Don’t freeze out Bangladesh

Approaching Dhaka from the air, one is struck by the expanse of water around the capital city. Dispersed habitations dot the flooded delta, the roads in-between are non-existent, the low-lying areas around the city awash with the rampant floods immersing as much as 60% of Bangladesh. With food crops in the fields almost all gone, upto 30 million people, about one-fifth of the entire population, have been displaced from their homes. There are signs of the floods abating somewhat, disease more than hunger and starvation may take over, the government says they have 9 million tons of foodgrains in stock. The government is coping as best it can, appeals for help have already been made internationally, a lot is needed and very soon. Bangladeshis are a resilient people, faced with death and destruction by recurring natural and man-made disasters, it is amazing to see how the population adjusts to the ground realities, life goes on for its teeming population. Dhaka city has not stopped to bustle, the traffic jams only increasing in size and duration. Pakistan needs to make an immediate symbolic gesture for flood relief, it will go a long way if a couple of choppers alongwith relief goods are sent post-haste.

Explaining the on-going peace process between India and Pakistan to select groups of intellectuals, one was struck by three things, viz (1) the high-level of interest among Bangladesh intellectual circles about the consequences for both Pakistan and Bangladesh (2) the near unanimous conviction that India was not serious about the “peace process” and (3) if any result was possible, it would be at the expense of Bangladesh. As a Pakistani one was put in a very unfamiliar role, trying to instill optimism in a sea of skepticism and in the process defending the Indian position. One was caught up in lively debate in no-holds barred Q&A sessions that followed the presentations, successively with the, viz (1) the Council of National Agenda (CNA) (2) the National Defence College (NDC) (3) the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) or (4) the Dhaka University. The quality of questions, the issues raised and the comments offered were all par excellence, it would be almost impossible to single out any of the institutions or for that rather individuals, among them retired judges of the Supreme Court, former Foreign Secretaries and Ambassadors, Vice Chancellors of Universities, retired and serving armed forces personnel, business and industrial elite etc. The sessions were lively, inter-active, and frankly intellectually gratifying. The quality of education and civic responsibility thereof in Bangladesh shows, it augers well for the country where blessings are usually hard to come by.

There was near unanimity in pessimism that India was using the talks for their own purpose and had no intention of a successfully concluding these. The reasons for India’s lack of seriousness differed from person to person. A vast majority pointed to the previous track record of India-Pakistan dialogue saying this was reason enough to doubt Indian intentions. While history cannot be ignored, can we afford to pass up this chance of a lifetime to come out from under the constant threat of the nuclear gun? Bangladeshi generally felt that having failed to disarm Pakistan “without bloodying swords” (to quote Sun Tse Tzu) in the aftermath of the 9/11 crisis when the Indian nearly succeeded in having us declared “a rogue state”, the Indians had changed tack with the failure of their effort. To be recognized as the dominant regional power with a deserved permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council they said India needs to show the world that they were not only economically resurgent and politically sophisticated but were geo-politically mature enough. Some did concede that given the cultural, religious, ethnic and (now) poverty divide, India could be genuinely serious in ending the five decades-old strife in South Asia. They were unanimous that would be no Indian concessions on Kashmir. When I opined that there could be no peace without some compromise acceptable, however reluctantly, to all the parties in the Kashmir issue, the overwhelming opinion was that it was nice being an optimist but that both Pakistan and myself were in far severe disappointment. Some felt that Indians would give minor concessions to Pakistan here and there and given the circumstances Pakistan would be forced to be satisfied with these concessions, India would then isolate Pakistan from Bangladesh and their problems with India, particularly the water dispute which was of a life and death nature. Any amount of remonstration that Pakistan saw Bangladesh as a major stakeholder for peace in South Asia and question of being weaned away for any number of reasons from our growing friendship with Bangladesh, transcending by far the mutual feelings gradually lost after the very first year of independence in 1947, cut no ice. We must be careful not to give other nations in South Asia the feeling that the only thing that matters is Indo-Pak rapprochement and that we have no use for the continued friendship of others, particularly Bangladesh.

India’s substantial rise in defence spending by the new Indian government’s budget was held to cynosure, if the Indians were really serious about peace, they asked, why were they arming themselves so blatantly? Some retired naval officers gave an exhaustive apprehension about India’s penchant for three maritime task forces in the Indian Ocean, one was put in the a unusual position of explaining the inordinate Indian rise in defence spending because of arms and equipment purchases planned earlier by the BJP government but payments for which would become due during the current financial year. The new Indian Defence Minister Chidambram’s request for more defence funds was trotted out to show calculated “double-talk” by India. Assurances were sought that while Pakistan had to give maximum rope to the peace process, we would keep our powder dry.

Bangladeshis faulted Pakistan on the water dispute even though it was pointed out that we were in almost a similar situation and that in their case they had failed to internationalize the dispute. They felt that in negotiating the Indus Water treaty in 1960 under the encouragement/auspices of the World Bank, we had allowed the construction of Farakka Barrage by default. It was patiently explained to them that despite the 1960 Indus Water Treaty India had unilaterally gone into construction of dams in violation thereof the subject of present discussions. One had to agree, however that if India were to expand their ambitious plans to link rivers, make dams and create more catchment areas, it would desertify Bangladesh. Similarly despite the signing of South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), the smaller countries were in danger of being economically overwhelmed because of a flood of Indian goods, commodities, machinery, etc one agreed what was needed was a qualified SAFTA that would given inherent protection to some of key manufactures in the country, saving Pakistan and Bangladesh from becoming consumer-oriented captive Indian markets.

Given the strong democratic roots in Bangladesh, that Pervez Musharraf was popular was surprising, he has caught the mass imagination by the perception that his strong stance encouraged India to come to the negotiating table and agreeing to discuss Kashmir as a dispute to be resolved. Nevertheless there was plenty of criticism about our lack of democracy, Zafarullah Khan Jamali for some obscure reason got far more sympathy then is apparent for him in Pakistan. The general feeling of frustration over the continuous “ladies war” seems to have evoked the requirement for stability security that any strongman delivers to a country. Had the aging but agile Gen Hussain Mohammad Ershad’s personal life not attracted far more adverse attention that it does, the former President would have benefited far more politically, he still remains a potent democratic entity. While the propaganda about Bangladesh on the way to being a “failed state” is sheer nonsense, what is necessary is good governance and both the ladies should get on with it, as the incumbent Khaleda Zia needs to get her act together. In Pakistan, we have a Presidential system masquerading as a parliamentary one, in Bangladesh we have a parliamentary system being run as a Presidential one. For the moment Bangladeshis have to fend off natural disasters and cope with the women-made ones for the foreseeable future.