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Once termed a basket case, Bangladesh is now emerging

S Swaminathan
Bangladesh, Bangladesh independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, India-Pakistan war, Rohingyas, bangladesh visas, Sheikh Hasina, awmi league

Next year will mark the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose struggles delivered independence for Bangladesh. It provides an opportunity for us to learn to appreciate that country better. For what that country stands for. For what their aspirations are. For why they are totally deserving and justifiably of India’s respect.

The first description that needs correction is the Indian characterisation of the events of 1971 on the eastern front as an India-Pakistan war. It wasn’t. Instead, it should be seen as Bangladesh’s war of independence. Yes, India fought Pakistan. Yes, we sent our army in. Yes, the air force followed thereafter. But let none forget that while 3,900 Indian soldiers died and another 9,851 were wounded, the loss of Bangladeshi life was far more. Some say that the genocide unleashed by Pakistan caused upwards of 3 million deaths. If the quantum of sacrifice made by its people is any criteria, it was clearly Bangladesh’s fight in which India provided substantial assistance with men and material to help the local population capture power.

At the 100th anniversary celebrations that start in March next year, no other country has as much claim to be on the main stage as India. During the 1971 war, only India and Russia were with Bangladesh. China sided with Pakistan, but clearly Bangladesh has mended fences with China, with the latter offering to invest huge sums of money in Bangladesh. Even with Pakistan, Bangladesh’s relations are on even keel, as evidenced by the sociocultural interaction between the two countries from time to time. While it is true that Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League has sided with India on issues involving Pakistan, the same cannot be said of the two main opposition parties, namely Begum Zia’s BNP or late General Ershad’s Jatiya Party, both of whom gave Hasina hell for cosying up to India.

It has been 48 years since independence.

For more than half the period, Bangladesh had governments that were not favourably disposed towards having good friendly ties with India even when they may not always been completely inimical. The population of Bangladesh, at the time of its independence in 1971, was 65 million; today, it is 165 million. Which means that most of the population has no recollection of Mujib and his sacrifices or India’s contribution. The 100th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to tell them about Bangabandhu, his sacrifices and his contribution to the creation of Bangladesh. India would do well to showcase its own role without making Bangladesh uncomfortable. It is a perfect opportunity for India to pay homage to the memory of the 3 million Bangladeshis who died during the independence struggle.

It is in India’s interests to do so. Bangabandhu, or friend of Bengal, Mujib wore his Bengali identity proudly on his sleeve. Which is how, even today, the Bengali identity trumps the Muslim identity for most Bangladeshis. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reinforce this in the minds of the post-independence generation. From India’s point of view, that alone will be enough to provide a bulwark against mass radicalisation of the population. Bangladesh attaches great value to its secular credentials, and the fact that there are more than 100 temples where daily worship takes place is testimony to this. Equally important, there is the Gurdwara Nanak Shahi, in the memory of Guru Nanak who visited Dhaka in the 16th century. It is important for India to be invested in ensuring that Bangladesh stays secular and does not become a breeding ground for any kind of radicalisation that can hurt India. But to get there, we, in India, need to change.

The Indian mindset on Bangladesh has to change. Take the name in front of anyone and everything you likely hear is negative. Illegal migration. Basket case. Poor country. Terrorist haven. There is no denying that Bangladesh has its share of problems. But today’s Bangladeshi is a proud Bangladeshi. And there is much for him to be proud of. And he wants to be appreciated for it. With good reason, too.

The Brookings Institution calls Bangladesh one of Asia’s most remarkable and unexpected success stories in recent years. “Bangladesh defies economic and political gravity,” screams the Nikkei Asian Review. They are self-sufficient in food and earned the world’s respect when they gave shelter to the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar, in much the same way India did when millions of Bangladeshis took refuge in India in 1971. Even Pakistan calls Bangladesh a success story, admitting candidly that Bangladesh has done much better than Pakistan itself.

There is more. I did not know until last week that India exports $10 billion worth of goods and services to Bangladesh and that we run a trade surplus of over $9 billion with them. It means that Bangladesh buys over Rs 70,000 crore worth of stuff from us. That is a lot of jobs they are helping us create in India. They deserve our gratitude for this alone. But the story does not end there. In 2017, more than 2.2 lakh Bangladeshis came to India for medical treatment, and that number will be much higher by now. They create jobs, too. With them, come their families.

The Indian High Commission issues over 15 lakh visas to Bangladeshis annually. I am not sure if there is any other country that sends as many visitors to India. Many of them come to Kolkata for weekend shopping, some have started going to Guwahati after a direct flight was introduced. The impact of these 15 lakh on the Indian economy cannot be overstated. Thank you, Bangladesh. It is high time we acknowledged their positive impact on the Indian economy, and give them the respect they so rightfully deserve.

If that’s not all, Bangladesh trumps India on several indicators. Bangladeshis’ average life expectancy is now 72 years, compared to 68 years for Indians, says the World Bank. When it comes to banking, only 10.4% of Bangladeshi bank accounts are dormant, compared to 48% of Indian bank accounts. Dormant accounts are those where there has not been a single transaction for a year. When it comes to ready-made garments, Bangladesh trumps India by a long way.

If none of this resonates with you as being reason enough for Bangladesh to be proud, allow me to remind you of Shakib Al Hasan, whose performance at the recent ICC Cricket World Cup has been nothing short of phenomenal. The success of Shakib has given the young Bangladeshi reason enough to walk with his head held high. It is time we in India recognised this and give them the respect that they deserve.

The author is Chief executive & founder of IRIS Business Services Ltd