Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tipaimukh: Environmental Concerns and India-Bangladesh Relationship

Syed Abul Moqsud

(A prothom alo piece Translated by Tacit for UV)

The histories of nations are similar to the mountainous streams of the Tipaimukh region. They never flow in a straight line. The history of the Bengali people of the Gangetic plain also show many such twists and turns.

India and Pakistan emerged as nations at the same time from the same womb. The new states were delivered in an environment of communalism. Pakistan, in theory and practice, was a communal Muslim state. Thus the rivalry with Hindu-ruled and Hindu-majority India, even though India and Pakistan shared a common history and a common heritage. No matter the government-level relations, the people of erstwhile East Pakistan had a normal, if not special, relationship with India. Neither the Muslim nor the Hindu communities are totally non-communal; yet there was a mutual empathy for each other’s sorrows. I remember the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. We were playing a friendly game of football in a remote village of Manikganj. The fastest way to disseminate information then was through the radio. While we getting ready to play, someone came and informed us that Nehru had passed away. We immediately decided not to commence with the match.

This incident was during Ayub Khan’s regime. The government had imposed an extensive Islamic fa├žade. Hindus had no voice whatsoever. Still, the public reacted spontaneously, quite apart from government formalities. The next day, all the educational institutions remained closed. The people were paying their respect to one of the greatest freedom-fighters of the subcontinent. The same thing was visible the day Indira Gandhi died; there was sadness on the faces of Dhaka’s general population.

It may be quite difficult to believe that until 1962, the Rapid-Reader books included biographies of Rammohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Mahatma Gandhi, Chittaranjan Das, and Subhash Chandra Bose alongside those of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sir Syed Ahmed, Liaqat Ali Khan, Maulana Mohammed Ali, and Nawab Salimullah. It was only after 1963 that the biographies of Muslims started to dominate our textbooks. But Bengalis wanted a composite society, not a communal society. Thus the support for non-communal Bengali nationalism, which the Pakistani Army sought to destroy in the name of Islam in 1971.

In 1971, I saw worshippers in mosques raise their arms to the heavens and asked for relief from the rampaging armies tearing through our motherland. The prayers were not only for Muslims; they were for everyone. I saw widows prostate on temple floors, and fathers shedding tears after burying their children. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians prayed to the almighty, not for their communal concerns, but for their country, for the much-coveted dream of independence. They sought divine grace to tolerate the hellish nine-months of Pakistani occupation, before going forth to a secure and free existence.

Instead, what have we gotten today? Like Professor Mujaffor Ahmed, chairman of the National Awami Party, I lay awake at night worrying about our country. Looking over Dhaka at night from my balcony, my heart grows heavy over the fate of the tens of millions of our citizens. In the sixties’, I was a young man with ideals. Now my heart falters over worries. As Professor Ahmed often confides in me, he does not find a single human being with whom to share his worries. Truly, the number of human beings around us have decreased, even as the population has increased.

The progress of the inhabitants of the most fertile land in the world has been impeded, sometimes by their own actions, sometimes by others. We bear the marks of so many setbacks, and not all of them can be attributed to foreigners. And not all of them can be attributed to the people. These setbacks are the fault of our leadership. We have not had the good fortune of having wise and foresighted leaders. Hence the intolerable past and uncertain future.

Like the village bards of yore, I had to digress quite a lot before coming to my point. There is currently an uncomfortable situation existing in Bangladesh regarding the Tipaimukh dam. Unless we treat this matter clearly and objectively, not only will both the countries have to undergo environmental catastrophes, but India-Bangladesh relations will also be impeded, and Hindu-Muslim communalism will increase to the point where it will be very difficult to dial it back in the future. Even though initially people of all communities will be harmed, ultimately it will be the Muslims who will bear the brunt of the catastrophe, because Muslims are a minority in the subcontinent. The claim that Muslims are the majority in Bangladesh will become worthless. There are many villages in India with Muslim majorities and many villages in Bangladesh with Hindu majorities: being a majority over a small area is meaningless.

The War of Liberation was the last chapter in the rebellion against Pakistani Muslim leaders by Bengali Muslim leaders. The government and the people of Hindu India gave the utmost support for Bengali Muslims in their fight for independence. USSR and China supported South Vietnam in their own bid for independence. That support was purely idealistic; but there were many reasons underlying India’s support of Bangladesh. Throughout the centuries, there coexisted, at the same time, comity and rivalry between the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal. However, the level of cooperation that was witnessed in 1971 while fighting against a common enemy was unprecedented. Alas, the leaders of the two countries did not make the necessary efforts to nurture that cooperation and make it permanent.

Bangladesh’s minority Hindus are the world’s best minority. They were mercilessly hounded by Pakistan’s communal ruling-class and a group of Muslims for 24 long years. They lost their property and were forced to leave the country. Still, they did not choose armed confrontation, and instead mutely tolerated the injustice. Awami League’s policy of secularism comforted them for a while. But only for a while. Bangladesh’s ruling class had a new policy, but their character stayed the same. Our independence was won through the blood and sacrifice of all the communities: but like Bengali Hindus, Bengali Muslims were also unable to discard their fear and insecurity: in this case, the fear of losing their religious sovereignty and being submerged into India. Thus, Bengali Hindus were also doomed to their insecurity.

Bangabandhu was a Bengali nationalist; but he also tried to maintain a friendly relationship with India out of gratitude. He tried to solve through discussions the problems that arose during his tenure, such as the demarcation of our maritime boundaries, the sharing of the Farakka water flow, and the transfer of border enclaves. It was as if his death also heralded the death of India-Bangladesh friendship. Ziaur Rahman was a Muslim nationalist. Because of his support from the Muslim world and United States, he did not nurture Bangladesh’s relationship with India. This proved to be a very shortsighted and disastrous policy. Hussein Mohammed Ershad was a multi-faceted chameleon. Even though he was hard to pin down, he, too, was a Muslim nationalist. He was a completely communal person, but for strategic reasons, he was not anti-India. Even though he was close to the Middle East and Pakistan, he maintained a friendly relationship with India. However, he was the single-most compelling reason for the formation of organized anti-India feelings in Bangladesh. Making Islam the state religion was his gift to us. Today, the stench of communalism infests every square-inch of our country. One of the manifestations of communalism in Bangladesh is mindless opposition to India. However, it should be noted that some leftist organizations are also anti-India.

It is being bandied about that a political group is trying to incite anti-India feelings by opposing Tipaimukh. However, the first protests regarding Tipaimukh came from non-communal Left organizations. Communal groups have simply joined the bandwagon later on. However, it bears asking why non-communal Bangladeshi individuals also legitimately criticize India.

Much-smaller Bangladesh gave away the huge landmass of Berubari to India as soon as the treaty was signed; yet we are still to get the Teen Bigha land. The entire Taslima Nasrin incident has multiplied any previous anti-India feelings by a factor of ten. No other foreign citizen has probably ever received such protocol and adulation as Nasrin has received in India. Whether you are Muslim or Hindu, the slightest criticism of India is enough to ensure you never get an Indian visa in Bangladesh; yet the vast well of sympathy that Indian leaders have for Nasrin do not decrease in the slightest even after she stridently criticizes them. Her mission is to slander the Koran Sharif, Islam and Muslims. This has hurt the sentiments of the common people of Bangladesh. In contrast, Bangladesh would never have a place for Moqbul Fida Hossein.

People become frustrated with India if they are not given visas due to their personal circumstances. I personally think that India is quite liberal when it comes to issuing visas. The officials in the Press and Cultural wings are quite helpful. I have turned p right before the High Commission was closing, at least twice, and obtained visa on an emergency basis. Rather, the Bangladeshi Mission in India is comparatively conservative when granting visas. I have never encountered any hostile behavior on the part of immigration or customs officials in India. However, there exists a governmental level relationship that is quite independent of personal interactions. That relationship is not as warm as it should be.

The action of BNP-Jamaat regarding Tipaimukh are ill-considered. Their every action is communal. Had they been in power now, they would have hardly made any sound about this whole issue. Now, they are making various claims such as they will go to Phulertol and have a “picnic,” they will have a Long March, they will go to the United Nations, they will write letters to Sheikh Hasina and Dr. Manmohan Singh, etc. The government is also apparently sending a delegation to Phulertol for a “picnic” of their own. The role of Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to India remains unknown. Getting into any conflict with the Indian government will be suicidal for Sheikh Hasina’s administration. As Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, she knows how to safeguard Bangladesh’s self-interest. However, a collision of geo-strategy and personal affiliations has put her in a tight spot. Her dilemma must be rather enjoyable to Begum Zia.

High-level connections between India and Bangladesh are always welcome. However, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s whirlwind Dhaka trip and his meetings with the Prime Minister and the Army Chief of Staff did not seem normal. This gave the opposition and the anti-India forces an issue. The Indian High Commissioner is India’s spokesperson in Bangladesh. His remarks in Sheraton were, if not void of diplomatic protocol, odd. For this reason, BNP would like to see him expelled. As if expelling one diplomat will solve the entire problem. Actually, they are just trying to cause a fight between India and Bangladesh.

Since 1972, all those who have come to Bangladesh as Indian High Commissioners have been efficient and professional diplomats. They have steadfastly resolved any deterioration in the relationship between the two countries. Mr. Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is also a professional diplomat. He was previously India’s Deputy High Commissioner to Dhaka. I know him since then. He has a lot of friends here. I knew him as an amiable person. When he was posted here as High Commissioner, I thought his tenure would see marked improvements in the Bangladesh-India relationship. It turns out I was wrong.

Bangladesh contains a lot of professional pro-Indian and pro-Pakistani individuals. They are such to make a living. Possibly Sri Chakravarty even considers some of them his friends. They have probably given him the wrong message about the sentiments of Bangladesh’s general population. Representatives of a regional power, such as India, should speak to wide cross-segment of society, and not a small group of retired professional of a certain ideology. He was also criticized during the food crisis. Then, he said, “Should we starve our own and feed you?” His comment was technically correct, but his point of view was not. It expressed a callous nature. The current comments are also offensive.

As I stated in the beginning, except for pro-Pakistan, deeply anti-Hindu individuals, the people of Bangladesh are not anti-India. However, sometimes, for various reasons, they may become India’s critics. Those reasons may be Farakka, may be Teen Bigha, may be BSF murders or wire fencing, may be purchase of rice, may be Taslima, or may be Tipaimukh. Most of Bangladesh’s mainstream media remain secular and pro-India.

If India, the upstream superpower, constructs the Tipaimukh dam just to further its own economic development, it will quite reasonably seem to the people of Bangladesh that India has taken up this cruel scheme to hurt our Muslim-majority nation. That India will track Bangladesh’s politics is not incredible. Bangladesh was born out of politics, and India was intricately connected to Bangladesh’s politics at its foundational stages. There are 25 million Hindus who are Bangladeshi citizens. They have an equal number of relatives in India. Therefore, the relationship between the two countries must be kept cordial. The ruling class of both countries must choose which path they will take: confrontation, or friendship. If the propaganda that the communal groups have propagated for the last 38 years turn out to be even partially true, it will be a huge defeat for Bangladesh’s secular, progressive forces. A cordial relationship between Bangladesh and India will not be to the detriment of any country, rather, it will deliver a hundred-percent benefit to the people of both the countries. India will have to consider whether it wants to bear the responsibility of fuelling communal politics in Bangladesh before there is an environmental catastrophe.

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