Bangladesh-India Relations: Prognosis for the Future

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The personal sides to regional ties

Scholars of international relations have long taught us that foreign policy is above all founded upon national interests, and indeed they are right. However, this is only part of the story. Narrower interests can often be at play, including political compulsions and surprisingly, interpersonal ties.

Sitting in on the high-power panel of experts assembled recently by Cosmos Foundation to discuss Bangladesh-India relations, the mind went back to two incidents in an earlier era when the late Mr Rajiv Gandhi, having succeeded his assassinated mother, ruled India as prime minister.

The first incident relates to Bangladesh. Mr Gandhi, elected to office by a landslide because of the wave of sympathy unleashed by his mother’s murder, was moved by stories of parched farmlands in the neighbouring country caused by the inadequate flow of water from India. He repeatedly pressed his officials to come up with a plan that would provide relief to Bangladesh, but without too much cost to India.

The bureaucrats resisted but it was not easy to go against a young leader filled with idealism and fellow feeling toward the neighbor. Finally, one senior figure piped up and delivered the lethal words that would kill the plan.

“Prime Minister,” he told Mr Gandhi, “Are you sure you want to go through with this? You are talking of risking losing more than half a dozen parliamentary constituencies here in the next election!”

In four decades of writing on Asia, half of them focused on the Indian sub-continent, I have watched at least two South Asian nations suffer massive setbacks because of poor personal ties between their leaderships and that of the regional hegemon, India.

Sri Lanka, once seen as an island nation that could potentially rival Singapore, suffered a quarter-century’s developmental setback thanks to a Tamil insurgency that was at least initially blessed by New Delhi. In Nepal, a monarchy was overthrown because of the chill ties between the palace and Indian leadership and officialdom.

Looking back now, I cannot help but wonder if the Jayewardenes and the Birendras of the world could have helped their individual causes if their diplomacy had been a little more adroit. On the other hand, the Bhutanese monarch, who knew how to keep his ties with India well-oiled, successfully managed to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of allegedly illegal Nepalese Hindu settlers and drove them out of his kingdom right under New Delhi’s acquiescent nose.

The difference, I suspect, was in the way their leaderships handled the Indian establishment, particularly the Nehru-Gandhis, who have ben India’s ruling family one way or the other for much of its post-independence history. After India helped midwife the birth of Bangladesh as a nation carved out from Pakistan’s eastern half, Indira Gandhi’s power and global reputation was at its peak. Visiting Sri Lanka shortly afterwards,  Mrs Gandhi was immensely touched to see her host, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, vacating her Temple Trees official home so the visitor could stay in comfort and high security.

It cost Mrs B, as she was known, very little to be gracious but the reward was nothing but spectacular. Shortly afterwards, New Delhi handed over Kachatheevu Island in the Palk Straits, which had been a long running bone of contention between the two countries, to Sri Lanka.

Mrs B’s successor, Junius R. Jayewardene, was cut from a different mould, however. A strong patriot, the late ‘JR’, as he was widely known, was an economic liberal at a time when Mrs Gandhi was stuck in a Socialist frame of mind and strategically tied to the Soviet Union. His move to free up the Sri Lankan economy sat uneasily with her. But it was JR’s decision to allow Voice of America to set up a powerful transmitting station in the north of the island, facing India, and separately lease out an oil tank farm in Trincomallee to business interests suspected of having ties to the US Central Intelligence Agency that made her begin to get wary of JR and his intentions.

With her military stretched along two tense borders – China to the East and Pakistan to the West – she did not want to see a third front opening on her southern flank. The result was that India began training rebels from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority to take up arms against the state. This accelerated after Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother in 1984. The results were catastrophic for Sri Lanka’s economy and polity and above all, societal harmony. Dozens of promising Sri Lankan figures died on both sides of the war. Tragically, so did Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated by a Tamil Tiger woman suicide bomber sent to avenge the Indian decision to come to the aid of the Sri Lankan state.

Could JR, who was lucky to have died in his retirement bed, have handled India better? Absolutely! More than one well-meaning person had advised him to take the Gandhis into confidence on his plans, to alleviate the swirling suspicions. It was not to be; JR, who had known Pandit Nehru, was too proud to be seen as even mildly kowtowing to people he saw as his juniors in politics and the world stage.

Ultimately, he had to bend his knee, even accept the presence of a large Indian Peace Keeping Force on the island to broker a peace with the Tamil rebels that proved all too brittle once the Indians left the island. And he suffered privately as he was forced to tolerate a high commissioner despatched to Colombo by New Delhi who was so assertive Sri Lankans privately called him the Little Viceroy.

 I began by mentioning two incidents. Here’s the second: In 1989, the last year in Rajiv Gandhi’s five-year term as prime minister, I was sitting in the office of then-Foreign Secretary SK Singh during a particularly fraught time in Indo-Sri Lanka ties when a foreign service office attached to the Prime Minister’s Office strode in triumphantly, waving a telegram.

It turned out that Colombo had capitulated on a key issue and was sending a high powered team to New Delhi led by the National Security Minister to discuss things. Once the arrogant underling had left his office, Mr Singh summoned his Joint Secretary Kuldip Sahdev to come see him immediately. “I want you to get the Sri Lankan delegation the most expensive hotel suites in this city,” I heard him tell Mr Sahdev. “I want you to get them the finest limousines you can hire. I want them to feel special in every way.”

Mr Singh, unlike his boorish junior in the PMO, had quickly appreciated how vexing this trip to New Delhi must be for the Sri Lankans and he was doing everything in his power to ease the humiliation.

Not all leaders of the Indian establishment are as sensitive as Mr Singh was towards neighbours. Some were plainly disdainful. But there have been some excellent ones; Foreign Secretary and later, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, was one such. Perhaps it helped that Mr Menon had served as envoy to both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, so he had an acute sense of the sensitivities.

Current foreign minister S Jaishankar, who has served in Sri Lanka under Mr Dixit, also has given deep priority to regional ties. Certainly, he has sent some of his best officers to regional capitals, Gopal Baglay in Colombo and Vikram Doraiswami in Dhaka, being two.

Mr Doraiswami, whose father rose to be an air marshal in the Indian Air Force, served as a pilot during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Dhaka is fortunate to have as the Indian envoy someone who combines deep empathy for his host nation with uncommon intelligence and humility.

Lest I be misunderstood let me end by saying that this article was not an effort to tell India’s neighbours to bow and scrape before New Delhi. Far from it; each nation has to pursue its national interests. Achieving those goals for smaller nations though would be far easier if people did not stand on protocol and ceremony with the regional hegemon and acted like natural neighbours. Such neighbours do not shy away from calling across the fence for advice, or stepping in to borrow a cup of sugar when your home has run out of it.

Ravi Velloor is Associate Editor and Asia columnist, The Straits Times, Singapore. He previously worked at Bloomberg, Time Warner, Inc. Agence France-Presse and United News of India.

  • Prognosis for the Future
  • Bangladesh-India Relations
  • The personal sides to regional ties

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