Monday, Feb 17, 2003
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By K.K. Katyal
The Foreign Ministers of India and Bangladesh, Yashwant Sinha and Mohammed Morshed Khan, have had a smooth equation and good rapport with each other. This much was evident from the reports of their "candid and positive" talks last weekend as also from their body language at public appearances. It was their third meeting in a matter of a few months Mr. Khan was here for a day not very long ago and Mr. Sinha visited Dhaka during the first round of the neighbourhood diplomacy. They had been in touch with each other at the United Nations and other international fora and been pooling ideas on matters of peace and development. Yet relations between the two countries deteriorated steadily, so much so that it needed just a group of 213 snake charmers to transform tensions into hostility. There could not have been a more ludicrous display of the strain in ties than the sight of these hapless persons squatting on no man's land with each side disowning them. They appeared and disappeared equally mysteriously.
This was not the first mishap on the bilateral field. Last year, a clash between the guards of the two countries along an un-demarcated segment of the border took an ugly turn. The ghastly sight of the body of an Indian soldier dangling from a bamboo stick held by two Bangladeshis inflamed passions here. It seemed to have created a sense of urgency in the two Governments to complete border demarcation. Whether this task was undertaken and, if so with what results, is not known. In any case, the resolve for pre-empting irritants and, in the case of failure to do so, for containing the damage does not seen to have worked.
The tenor of Mr. Khan's discussions varied in different meetings. With Mr. Sinha, the talks were smooth, despite candidness. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, mostly listened to what Mr. Khan had to say while the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, was forthright in articulating India's concerns. On the whole, it was a useful exercise the two sides agreed on the modalities of engagement, beginning with the talks between the two Foreign Secretaries in early April, to be followed by interaction between the Commerce Secretaries and a meeting of the Joint Commission. Meanwhile, the use of force to tackle any bilateral problem was to be avoided. The two Foreign Ministers mooted concrete ideas to address substantive issues, which, it was agreed, would be considered by their Governments. There was, for instance, the 1992 agreement on the procedure for dealing with illegal immigrants and related matters. New Delhi, as was known, put their number at 1.5 crores while the Bangladesh side spoke of the presence of illegal Indian immigrants in its territory. The visiting Minister denied the existence of any camps of Indian insurgents in his country. According to Delhi, a list of over 90 camps had been given to Dhaka. Bangladesh would like the cases of the illegal immigrants to be dealt with according to set procedures and processes. And there the matter stands.
The two sides need to avoid exaggerating the magnitude of bilateral problems or denying their existence. Unfortunately, each Government is the victim of domestic political compulsions, Bangladesh to a larger extent. On its part, India would do well to be clear about its overall attitude towards Bangladesh keeping in view the imperative of peace and stability in the region. The former Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, has publicly made a case for quiet diplomacy and for track II efforts. Bangladesh, according to him, is one of the few democratic Islamic countries and India has a stake in its development and in cooperating with it. There were differences no doubt but there was a need to resolve them in a friendly fashion.
Two categories of problems plague bilateral relations those relating to policy decisions and others arising out of administrative acts of omission and commission on the one hand, and the stand taken by political establishments on the other. As regards policy-related matters, patient efforts are needed to persuade the recalcitrant side to see reason. For instance, if Bangladesh has chosen, for whatever reason, not to supply gas to India, New Delhi has to live with the resultant situation, notwithstanding the negative signal conveyed by it. Dhaka's contention that it had first to quantify its resources to be sure how much would be available for export may be a cover for political reasons. At some stage, the economic logic is bound to outweigh political prejudices. Sooner or later, the realisation would dawn on the Bangladesh Government that it would be hurting its own people by delaying a decision. Similarly, Dhaka's reluctance to provide access to far-flung Indian areas could only be ascribed to political factors. It hampers the growth of goodwill but cannot be helped. Irritants caused by the activities of fundamentalists fall in the second category. These are a cause of worry for India but could well pose a threat to peace and stability in Bangladesh as well.
In the case of India, a liberal regime for trade with Bangladesh a policy issue could be given early attention. And the sensitive issue of illegal immigrants needs to be seen in the right perspective. The problem is no doubt there, but going by the general perception, its magnitude is being exaggerated to suit the calculations of the ruling establishment. The push-out is part of a related strategy. All this needs to give way to pragmatism and engagement.
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