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Lot of talk but little outcome from Khaleda visit

Firing along the border, even as Zia paid a goodwill visit to Delhi, symbolises the volatile ties the two South Asian neighbours have.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2006 14:46 IST

Firing along the India-Bangladesh border, even as Prime Minister Khaleda Zia paid a "goodwill visit" to New Delhi, symbolises the volatile ties the two South Asian neighbours have.

Precious little seems to have been achieved to undo this during her three-day visit that ended on Wednesday.

India may have hoped a change from the denial mode in which Bangladesh has placed itself, rejecting all Indian assertions of activities of fugitives and terrorists, illegal migration and "rogue forces" that had strained bilateral relations to a rupture point in recent times.

And the firing between Indian and Bangladeshi paramilitary forces around the North Dinajpur area, close to Khaleda's home town, is perhaps an illustration of the reality that Dhaka's geopolitical compulsions, and the composition of its present government, may not so easily permit a change of heart and stance.

Giving vent to what must have happened at the negotiation table, Bangladesh Finance Minister Saifur Rahman told reporters: "For so long you have an erroneous impression of insurgent camps in Bangladesh, about Bangladeshis entering India -- if you persist with this misleading erroneous impression, it will be very difficult to have harmonious relationship."

A senior Indian official told the agency: "We did not expect a different line from Bangladesh. After all, they have elections later this year. And the government there has to deal with the Islamic Oikya Jote, the alliance partner that is avowedly anti-India."

In all fairness, it would seem, there were some efforts on both sides to mend fences, literally and figuratively. But not much could be done during a low-key visit that was devoid of atmospherics.

If Manmohan Singh sought to set the tone by assuring that a strong and prosperous Bangladesh was in India's interest, Zia too tried what seems to be her best.

She must have angered her Islamist allies but she scored a brownie point with liberals on both sides of the border when she expressed appreciation of India's contribution to her country's freedom in 1971.

In doing so, she appeared to have responded to an Indian perception that if not the people, the ruling classes of Bangladesh she represents have certainly been ungrateful, at times attempting to rewriting their own history, ignoring Indian sacrifices.

On the other hand, whatever her irritants with New Delhi, which have persisted since her husband and former president, the late Ziaur Rahman, sought to take Bangladesh away from Indian "influence" after the violent exit of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her gesture was befitting the widow of one of the most prominent figures of the liberation struggle.

She also mentioned that Rabindranath Tagore had written the national anthems of both countries. She was responding to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciting Qazi Nazrul Islam's verses.

One would have thought that in psychological terms, ice would be broken to place the bilateral relationship on an even keel. But the ground reality would seem to suggest that cobwebs remain to be cleared.

Two "Ts" dominated the dialogue: trade from her side; for India it was terrorism. Both sides appear to have reassured each other, but conceding little.

Among other Indian leaders, Finance Minister P Chidambaram assured all possible help on the economic front, enough for her to restate that Bangladesh wants to be the economic bridge between India and Southeast Asia.

Begum Zia went a few steps further in seeking, and apparently securing, better trade terms to bridge the huge balance of payment gap and in seeking, at some stage in future, a bilateral free trade agreement.

India's dilemma is in making concessions without allowing Begum Zia to derive political mileage at home.

"We are not taking sides. But what has been witnessed in the last four years is intrinsically worse than what we experienced in the past three decades," said an Indian diplomat.

For New Delhi, it makes sense to lower tariff barriers, if not remove them, and appear less protectionist. The policies pursued so far have caused it to lose some markets like coal to China.

As for terrorism, India stressed that there are concerns that Bangladesh must address. Begum Zia was told about the illegal migration, activities of fugitives operating from Bangladesh, and the volatility on the 4,000-km border.

Saifur Rahman's reaction would indicate that not much happened. Indeed, bilateral meetings at the home secretary level and among directors general of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and Border Security Force (BSF) have witnessed hardening of stands.

Seeking to skirt the realities as India views them, Zia made a big pitch about her drive against Islamist militants. New Delhi welcomed it but stressed that political violence of any kind, against religious minorities or political rivals, in Bangladesh was bound to find its echoes in India.

Dhaka's opposition to any gas-based Indian industry, even while inviting foreign direct investment, is to be understood in political terms. Begum Zia would not like to be seen as "selling out" gas to India.

However, the Zia visit appears to have created a climate more conducive for Indian investment than in the past.

First Published: Mar 23, 2006 14:46 IST