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India's prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh is, indeed, important, for both the countries, in areas such as trade, internal peace and communal harmony, investment and development. India has a long, and vital, list of expectations from Bangladesh; and Bangladesh, too, has a long list of dues, appeals, objections and accusations to deal with India. The wish list of India includes the expansion of trade and investment in Bangladesh and transit (or corridor) from one part of India to another through Bangladesh as such a transit arrangement will save India, on an average, 80 per cent of time and 75 per cent of cost of what it takes to ferry goods from one part of India to another using the old route.
The wish list of the people of Bangladesh, on the other hand, includes the establishment of Bangladesh’s rights to common rivers, access for Bangladeshi products to Indian market, the dismantling of the barbed-wire fencing laid out so far along 2654.5 kilometres of the total border length of 4326 kilometres, an end to border death and the cancellation of the coal-fired Rampal power plant, which would prove disastrous for the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest of the world.
Indian authorities are in an advantageous position as Bangladesh authorities seem more willing to fulfil Indian agenda without proper consultation with their own people and shy about placing concerns and matter of interest of Bangladesh on the negotiation table. It appears from the government briefing that they will be happy to hear verbal promises and rhetoric from the Indian side. But that will not resolve the issues and will not dispel the distrust of Bangladeshi people.
In addition to being elected to run the country and becoming the prime minister, Modi has already shown many successes at home. Two of the achievements are worth mentioning: (1) the rationalisation of the aggressive neo-liberal development mode with hindutvavadi scarf and (2) the cover-up of heinous communal crimes against humanity in Gujarat in 2000 with the drumbeat of ‘development’. Grabbing more authority over the submissive Bangladeshi counterpart, both in and outside the government, and making Bangladesh a very convenient, free profit-making space for big Indian corporates will add more feathers to Modi’s cap in India.
India, being a huge country in the region, has accumulated authority to behave as a super-power in South Asia. The state of India has also become a regional centre of global capitalism. The US administration has for long been considering the Indian state as its strong regional centre. The so-called ‘economic reform’ projects sponsored by global agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the Asian Development Bank have opened the region for international capital, ie multinational corporations. In regional strategy of the global capital, India emerges as a centre and the joint India-US-China collaboration in the region becomes much more powerful.
India has become a strong partner of the global US ‘war on terror’ strategy for occupation and plunder. What has happened in India since India joined this war was brilliantly summarised by Arundhati Roy as ‘the decade of the War on Terror and India’s debut on the world’s stage as an economic and nuclear power. To some these years have brought undreamt of wealth and prosperity, to others such penury, such starvation, such despair as to render them barely human. To the Muslims of Gujarat they brought genocide. To the Muslims of India the spectre of Hindu fascism. To more than a hundred thousand farmers they brought suicide. To corporations, prospecting for profits, they brought unimaginable returns on investment. To the adivasis of Dantewada they brought enforced displacement and a brutal, government-sponsored civil war. To people in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland they brought continued military occupation elaborately dressed up as “normality”.’ (The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy, Penguin Books India, 2008).
South Asia, the most populous area of the world, is resourceful in many ways. Yet this is the region with the highest concentration of poverty, alarming rise of religious fascists and expansion of militarism, intensification of religious, ethnic, caste and sectarian conflicts. More than 40 per cent of absolutely poor people in the world live in South Asia. Ironically, India, the country of the highest number of poor in the world, also the super-power in the region, has the fourth largest army on its head; it is also the largest arms importer of the world. Pakistan, burdened with the poor, has the sixth largest army; so is their budget on defence. Both India and Pakistan together have the highest concentration of poverty in the region; yet the ruling classes are more keen on building war machines. The ruling classes opt for this priority setting because that helps them to perpetuate the system, divert people’s attention and accumulate private wealth.
We, people of South Asia, need to change the present scenario. We need human progress; we need environmentally-friendly development; and we need to work collectively to make to a free and democratic South Asia. Indian hegemony is an obstacle to the democratisation and real development of South Asia. In this region, any anti-imperialist struggle cannot happen without an struggle against Indian economic, political and cultural hegemony. Any struggle against Indian hegemony without linking it to anti-imperialist struggle would also turn out to be blind and misleading.
Everybody who strives for a change would certainly agree that because of the geographical location, common colonial experiences, common regional trend in environment and livelihood and interdependence of people’s struggle, the democratic forces have no other way but to think and act on a regional basis with mutual respect and cooperation.
Because of the position of India in the region, the role of the Indian left and democratic forces is crucial. However, in order to take issues forward, we should not suppress our feelings and experiences in this regard. This is, unfortunately, not very optimistic. The left in India, in general, has played much less than what has been required. In many cases, on part of the Indian left, nationalistic and chauvinistic attitudes towards smaller countries reduced many of them to be the leftist partners of the ruling classes. There are revolutionaries in India who have long tradition of glorious struggles but have little attention to people’s struggle in neighbouring countries. This indifference not only affects people’s struggle in other countries but also badly affects even ongoing struggles within India.
We should change the course, come closer to knowing each other, to talk, to debate and to work collectively. I would suggest certain important areas for exploration and immediate initiatives at the regional level:
• We need to work to build a model of the best use of regional energy, water, forest and manpower resources on a regional basis to maximise benefits for people as a whole. It would be an alternative to the model being developed by the global agencies and corporate bodies and supported by local rent-seekers to maximise profit at the cost of sustainable resources management.
• We need to develop our ideas and coordinate our struggle against discrimination in religious, caste, and class, regional, gender as well as imperialism and fascist rules.
• We need to develop a vision of a free, democratic South Asia in line with a free, democratic world.
People in Bangladesh are now struggling to save the Sunderbans, which is under attack by India’s NTPC Limited. We hope that people of India will their actively mobilise opinions against the project. This has the potential for a new level of people-to-people solidarity for democracy, humanity and development in the region.
Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.