The Pivot of the East

rifaat newaz
Published : 30 Oct 2016, 12:00 PM
Updated : 30 Oct 2016, 12:00 PM

My career in journalism has coincided with the rise of Bangladesh from a military-ruled basket case suffering chronic instability to a proud nation whose economic and human development success is good enough to make any Bengali proud. From Amartya Sen to Kaushik Basu to Bibek Debroy, India's long line of famous Bengali economists have come out openly to bet in Bangladesh's future. The country, despite its many challenges, has emerged as a global growth model of growth led by human development. Many like Ruchir Sharma believe Bangladesh is likely to be one of the 12 great growth stories of this century. If a projected Asian century also becomes a 'Bengali century', we will all have reasons to be proud.  Bangladesh is easily the pivot of Eastern South Asia and it is good that India, the biggest power in South Asia, is beginning to realize that. With Pakistan in the West, there is little possibility of a breakthrough. Indian leaders and most others in the region believe that the breakthrough of regional cooperation will come in the East (land/sea) and South (sea). That will mean an even bigger role for Bangladesh than it currently enjoys.

If Bangladesh grows (and by all counts, it is growing fast) , we in India's border states like West Bengal or my home state Tripura will grow. Our destinies are intricately linked and sooner our leaders realize that, the better. India's growing efforts to befriend Bangladesh have not only paid rich dividends in diplomacy and politics – they have helped connect the Northeast better with the Indian mainland. In a recent paper for a foreign foundation, I have strongly argued that Bangladesh is crucial to the success of India's Look East policy .  As former Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni had told the first Tripura Conclave in 2014 – " Amader Sapno ek, amader Swartho ek ( our dreams are similar, so are our interests). Nothing could be truer. The tragedy is some Indian politicians like Mamata Banerji are yet to understand this. Despite Delhi's huge push, Mamata is yet to accept the Teesta water sharing treaty.

As a college student and an Agartala boy in 1971, I witnessed the Bangladesh Liberation War at close quarters. For someone who has studied in an Indian military school and often faced slurs about the Bengali's non-martial traits, it gave me enormous pride at the sight of the Muktijoddhas marching past border villages to attack Pakistani military targets. Many survived and returned, many did not not. Some of those who did not had become friends of mine and my brothers.

In Agartala, it was no longer 'their war'. The Bengali struggle for independence against Pakistan had sucked in the Tripura people, most of whom had roots in East Bengal. This was as much our war as it was of those Bengalis in East Pakistan. Much later did I come to know the pioneering role played by Tripura's first chief minister Sachindralal Singha in setting the stage for India's involvement in the Bangladesh Liberation War –a saga that I have detailed in my recent book 'Agartala Doctrine : Proactive Northeast in Indian foreign policy' (Oxford University Press). In 1971, it was not widely known that the great Bangabandhu had been to Agartala secretly with some of his close confidantes as far back as 1962 , seeking Sachindralal Singha's support to lobby the Indian leadership to back a Bengali war of independence. Singh was enthusiastic, Nehru was not as he was bogged down with the 'war clouds' in the Himalayas. It worked much later when Indira Gandhi stepped into her father's shoes, but that is history.

For us, it was bliss to be alive in the dawn of 1971. 1947 was being abnegated by 1971, a Bengali nation was being born. The borders will remain, but they will not be hard frontiers to be secure, but open borders to be leveraged for trade and cultural exchanges and extensive people-to-people contact.  After 30 years of losing out on that early promise , after living through the trauma of 1975 , we are finally getting there. We have a fenced frontier, we have seen young Felani die on it , but slowly all this 'tough' border management is beginning to change. As I write this piece, I have just finished editing a copy saying India's BSF is finalizing a list of Indian roads that BGB troops will use for accessing their own remote posts and that they have cleared setting up 61 'border haats' from the present five. The wind of change is blowing for sure, though much more needs to be done, especially by India.

My 36 years in journalism – 17 in the BBC, 8 in Calcutta's Ananda Bazar Group, 3 in PTI and now 4 years in – have been eventful. I have closely covered insurgencies in Northeast India, Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts and the many bush wars in neighbouring Myanmar.  Many had written off the eastern stretch of South Asia as a zone of 'durable disorder'. Bangladesh has been crucial to changing this script. Not only has it sorted out its own conflict in CHT, but by decisive action against India's northeastern rebels, it has given peace and growth a chance in a stretch of territory that connects South to South-East Asia. Now if Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi gets it right and her plans for national reconciliation work, if the country's many rebel groups march out of the jungles and give peace a chance, the land bridge between South and South-East Asia will be a secure zone .

Whether Myanmar's still powerful military will allow this to happen is another issue. Many feel they have no choice, still others say Myanmar's generals are beginning to see the 'writing on the wall', unlike their Pakistani counterparts. If the 'Asian century' has to happen, India and China will have to cooperate and collaborate rather than contest and conflict. They have to resolve their boundary dispute, harmonise their 'Look East' with ' One Belt One Road'. India may have some compulsions to play footsie with Uncle Sam much as China cannot give up on its 'all weather friend' Pakistan. The irritants will remain , but , at some point, when Bangladesh with its own growth story emerges from the shadow of its bigger neighbours as a 'swing state' of much consequence, it may fall on Sheikh Hasina  to bring the two Asian giants closer to each other.  Pakistan changed the contours of the Cold War by bringing the US and China closer to trump the Soviet bear. Bangladesh may emerge as the diplomatic bridge between China and India to help script an Asian century. From 'Golden Bengal' to 'Rising Asia', the script is just waiting to be written.


Subir Bhaumik
A former BBC journalist and author, is now Senior Editorial Consultant with