The changing Bangladesh that Indians don’t like to know

On almost every social parameter, Bangladesh is well ahead of India, whether it is infant and maternal mortality, access to safe childbirth and gender representation and parity, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor   
By Nilova Roy Chaudhury

By Nilova Roy Chaudhury DEC 3, 2019

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An exasperated and anguished Syed Muazzem Ali, the outgoing Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, said “you people (the Indian media) have no interest in Bangladesh.” Exasperated, because the only questions he is asked pertain to the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) and anguished because the average Indian’s disinterest in Bangladesh is so palpable.

After five years of piloting his country’s relations with India, through a period when bilateral relations are passing through their “shonali adhyay”, or golden chapter, particularly after the resolution of the maritime boundary issue and the land boundary agreement (LBA), Ali has one regret: that the Teesta Waters accord remains unfinished. That, and the fact that the average Indian has little interest in his country, except in a negative way.

Bangladesh has overtaken the United States as the largest source of tourists visiting India – 2.8 million Bangladeshi visitors travelled to India last year, of whom 1.2 million came for medical treatment while the remainder came to visit tourist sites and places of pilgrimage, adding considerable revenue to Indian coffers. Kolkata, of course, is their favourite destination, where saris in particular fly off the shelves almost faster than they can be replaced.

India’s bilateral trade with Bangladesh has risen to over US$10 billion, making that country India’s eighth largest trading partner. The trade balance is heavily in India’s favour, though Bangladesh did cross one billion dollars in exports to India last year. Bangladesh is among the fastest-growing global economies, recording a phenomenal 8.16% growth last year, well ahead of India’s below 5% GDP growth rates, turning into a remarkable success story what most people in 1971, when Bangladesh became a nation, had predicted would be the world’s “basket case”, destined to have the begging bowl as its metaphor.

And yet, nary a line gets written or spoken about Bangladesh in any positive way in the Indian media; nor is there any interest beyond the NRC process and the supposedly illegal Bangladeshi migrant, whom Home Minister Amit Shah implicitly referred to as “termites.”

Therein lies the rub. At recent interactions with the media, Ali, responding to a barrage of questions on illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, said Bangladeshis would “rather swim to Italy” than come to live in India illegally. He was viciously trolled by the army of outraged nationalist warriors who guard the government on social media, but whose knowledge is limited to a strange world view in which anyone who is critical of any aspect of India today (and, by extension the Narendra Modi government) is biased, prejudiced and, of course, anti-national and not worth considering seriously.

The envoy’s response was actually a statement of fact. There has been no mass, illegal migration from Bangladesh to India since the early 1990s and, in repeated interactions with the Indian government, Bangladesh has been assured that the NRC issue is “an internal matter” about which Dhaka need not concern itself. Officials across the board have said, off the record, that even 10 years from now, not a single person is going to be deported from India. This is all just election rhetoric and intended to keep people from India’s largest minority community – who incidentally constitute 14% of the population – on tenterhooks.

On almost every social parameter, Bangladesh is well ahead of India, whether it is infant and maternal mortality, access to safe childbirth and gender representation and parity. Women, as the primary work force in the garment industry that has pushed their exports well ahead of India, have powered Bangladesh’s economic miracle over the past decade and enjoy impressive parity. In fact, Ali said, not only is the Bangladesh Prime Minister a woman, its Home Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Parliament Speaker are all women, while 40% of the Bangladesh Foreign Service is made up of women.

Today, Bangladesh is among the world’s five fastest-growing economies; estimated to grow at around 8.5% on its way to becoming a middle-income nation by 202. It has the world’s second-largest garments industry, after China, and is the fourth-largest producer of freshwater fish.

The swift investigation, trial and judgement in the Dhaka Holy Artisan restaurant attack of July 2016 clearly reflects the country’s zero tolerance to terrorism. Bangladesh’s multi-faceted security and anti-terrorism cooperation with India, particularly under Hasina, is vital in not only ensuring its own security, but also in making sure that India is secure. Vastly improved physical connectivity between the two countries has ensured that intra-Indian connectivity, particularly with the Northeast, is much easier. The Akhoura–Agartala railway link, finally to be completed by 2020, though just 16 km, will make transportation and infrastructure development in Northeastern India much more efficient. Bangladesh is also the first and perhaps most important link in India’s Look and Act East policy, on which the success of the policy vitally depends.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians, in the IT, banking, telecom and infrastructure development sectors are working in Bangladesh today. In fact, to facilitate easier receipt of visas, Bangladesh is setting up its fifth Consulate-General in Chennai. Other than the High Commission in New Delhi, Bangladesh already has consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati and Agartala and plans a visa facilitation centre in Siliguri in West Bengal.

Yet the image most Indians, unfortunately, have of the average Bangladeshi is that of the ragged refugee from an impoverished nation dying to come to India for personal redemption.  Well-heeled, and even educated,  Indians have a supercilious and condescending attitude to most other people of colour,  particularly those from countries in Africa and South Asia, and manifestations of this attitude are rampant. People from neighbouring Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan also mention this aspect in private conversations.

High Commissioner Ali, who began his career as a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1968, reiterates at every single forum, his own and his country’s enormous gratitude to India and Indians for their support in helping to “liberate” East Pakistan and create Bangladesh. “The first Bangladesh-India bilateral cooperation had started in the battlefield of 1971,”  he said, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was herself a refugee in India once, has nothing but gratitude and affection for this country.

While the Indian government understands the vital importance of Bangladesh and accords this neighbour real partnership status, politicians of the ruling party and the average Indian need to stop being condescending and move on and be more sensitive. India must stop treating Bangladesh as the kid it helped put in school on the EWS (economically weaker section) quota. It certainly did, but that was 48 years ago and also benefited itself hugely. The kid has grown up and could well outrun its older neighbour in the development stakes.

 (The writer is Editor, India Review & Analysis. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted nilova.rc@spsindia.in)

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