DURING the Awami League’s 2009–2014 term, the buzz word in Bangladesh-India relations was connectivity or land transit for Indian goods and services from mainland India to the seven land-locked Indian states in its northeast, also called the Seven Sisters. The Indian exponents of connectivity said that under it, Bangladesh would become the connectivity hub of the sub-region comprising Bangladesh, the Seven Sisters, Bhutan and Nepal. And its supporters in the AL-led government echoed the unlimited economic and financial benefits for Bangladesh from connectivity propagated by India to the extent that one of them said that it would be ‘uncivilized’ for Bangladesh to charge any transit fees from India!
The AL-led government granted India connectivity/land transit without any hesitation and without demanding reciprocity. And as the icing on the cake, it also gave India permission to use the ports of Chittagong and Mangla. India on its part gave Bangladesh soft loans worth in billions of dollars, part of which, a good part, has been spent on the development of land and railway infrastructure for connectivity. However, after nearly 10 years, very little is known in the public domain whether Indian goods and services are flowing from the mainland India to the Seven Sisters. There are no visible signs of Indians trucks and vehicles on Bangladesh roads to suggest that India is enjoying fully land transit anywhere near what are the dreams of the Seven Sisters. There are also no signs of Indian goods going from mainland to the Seven sisters by railroad.
And there are also no signs of the Indian promise that Bangladesh would earn so much from being the sub-regional connectivity hub that it would be a matter of shame for it to ask India to pay any fees or charges for using our roads or railway from sending goods and services from mainland India to the Seven Sisters. India’s failure to deliver the Teesta deal and not a single drop of water under any new agreement in the past 10 years is the major major reason why connectivity has remained an unfulfilled Indian dream. And since September 7, 2011 the day the Indian prime minister Manmohon Singh arrived in Dhaka with entire Bangladesh certain that he would sign the Teesta deal, India’s promise to deliver the Teesta deal became uncertain. At first, India asked Bangladesh to wait and hope. Now, that hope has faded into the distant horizon.
In fact, New Delhi is at present in a denial mode regarding the Teesta deal. It is now suggesting that the centre has no power to override West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banarjee’s objection that had stalled the deal (according to New Delhi) because under the Indian constitution, water is a provincial subject. The suggestion raises serious issues about India’s credibility to the people in Bangladesh. New Delhi did not raise the constitutional issue at any stage of talks between the two sides during which Bangladesh gave India not just connectivity/land transit but also the equally important concession if not more, namely security. India, therefore, knowingly mislead Bangladesh to believe that if it gave land transit (and security guarantee), not just the Teesta deal would be clinched but that it would lead to deals on the other commonly shared rivers. Thus, India betrayed a country that was trying its best to be friendly. New Delhi’s constitutional argument is a very weak one because with two commanding constitutional powers, namely that of the purse and the unquestionable right to conclude international treaties and agreements, the centre could have easily shut Mamata Banarjee up if it wanted to. And in the backdrop of all these, the Bangladesh supporters of connectivity are not being heard any more.
It is, therefore, a mystery that at such a time a new concept for economic integration between Bangladesh and parts of India rooted in colonial India that was designed by the British to favour the emerging Hindu bourgeoisie has appeared in our media in the name of the Bengal Presidency. Prima facae, it appears attractive because it has again been sugar-coated like connectivity. However, on examination and that too, a cursory one, it reveals that it is against the very roots upon which Bangladesh emerged as an independent state. Its exponents are suggesting that the Bengal Presidency that existed in British India should be the new template to integrate Bangladesh, the Seven Sisters and the entire West Bengal (and perhaps Bihar and Orissa) into an economic union because of the economic success of the template under the British. It is, in fact, old wine in a new bottle, a new template for the connectivity template again with great promises to make Bangladesh rich. The Bengal Presidency template excludes Nepal and Bhutan from the connectivity template but includes much more of India.
The supporters of the Bengal Presidency template are either very poor students of history or, perhaps, they believe that others are unaware what the Bengal Presidency meant to the Muslims who had lived under that template in the British days. Therefore, a little exposure of history, perhaps, could give an insight into what could happen to Bangladesh under the Bengal Presidency template. The British came to South Asia not as conquerors but as traders with the East India Company as their flagship. In quick time, it conquered a civilisation by exploiting the Achilles’ heel of India as a nation, the Hindu-Muslim divide. The East India Company quickly realised that the intrigue and conflict-ridden politics of Bengal through which it entered India where the minority Muslims ruled the majority Hindus (as in the rest of India) gave it the best opportunity to exploit the Hindu-Muslim divide to conquer India with very little warfare or bloodshed.
The British started establishing the Bengal Presidency template after their victory in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 through which effective political power over India including the power of revenue collection passed from the Mughals to their hands. The Bengal Presidency, when first introduced, had extended from the present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in the west to Myanmar, Singapore and Penang in the east. After Great Britain took over direct rule over India in 1857, it was still the biggest province of British India and included Bihar, Orissa, the whole of Bengal and the Seven Sisters. Under the Mughal rule, the diwans, mostly Muslims, were given the power of collecting revenue in Bengal. When the British took over, they gave that power directly to the zamindars who were overwhelmingly Hindus through the Permanent Settlement of 1793. Thus the Muslims not just lost their political and revenue collection powers during the Bengal presidency, they were effectively made to serve two masters under it, the British and the Hindu zamindars.
And the British also favoured the Hindus with education and gave to them their laws, opportunities for business and commerce and their system of governance under their infamous policy of divide and rule that worsened the predicament of the Muslims and forced them towards withdrawal, frustration and despondency. In fact, the Bengal Presidency template turned the Hindus of Bengal into bhadraloks (gentlemen) and the Muslims from rulers to peasants or Bangals. This is the template that the supporters of the Bengal Presidency template want Bangladesh to accept for its own welfare in the same way as the dominant Hindus on Bengal had forced the Muslims to accept the annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1911 for their own good!
There is a serious demeaning characteristic of the Bengal Presidency template. It suggests that Bangladesh would have a better future by negotiating with the Indian provinces that surrounds it, West Bengal/Bangla and the Seven Sisters. In other words, it suggests that voluntarily Bangladesh’s should downgrade its sovereign status to that of the Indian provinces. Surely, the supporters of this so-called Bengal Presidency template cannot in their sane minds believe that New Delhi would allow Bangladesh leadership in the Bengal Presidency template unless they are not just ignorant of the past but also of the present. Or perhaps they have a hidden agenda.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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