Bangladesh: The idea of South Asia

Unheard Voices on the dream for a more cooperative South Asia. “I’ve always been in love with the idea of a South Asian version of the EU – where Bangladesh played a key role of course – marching into 21st century as an Asian bloc with superpower ambitions. In my mind, a (heavily romanticized) South Asia that has finally moved beyond ethno-religious conflict and has developed economically and politically, would also work together at an unprecedented level of closeness.”


  • Ekram Kabir

    The lofty car rally, carrying SAARC’s masthead, has recently started its regional tour and would complete it in mid-April. The encouraging aspect of the rally is that it is the brainchild by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had suggested that such an event be conducted in the lead-up to the 14th summit of the regional body in New Delhi. Done. We went gaga over its success, thinking “what can be more encouraging that this?”
    So, there goes the rally, with a motto “Connecting People, Strengthening Ties”. One of the main objectives, among others, of this rally was to enhance people-to-people contact within the region and increase trade initiatives among constituent countries. We might have a lot to be critical about the rally, but it’s true that a good number of professionals and businessmen from South Asian countries had an opportunity to meet and be introduced to each-other on the occasion of this.
    It is understandable that the purpose of the rally was to bring South Asian peoples [as well as the governments] a bit closer to each-other. Closeness is certainly very much needed for the peoples of this region.
    The other side of fanfare
    However, beneath this fanfare lie a few deep-seated problems. And those problems are in stark contrasts with the rally. We do a lot of things for promoting South Asianness but act the opposite when it comes to give this identity a reality. Look at South Asia now: too many anti-SAARC initiatives are continuing in the region. Mistrust among neighbours, separatism, religious militancy, terrorism, human trafficking etc., have made the region’s eagerness to integrate as an economic bloc look very bleak. More so the hegemonic attitude by certain member-countries makes the feeling of South Asianness a distant dream. We are saying one thing for the regional cooperation and doing exactly the opposite.
    One such example of contradiction is border-fencing by India along its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan.
    Minds wide shut
    True, Bangladesh and India face many border-related problems. The Bangladesh border is the longest land border that India shares with any of its neighbours. It covers a length of 4,095 kilometres abutting the states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.
    There are too many problems along the Indo-Bangla border. Inadequate demarcation has created the problems of enclaves. Though the number of authorised transit points for goods and people are limited along the border, for all practical purposes it has remained open. People continue to cross the borders with consummate ease, and this has also encouraged large volumes of irregular or unofficial trade along the border. The ethno-cultural proximity of populations on both sides of the borders, and the absence of physical barriers and vigilance by security forces have facilitated such illegal border trade. The total volume of unofficial exports to Bangladesh is estimated at Rupees 11.65 billion annually, of which West Bengal accounts for as much as 96 per cent, Assam three per cent and Tripura one per cent. An elaborate network of border agents and other stakeholders has come up along this border.
    Borders in this region do not only symbolize territorial integrity of a country, they are also life-blood of the people live on the both sides.
    Let’s have a look what The Financial Express of India said on 4 April 2007: “It is worthwhile to note that despite the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), the bulk of Indo-Pak trade continues to be routed through Dubai. Also, India’s free trade agreement with Sri Lanka, though not dogged by the sort of political mistrust that sometimes tends to spoil India’s relationship with its western neighbour, has been thwarted by various provisions which allow India to curtail imports of 15 of the 20 top Sri Lankan export products. Then, there are infrastructural constraints that have to be addressed. Today, a truck takes four days to cross the Indo-Bangla border, with more than a thousand trucks awaiting clearance. India has its own set of security concerns, too. The vision of a more integrated South Asia calls for an approach that takes into account ground realities.”
    Interesting! A car rally is able to travel across South Asia in a fortnight but truck has to wait for four days to cross the Indo-Bangla border!
    This is where, to my mind, the real problem lies. A car rally is a “show” and the truck crossing Indo-Bangla border is a “ground reality”. The SAARC car rally and India’s border-fencing implicate that we care more about “shows” than the “ground realities”. A cross-country car march would certainly raise the awareness of the people across the region, but would it raise the awareness of the governments? Isn’t India’s border-fencing a contradictorily action of what is talked about at SAARC summits and at the launching of the much-hyped car rally.
    Now, it’s time to cater more for ground reality than for shows.
    Mending fences
    “Fencing” actually goes against the value of good-neighbourliness. In the backdrop of the construction of the Berlin Wall and the traumatic experience of East Europe, including the Soviet Union, it is often said that those who are engaged in the business of fencing suffer from a siege mentality. There is a genuine reason to feel threatened and panicky. One aspect of the panicky state, at least from India’s side, has been well described by M.J. Akbar in India: The Siege Within (1985). But concern here is the fencing of the Indo-Bangladesh border, countries which are not only unmatched in size, population and resources but more importantly are friendly states with a solid record of their friendship track. Apart from very localised border shootouts, and that again, without them having even been properly sanctioned by their respective governments, there has never been a war-like conflict between these two countries. Why then fence Bangladesh and more interestingly, why the entire length of Indo-Bangladesh border?
    India, they say, is about to go for a paradigm shift as far as ties with its neighbours. The 14th SAARC head of state indicates that relations between India and Bangladesh appear to be headed for better times with the new interim regime in Dhaka planning to start a cross-border train in three months and New Delhi stressing on a possible new beginning in bilateral ties. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh met Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed discussed an entire range of bilateral issues. The train link between Joydebpur near Dhaka and Sealdah will be launched in three months from now, he said. A three-year agreement regarding the service, which was first signed on July 12, 2001 and extended again in 2004, expires in July this year. The two countries will have to renew this treaty.
    These are gratifying news and quite impressive for the two countries that they are heading for better days of ties. But at the same time, as The Telegraph of Kolkata reports on 4 April, Meghalaya police on 3 April picked up 54 Coordination Committee on International Border (CCIB) – a conglomerate of several NGOs – members, who were attempting to stage a demonstration near the state secretariat in Shillong. The members were protesting against the National Building Construction Corporation move to restart fencing work along some of the “disputed areas” on the Indo-Bangladesh border near Umkiang in the Jaintia hills.
    The towering words at the 14th regional summit and the arrests in Shillong seem quite contradictory. This also shows that how much you talk about cooperation and unification, India is not going to withdraw from fencing its borders any time soon. Interestingly, leaders from Bangladesh and Pakistan were not heard saying anything about this at the summit as well as bilateral meetings with the Indian counterpart.
    I’m led to recall a quote from my Nepali friend, C.K. Lal, just before the 12th South Asian summit. He wrote: “Cultural identity goes to the very soul of a person, an identity that national boundaries cannot erase. It is this identity that the leaders of the region must re-emphasise while reconceptualising South Asia. Without that, SAARC will continue to remain periodic jamborees.”
    Lal realized that our leaders would take an unusually long time to understand what a whole lot of people who are Pashtuns, Awadhis, Bengalis, Tamils, Nepalis, Assamese and Kashmiris want South Asia to be. We hope they now understand that time for the old-era diplomacy is over – the South Asians are looking for building a new South Asia. We would urge India to reassess its strategy for fencing along the border and find out an alternative to it.

  • subhash

    > Fencing…

    Lot of illegal immigration is happening into india from it Assam or maharashtra
    Bangladeshi’s are becoming mational security threat.
    Even in small town of population of 70000 in western Maharashtra, police found Bangladeshi migrant.
    they r menace, they are even changing population dynamics in states like Assam
    Fencing will not completely stop this, but will help BSF prevent illegal entry
    live in ur country in piece & let us live in peace…
    otherwise if no fencing…then only solution police should go for….shoot illeagal immigrants..

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