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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Imagine true partnership between India, Bangla

We could create a bloc with Nepal and Bhutan having open borders and shared resources.

The Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala bus arrives at the Akhaura checkpost in Agartala on Tuesday during a trial run. PTI

magine a world in which Bangladesh and India truly collaborate and cooperate with one other as equal partners and with mutual respect and understanding. What would such a world look like and how would it differ from the world in which we live today?

We would have open borders, with Bangladeshis and Indians both having the right to live, work, and study in the other country. There would be no border shootings because there would be no need for illegal border crossings. The long-standing issue of transshipment and transit of Indian goods through Bangladesh would be a moot point. In such a scenario, obviously India would have the right to transit its goods through Bangladesh, thus connecting its north-eastern states to the rest of the country, to the benefit of all concerned.

But it would not end there. Chittagong and Mongla ports could service the entire sub-region, with goods from the Northeast finding an outlet to the rest of the world through them. Bangladeshi markets would be open to Indian goods and Indian markets open to Bangladeshi goods. Businessmen could trade across borders and set up businesses where and when they pleased without hindrance or hostility.

There would be no reason we could not bring Nepal and Bhutan into this scheme, and sub-regional cooperation could be extended to energy cooperation, with hydro-electricity from these two mountainous countries being available to supplement the grid here in Bangladesh, and gas and coal available for export out of Bangladesh to the highest bidder.

Imagine us all working towards an EU-style common market with open borders and full sub-regional integration as the ultimate goal.

Due to the continuing hostility and distrust between Pakistan and India, I do not see that this kind of cooperation could ever encompass the entire SAARC region, but there is no reason why India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal cannot fully integrate our markets and communication networks.

The benefits to all four countries would be immeasurable. It is this kind of cooperation and collaboration which has been a fundamental driver of economic development in Europe and the ASEAN region, and there can be no question that greater sub-regional integration would do wonders for the countries involved. Nor is it such a far-fetched idea as it might seem at first glance.

Prior to the run-up to the 1965 war, the borders between India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) were more or less open, and goods and people travelled back and forth freely. It was only in the run-up to the 1965 war that the borders were permanently closed and have remained so ever since (even after 1971).

Thus, the current state of affairs between India and Bangladesh dates back to only 1965, and there is no reason why we cannot move the relationship between India and Bangladesh back to its pre-1965 footing, and use that as a stepping stone to ever closer connectivity and integration in future.

And this should be the goal of any far-sighted government in both Dhaka and New Delhi.

There is distrust and suspicion on both sides of the border, and not without reason. But we must understand that it is in neither of our interests for this state of affairs to persist.

It is axiomatic that closer integration between Bangladesh and India would be of benefit to both countries and that the lack of cooperation and coordination over the years has harmed us both. Now is the time for us both to move away from such self-defeating small-mindedness and such a narrow understanding of our national self-interest.

What holds us back?

India needs to understand that it has more to gain than to lose by opening itself up to its eastern neighbour. Its fears of being overrun by Bangladeshi migrants are overblown. In any case, according to Indian government claims there are already some 20 million Bangladeshis in India, so how much worse could it get?

The simple truth is that there has already been a de facto integration of both countries' labour markets and the smartest thing to do at this stage would be to regularise it. In any event, with some $3.5 billion remitted from Bangladesh to India every year, it is a two-way street.

But the main argument for greater sub-regional integration is that it is a tide that will lift all boats, and as Bangladesh becomes wealthier and more developed as a result, fewer Bangladeshis will care to chance their hand across the border.

Most importantly, with greater communication and connectivity, the hostility between the people of both countries will diminish dramatically, and India will have much less to fear. The goodwill engendered would be far more powerful and long-lasting an antidote to anti-Indian militancy than any kind of police action or patrolling the border.

The bottom line is that with greater integration and connectivity, people from one country will have a stake in the other such that their interests will be aligned, and the more our interests are aligned the more unthinkable conflict and hostility become.

The more we cooperate and collaborate with one another, the more the benefits of even greater cooperation and collaboration, and the greater the costs of confrontation.

It won't be easy. There are powerful constituencies on both sides of the border who would oppose such an entente. Ultimately, it would require a change in the mind-set of the everyday people in both countries. Bangladeshis would need to come out of their distrust of India and fear of Indian domination, and India would need to come out of its condescension towards Bangladesh and fear of being overrun by Bangladeshi hordes.

Both sides would need to change their policies and outlooks and address the legitimate grievances of the other. Both sides would need to build trust and goodwill.

It would be a long drawn-out process, with no guarantee of eventual success, pitfalls at every turn, and a strong likelihood of coming apart in the face of insuperable obstacles. But the dream of greater sub-regional integration is a vision worthy of a true statesman (or stateswoman) and is one worth expending political capital on to make a reality.

Zafar Sobhan is the editor, Dhaka Tribune.

 
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