As December knocks, one cannot help but scroll back-pages to those tempestuous 1971 days, at least for those still able to remember them. In doing so, India plays a disproportionately large and indispensable role, not without reason, one might add: from hosting 10 million refugees to training our freedom fighters, all while waging full-fledged conventional war with the arch enemy Pakistan. It is easy to say ours was a marriage made in heaven: without it the current South Asian geopolitical matrix would not have been what it is; and what it is included the 'bottomless pit' of a people transiting upwards into a middle-income placement, with growth kernels still vibrant. Bangladesh even leads the South Asian pack in, among others, gender empowerment and economic growth-rate.
All well and good, these may be. One obvious and inevitable problem is the changing of guards, less so in this context than the passage of the directly involved 1971 generation: both warriors and memory-holders have already gone, or remain, some desperately, at the end of their string, some wishing the final ferry would come sooner than later. So silently has this gargantuan change unfolded that we may actually find that generation gone before we even realise it. "After me," the creeping thought flashes, "the deluge." Unknown in the past half a century, existential uncertainty would follow, based on whether we paid "the price of freedom": "eternal vigilance."
At stake could be a long list of issues, but near the top would have to be our relations with India. These have, by just about all counts, been fraying, though political props sustain cross-border transactions. One cannot call these cooperation per se, since disagreements accompany each issue. Agreement over the Ganges water, for example, exemplifies why mutual trust never really found an anchor as strong as the military bonds or diplomatic dialogues that won the 1971 war. Even before 1971, there was the Farakka fear, of a barrage deliberately built to suffocate western East Pakistani agricultural districts as some form of a fifth-column to cripple the enemy outside the battle-front. Farakka's spillover barely touched what was then West Pakistan, but in spite of 1971, Bangladesh surely and certainly slid down the slippery road towards desertification along its western Indian frontiers because nothing was done to rectify, or even share, the mighty river's awesome water flows. Flushing Kolkata Port and the Hooghly River were more important than breeding a deeper new-found Bangladeshi relationship.
Negotiations go on perennially, though nothing producing anything sensible or practical, in fact, exposing what else may happen or how and why an encore is so likely. The Teesta treatment confirms how, over water, bilateral deadlocks must remain the order of the day; and what aggravates this, in spite of their smaller range than the Ganges, Teesta flows may be reaching a life-and-death community tipping-point faster than the Ganges consequences. In short, both rivers illustrate how a new arsenal of lethal instruments, capable of inflicting unacceptable damages wherever and whenever, seems to be emerging.
We might as well give up on a water-deal though hope springs so eternally that we don't. When we transfer that same mindset to the Rohingya influxes from August 2017, for instance, we come up with the same outcome: no give, nor take, only a gripping issue getting more contentious each day, and all either at our doorstep, or comfortably seated on our own home-soil in our own seat.
No one could close the curtain with referencing the increasingly wider trade gaps, the outflows of our own hard-earned blue-collar remittances through white-collared channels to India as our university graduates swell the unemployment ranks; the shopping spree and hospital caravans to India on a daily basis because our own doctors, nurses, and medical facilities have not been able to win the very trust that institutions and individuals must have to survive; smuggling squeezing more of our resources in exchange of get-rich individual-level enrichment and empowerment; and the slow evaporation of India's Act East policy thrusts that once made Bangladesh so pivotal to developing India's Seven Sister States, connect with Southeast Asian countries through more efficient transits, and through these, strengthen Indian integration.
Against what has become an avalanche of these developments weighing our diplomatic options or any Plan B down, nothing tangible has resulted. As the 1971 generation leaves the stage, the vacuum created in placing India on any Bangladeshi firmament, give or take the entertainment industry, also takes a hit: the staunchest of supporters can no longer raise a voice loud enough to be heard, their enthusiastic followers from a later generation may be just too far and too few in between to restore the status quo; and with Bangladesh's enviable growth-rate, in spite of Indian constraints and even more so, Indian economic slippages, the weight behind a far more strident, quid pro quo stance against India cannot but be round the corner. It would be naïve to wish this dynamic away, though it may be barely on policy-making firmaments right now given the many other pregnant issues both countries face and must deal with.
Eroding Indian attention, or conversely, growing Indian antipathy, would be harmful to both countries. Indian leaders have also changed, presently being far less sympathetic to or accommodating any Bangladesh agenda; and, of course, the emergent Indian populism against a religious fundamentalist surge contrasts starkly to the 'secularity, nationalism, socialism, and democracy' that anchored the original Bangladesh-India relations. Changing clothes when the instincts remain the same is quite consistent with changing tides and times; but keeping the same clothes on while the instincts change alters the entire ball game. That threshold is, unfortunately, becoming more and more visible and getting closer and closer each passing day.
Our trade relations have not spawned symmetrical pathways: dependency remains the driving force, mostly of the form that Bangladesh needs Indian energy, and since this come easily through fossil fuels being squeezed out of the social market, our bilateral scorecard could easily be a 'strike one' warning just for the trade mismatch, while the associated environmental damage being wreaked across Bangladesh in its desperate search for energy when India, by contrast, is turning 'green', could then be seen as a 'strike two'. The essence of it all is simply this: it does have to be merely coal imports or environmental damage inflicting the first or second 'strike'. Since too many issues have been entering this fractious list for any one or two of them conflagrating the half-century cosy relationship, any of the country's emergent generations, divorced of the embryonic mindset going back to 1971, could easily take a flimsy issue to blow the battle-bugle. In a world of growing populism, that should be a piece of cake, demanding leaders past, present, and future to begin standing on guard, guarding "eternal peace" and "freedom."
Drifting apart as we are with trade, finding foreign investments more freely abroad than from India, multilateral interests de-emphasising Indian dependence, as with numerous Japanese or Korean investors, our Indian relations cannot but be reconfigured. The end-point may be quite different to what we have now, but the bottom-line of how it helps both countries may increasingly become a question neither country can legitimately answer at any time under concurrent turbulence: too much water has flown over these very puzzles without any resolution; and as India shifts to greener and solar energy from coal while transferring dirty energy into the Bangladesh market, we can see even leaders no longer have the urge or instinct to go beyond those ever-so-cordial prize ceremonies or obfuscating the essential problems to negotiate a way out: damning the torpedo and full-speeding ahead seems to be the call of the day. Some sensible alternative will emerge, but hopefully before the costs become prohibitive.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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