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Bangladesh looks at the clock

FOR India, time is ticking in Bangladesh. All eyes are focused on New Delhi to see if and when it begins to implement the steps listed in the joint communiqué that the Prime Ministers of the two countries signed some 15 days ago. Both ‘if’ and ‘when’ are important because since independence Bangladesh has been unhappy over the violation of promises made.

Talking to people from different fields, I found that the response to the joint communiqué was jubilant. One editor commented: "Bangladesh has put all its trust in India and if relations between the two countries get clouded, it would be India’s doing."

I found that the Bangladeshis were willing to give six months for the assurances to fructify. The disillusionment will begin if the Indian bureaucracy sits on the files or works at its usual snail’s speed. Positive feelings may change into a negative mood. Worse may the reappearance of fundamentalism which has been defeated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who fought on the plank of pluralism and swept the polls.

Begum Klalida Zia, the opposition leader, was not forthcoming in her reply. She told me that she would like to have an "overall understanding with India at one go." However, she did suspect that certain understanding between Dhaka and New Delhithat had "not been made public yet."

Water is the litmus test. Before Hasina’s visit, Bangladesh expected India to be generous enough to give an undertaking that it would not touch any river flowing into Bangladesh without is consent. Now the expectation has come down to the assumption that river Teesta will not have any dam, barrage or the likes which may lessen water for Bangladesh in any way.

The joint communiqué is not so categorical because it only says that the discussions on the sharing the Teesta waters between India and Bangladesh should be "concluded expeditiously." The joint river commission is scheduled to meet in March after a lapse of seven years. I pray the talks succeed because disagreement on the Teesta may upset the whole applecart.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurance that India would not take steps on the Tiparmukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh should have been adequate. He has even allowed a team of all-party parliament members from Bangladesh to visit the dam. Yet I found people apprehensive.

Commerce is another sore point with Bangladesh. The balance is substantially in favour of India. If unofficial trade is counted, the deficits may well be around $6 billion. True, New Delhi has removed tariffs on all items except 47. But the earnings from them may not be more than $10 to $15 million. Had India allowed zero-tariff access to whatever is manufactured in Bangladeshit would have been a gesture which could have dented even the hard opposition lobby.

No doubt, Hasina has shown courage in accepting something which should have been done long ago: India’s access to Mongola and Chittagong seaports, along with transport facilities by rail and road. The fallout in the shape of trade will definitely benefit Bangladesh. India will have a shorter and quicker way to reach the northeastern states. In exchange, Bangladesh has got the most important concession from India: access to Nepal and Bhutan. In fact, both Nepal and Bhutan have been wanting free contact with Bangladesh but New Delhi was dragging its feet.

We owe our gratitude to Bangladesh, particularly Hasina, who has said in the joint communiqué that she would not allow her soil to be used by terrorists. Compare it with what Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has said: How can we assure Indiathat Pakistan’s soil will not be used against India? She has given a proof of what she has promised by handing over the ULFA leaders operating from Bangladesh. In contrast, Islamabad has said that it cannot hand over any of the 42 offenders who have taken refuge in Pakistan after committing crimes in India.

However, the Bangladeshis have not forgiven India for some 400-odd people killed on the border some time back. Our Border Security Force was reportedly checking the infiltration. Should there be straightaway firing on the nationals of a friendly country? The killing of so many people smacks of uncontrolled anger. On the other hand, Bangladesh should realize that nearly 20 million of its nationals are living in India illegally. Assam has been affected the most. The very complexion of the population has changed in the state.

Had India agreed to issue work permits to the Bangladesh at Dhaka and Chittagong, the infiltration would have come down drastically. They come to India to work and earn money for their families back home. They do not want to settle down in India if they could stay only for the period of employment. The proposal to build flyovers at Dhaka is practical. The joint communiqué mentions the possibility. Traffic is bad enough in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. But it is worse at Dhaka where it takes hours to reach from one point to another.

I have seen the birth of Bangladesh and its steady growth. When it parted company with West Pakistan, not many people put their bet on Bangladesh. Today, after nearly four decades of independence, not many people are pessimistic. Remittances from the Bangladeshis working abroad and the earnings from garments, primarily tailored by women, have given Bangladesh an annual growth rate of a little more than five percent. Small farmers have made the countryside more or less self-sufficient.

True, the Bangladeshis are still unsure of themselves. They are yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that it is a small country with limited resources which cannot take it to the top. Yet their fortitude is impressive. But what has made me dejected is the increasing concentration of power at the Prime Minister’s level. That Bangladesh is a unitary polity goes without saying. However, if the real power and funds could be transmitted to the local bodies, the off-and-on democracy in Bangladesh can acquire depth.

India should feel encouraged that another democratic, pluralistic country is taking roots in the region. In Bangladesh the liberal world has a nation which has waded through the pool of blood to stay independent and democratic. A liberal, democratic Islamic state is something which may show the way to the entire Muslim world how to stay free and pluralistic.

I am keeping my fingers crossed because Hasina’s style of governance has a touch of authoritarianism. Mrs. Indira Gandhi had the same trait and India had to pay the price during the two-year-rule of emergency. Hasina appears at times too impatient, too impressionable and too impetuous. She has to fear herself, not the hapless opposition.

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