at least one person has already died of starvation, while some of them are suffering from bullet injuries sustained in crossfire between the border guards of the two sides.

Mr George Fernandes reportedly told Indian reporters on February 5 that “additional BSF personnel had been deployed” in the border areas, saying “things have unfortunately gone beyond control.” But Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha does not believe that things have already gone out of control and said his country “does not want the situation to blow up, to get out of hand.”

He has also invited Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan to India for a dialogue over the issue. Mr. Khan told reporters in Dhaka on February 6 that he would go to India on a mutually agreed date. However, he also said something that is being considered here extremely patronizing. According to the Mr. Sinha, “we have always looked at Bangladesh as a very friendly neighbour. We don’t want any quarrel with them. In India there are a lot of sentiments for Bangladesh, because we had a role in their independence struggle. I don’t know if these sentiments are shared by Bangladeshis. They may or may not admit it today. But the fact is Indian blood flowed alongside Bangladeshi blood in their liberation struggle, and we can’t forget that.” There is no doubt that India helped Bangladesh in its war of independence. But the price “flowed alongside Bangladeshi blood in their liberation struggle” is extracting a heavy toll in both human and economic terms.

The Indian BSF has killed 203 Bangladeshis in 25 months between January 1, 2001, and Jan 31 this year. Besides, 298 people have been injured, 503 arrested and 164 kidnapped.

Bangladesh suffers an annual trade deficit with India of at least US $2.7 billion – the $1.5 billion in informal trade and $1.2 billion in the formal sector.

India has also consistently refusing to meet Bangladesh’s rightful demand as a LDC to get preferential treatment of its goods under the existing agreements. After years of negotiations, Delhi to provide duty-free access to 40 items in 25 categories in August, 2002 but Dhaka found that most of the items lacked export potential.

India has hardly followed the international agreements signed with Bangladesh, the Ganges water sharing treaty being a glaring example. Bangladesh received 5,465 cubic feet per second (cusec) less water from the Ganges than the share fixed in the treaty during the last 10 days of January. The first 10-day cycle was no exception. Bangladesh receiving 3,258 cusec less than its share of 57,673 cusec. India’s failure to hand over the Bigha corridor to Bangladesh, in exchange for Berubari, over the last three decades is also common knowledge.

Meanwhile, Delhi’s BJP-VHP-Shiv Sena-sponsored push-in attempts have provided Dhaka’s Jamaat-I-Islami and Islami Oikkya Jota (IOJ) to raise jingoistic slogans on communal line. The left has been protesting against the Indian behaviour, branding it as communal, but their voice is not heard as loudly as that of the Jamaat and IOJ, thanks to the mainstream media’s dislike for leftists. The Awami League, the main opposition party, has discharged its responsibility in the matter only by attributing Indian attempts to “an agreement signed with India by the first government of Khaleda Zia in the early 1990s”, without disclosing the content of the agreement, if there was any.

However, there are still a large number of people in India with a soft corner for Bangladesh and revulsion for the BJP-VHP-Shiv Sena-Sponsored fundamentalism. Bangladesh has also similar people who refuse to accept the fundamentalism preached by the Jamaat and the IOJ. Such sentiments in the two countries need to be expressed more forcefully and more frequently to mount pressure on the establishments.

By Nurul Kabir
The Dawn, Karachi
February 11, 2003