Prime Minister Narendra Modi is traveling to Dhaka this week to commemorate an important moment in the modern history of the subcontinent: Bangladesh’s declaration of independence from Pakistan 50 years ago. There is much to celebrate and reflect on, including the different trajectories of India’s eastern and northwestern borders.
Bangladesh’s very impressive economic and social progress is a source of inspiration not only for South Asia, but also for the developing world as a whole. From being one of the poorest countries in the world in 1972, Bangladesh is now in the race to be in the top 25 economies in the world by the end of this decade.
It is also time for a more in-depth reflection – on the inability of the region to close in on the two partitions of the subcontinent, almost 75 years after the first in 1947 and 50 years after the second in 1971. In the east, Delhi and Dhaka began to find ways to overcome the tragedy of partition to chart a new course of bilateral and regional cooperation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has invested heavily in transforming Dhaka’s bilateral relationship with Delhi over the past decade. India has reciprocated to a good extent.
In the northwest, however, positive changes in India’s relations with Pakistan have been elusive. Hopes were rekindled by the agreement at the end of last month between the two military establishments for a ceasefire on the border and to address the concerns of each. Expectations for change were reinforced by the speech of Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa last week at a conference in Islamabad, when he called on India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move on ”.
Burying the past is never easy.
The widespread skepticism that greeted the General’s remarks in India is part of the story. India has been wounded by three decades of relentless cross-border terrorism. The picture is not much different in Pakistan, where the idea of turning the page is not accepted by everyone. Pakistan has its own set of grievances, including lingering resentment over India’s role in vivisection of Pakistan in 1971.
Reconciliation is more difficult between Islamabad and Dhaka. The fact that Pakistani leaders are not present in Dhaka this week underscores the bitterness that persists in Bangladesh and a deep reluctance in Pakistan to accept separation. A scholarly seminar reflecting on the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, scheduled this week in Lahore at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, had to be canceled at the last minute due to pressure, presumably from the Pakistani deep state.
As India celebrates its role in the Second Partition, lingering problems with the First Partition continue to cast a shadow over Delhi’s relations with Dhaka. These include the rights of minorities, cross-border movement of people and the sharing of river water. These are not abstract questions, but part of a bitter internal political contestation, as can be seen in this season’s parliamentary elections in Assam and West Bengal.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh continues to struggle to reconcile competing national political perspectives around 1971. There are profound differences in the interpretation of the nation’s history, the nature of its ideology and its privileged ties with India and Pakistan. Delhi will be unwise to underestimate the depth of these national disputes or to take the relationship with Bangladesh for granted.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown strong leadership in developing relations with India over the past decade and more. Its success in securing domestic political stability and generating rapid economic growth has been essential in creating an enabling environment for building strong bilateral relations with India.
On the Indian side, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invested considerable diplomatic energy in transforming bilateral relations. However, thanks to spoilers like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the UPA government was unable to push India’s ambitious agenda forward with Dhaka.
While the LK Advani-led BJP opposed the border settlement with Bangladesh, Modi’s BJP chose to fully support the deal and mobilized enough political support to get it approved by parliament. Modi also supported the award of an international tribunal resolving the maritime territorial dispute with Bangladesh.
The steady improvement in bilateral relations over the past decade has resulted in increasing trade volumes, expansion of cross-border connectivity, mutual cooperation against terrorism and expansion of regional cooperation. Modi was right to proclaim a golden age in bilateral relations. We are only at the dawn of that age — much remains to be done to realize the full potential of the bilateral relationship.
Is there anything we can learn from the east that can be productively applied to northwest India? The first is the importance of political stability and political continuity that have helped Delhi and Dhaka deepen their bilateral relations over the past decade. In contrast, the political cycles in Delhi and Islamabad have rarely been synchronized. Key Pakistani civilian leaders have all supported engagement with India. In fact, it is the military who have not yet made a collective decision.
Recall that General Pervez Musharraf had negotiated a settlement framework for the Kashmir conflict with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, despite his association with the Musharraf peace process, chose to distance himself after becoming head of the army. Many in Delhi are asking whether General Bajwa’s successor will honor any deal India may negotiate with him in the days to come.
Second, the concern for mutual security. Cooperation in the fight against terrorism has built a deep mutual trust between Dhaka and Delhi. This trust has helped solve many complex issues facing the relationship. In Pakistan’s case, its military sought to use cross-border terrorism as political leverage to force India to negotiate over Kashmir. This strategy may have had its day. While sponsorship of terrorism seemed like a smart strategy in the past, it has now become the source of international political and economic pressure on Pakistan. Either way, Delhi has no reason to negotiate with a gun pointed at its head.
Third, depoliticize matters of enlightened national economic interest. Delhi and Dhaka have made steady progress on issues related to trade, transit and connectivity, dealing with them on their own merits. Pakistan, on the other hand, has made sensible bilateral trade cooperation and regional economic integration hostage to the Kashmir issue. It is not clear whether Pakistan is ready to separate the two and expand trade relations while holding talks with India over Kashmir.
The big idea of General Bajwa’s speech was about the new desire to put geoeconomics above geopolitics. He also stressed the importance of pursuing national well-being through regional cooperation. This is exactly what Bangladesh has done over the past decade to generate major gains at home, transform eastern South Asia, and elevate Dhaka’s global position. But can General Bajwa preach? If it can, Delhi may be more than willing to join hands.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on March 23, 2021 under the title “A tale of two frontiers”. The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and editor-in-chief of international affairs for The Indian Express