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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

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

What does ‘anti-Indian’ mean?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greeting the dignitaries at the National Convention on HIV/AIDS on 4 July.

angladesh is still buzzing about Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's remarks at a Q&A session with Indian editors last week. After praising Bangladesh and expressing satisfaction with the bilateral relationship, he issued the caveat: "But we must reckon that 25% of the population of Bangladesh swear by the Jamiat-ul-Islami [sic] and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI. So a political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time."

The statement was regrettable because it indicated that Indian intelligence remains woefully misinformed about the political reality in Bangladesh. By no means does anywhere close to 25% of the population support the Jamaat. In reality, they command less than 5% of the popular vote and saw their representation in Parliament sink to one seat in the last election. With much of the party's senior leadership in jail and facing charges for war crimes, the Jamaat's popularity has in fact never been at such a low ebb.

But let us call a spade a spade. If Manmohan Singh erred in his reckoning of Jamaat supporters within the country and in his conflation of anti-Indianism with the Jamaat, he may have been closer to the mark with his suggestions about the depths of anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh.

It all depends on how one defines being anti-Indian. If anti-Indianism is to encompass rejection of Bollywood, Indian television, and IPL cricket, then we can safely say that this should not be a concern.

However, if he is referring to Bangladeshi resentment against what is perceived to be India's looking down on Bangladesh and its supercilious and condescending attitude, then the sentiment is well-nigh universal inside the country.

If he is referring to unhappiness over border killings (though somewhat abated of late) and a sense of grievance over trade, water-sharing, and other touchstone issues where the Bangladeshi public feels that it is being bullied and strong-armed by India, the number is in fact far higher than 25% of the population.

My editor has on more than one occasion chided me for what he sees as my chippy attitude to India. These kinds of assessments are always a bit subjective, and he may have a point. But what is instructive is that in Bangladesh I am considered one of the more pro-Indian commentators. It's not a compliment, either. The thought that I harbour some kind of anti-Indian animosity would be greeted with hilarity in Dhaka, which goes to show just where popular opinion stands, and suggests the gulf in perception between our two countries.

Manmohan Singh has been criticised for his comments by voices including ex-high commissioner to Dhaka Veena Sikri and columnist Kuldip Nayar, whom Bangladeshis have always considered friendly. But while attempts to portray Bangladesh in a more accurate and attractive light are always appreciated, there is some truth to Manmohan Singh's apprehension of anti-Indianism in Bangladesh. In fact, it was not long ago that Kuldip Nayar memorably wrote about Bangladesh that "the anti-Indian sentiment is so strong, you can taste it." Nothing has changed except the government.

Perhaps the most interesting and useful commentary on the matter came from Mihir Sharma in the Indian Express. Sharma wrote in concrete terms of how Bangladeshis feel let down following the ground-breaking 2010 summit between the two Prime Ministers: "Since [then] an enormous amount of nothing has been achieved ... the Bangladeshi side created the foundations for further cooperation, making what was already agreed upon happen. And, each time, the Indian side failed to reciprocate, or did so with sloth and delay."

It is important to get beyond the simplistic rhetoric of Bangladesh being anti-Indian offered by one side or Bangladesh being pro-Indian offered by the other. The truth is more complex and nuanced, and it is important to correctly gauge the public sentiment so that those of us who wish for a better bilateral relationship understand what we are up against and what must be done to move in that direction.

his is why the Indian foreign minister's current visit and Manmohan Singh's September one, and the agreements that are being signed, are so crucial. The health of the bilateral relationship depends entirely on the efforts made on both sides of the border. Manmohan Singh is right to caution about anti-Indian sentiment. But such sentiment is not cast in stone, and he has it within his power to transform the popular perception of India within Bangladesh. But to do that, first he must transform his own perception of Bangladesh.

 
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