Straight Talk

When Diplomacy Is at Its Best

Abdul Mannan

22 May, 2021 12:00 AM printer

When Diplomacy Is at Its Best

Abdul Mannan

The State parliament elections (Rajya Sabha) in four Indian States and one Union Territory have been concluded recently and the results have already been declared. The States were Paschimbanga, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry (union territory).  During this election some senior BJP central leaders were very desperate to unseat the Paschimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party Trinamool Congress and even went to the extent of dragging Bangladesh without any valid reason in the pre-election campaign rallies. Their main focus was Paschimbanga is being flooded by economic migrants from Bangladesh and once BJP is elected to power they will throw out ‘all illegal migrants’ from Paschimbanga. At times they even played communal card and even went to the extent by making audacious remarks by saying that Mamata is trying to unite the two Bengals, not appreciating the fact the people of two sides of the border share so many things in common that when some from one side goes to the other side of the border one never feels he or she is out of his or her country. In one of my early writings I categorically said that the people of Bangladesh are quite better economically than their brothers in Paschimbanga in most of the cases and there is no earthly reason why should someonefrom Bangladesh illegally immigrate to Paschimbanga or anywhere in India for economic reasons. So the election in Paschimbanga created some sort of interest in Bangladesh as there was a fear that once BJP is able to win the election in this State it may invoke its much controversial National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) and Citizens’ Act Amendment Bill (CAA) and there was fear that Bangladesh may witness an exodus of few hundred thousand people from across the border like the Rohingyas and create another human catastrophe. The fear was more about the results in the Assam state election as Assam is a BJP ruled state and the state has a history of being an unsafe place of people who are known as Bengalis.

Surprisingly many politicians in the state preach that all the non-Assamese (Bengalis) are migrants from Bangladesh which is totally unfounded and unsubstantiated. Though Assam has 32 million Muslims as its residents, most of them are descendants of immigrants who settled there under the British rule and Bangladesh had nothing to do with it. During our liberation as per the available record only about three hundred Bangladeshis sought refuge in Assam and once the country became independent they all came back as the new country promised them better opportunities in course of time. Immediately after 1947 many Muslims of Assam did migrate to Sylhet and other parts of East Bengal while the members of their extended familiesrefused to migrate from Assam and lose their roots and Assamese identity. By any definition they are Indians as anyother Indian Muslims.11 percent of total Indian population are Muslims. One must also remember that Assam was once part of Bengal Presidency and the hinterland of Chittagong Port extended upto Assam. During the Second World War when the fall of Chittagong to the advancing Japanese  forces  was seen as imminent, the Assam Bengal Railway till then headquartered in Chittagong was temporarily  moved to Dibrugarh in Assam along with most of  its staff. Later, the Headquarter was shifted back to Chittagong once the Japanese soldiers were beaten back. People of all communities in Assam always remained in harmony till the mid-seventies when a section of ultra-rightist local politicians began a campaign of ‘Assam for Assamese’ meaning the Bengalis must leave Assam. On 18th February 1983 there was a massacre of rural peasants in the Neillie village in central Assam where few thousands of Bangla speaking people were killed. This is treated as one of the most tragic massacres in India since its creation in 1947. Besides the Paschimbanga election, there was also an eye on the state election in Assam where BJP was already in power and if they again come back to form the government, there might be another round of unrest in the name of cleaning Assam of all non-Assamese? Already there are few thousand Indian Assamese in detention who could not produce their ‘proper documents’ and have been living in Assam for since the days of British Raj. Even one of the former Indian President’s family could not produce the so called ‘proper’ documents to prove that they are ‘valid’ Indians.

The elections are over. Mamata has won a land slide victory dispelling all fears, at least for the time being that the people may live in her administered state in peace and communal harmony. However, BJP has won grounds and in future the results may not repeat itself unless Mamata Banerjee plays her political cards well and ensures good governance. The threat of pushing back the so called ‘illegal immigrants’ are for the time being stalled and there is a sigh of relief amongst the ethnic religious minorities. Now the eyes are naturally on Assam though the Indian Prime Minister has declared that Bangladesh does not have to worry about either the NRC or CAA. The diplomatic pundits were keeping any eye on Bangladesh’s diplomatic moves vis-à-vis Indian election results. Should Bangladesh make any such moves expressing its opinion about Indian state election, especially those in the neighbouring states of Paschimbanga and Assam? Well in international politics at times non-traditional moves are not uncommon for the greater benefits of the concerned parties and people.

While the political and diplomatic pundits kept on guessing the first move was made by the Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr. A K Abdul Momen followed by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. On May 4th two days after the election results were declared, Dr.Momen wrote to Paschimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulating heron her historic victory in the state’s assembly. He wrote ‘The Trinamool has won the mandate of the people for forming the government for the third time in a row, which is a reflection of continued confidence and trust of the people of West Bengal in your leadership. We are grateful to you because you have embraced the long-cherished values of Bengalis ‘religious harmony and brotherhood’ (some BJP leaders played the communal card during the election campaign) and Bangabandhu has played a leading role in this matter all his life.” Dr. Momen also noted “Excellent bilateral relations exist between Bangladesh and India, and the potential areas of mutual cooperation between the two countries have expanded in recent years. Undivided history, culture, language, values and hereditary connections have made the relationship between the people of the two countries unique and strong. In particular the people of West Bengal hold a special place in the hearts of Bangladeshis.”  A day later Sheikh Hasina sent her personal felicitations to Mamata Banerjee saying “the huge victory of Trinamool Congress  in the assembly election of 2021 is a reflection of deep rooted trust of West Bengal people in you.” She wished her overall development and continued progress of the West Bengal people under the able leadership of Mamata. Sheikh Hasina did not forget to mention the sacrifices made by the people of Paschimbanga during our Liberation War.

Once the felicitations sent to Mamata Banerjee over, eyes were fixed on Assam as the state has elected to vote for BJP and the person elected to become the Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is known to be ardent supporter of BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ mantra. He is also committed to implement the NRC and CAA though it will mean forcible displacement of thousands of people of all faiths, those considered ‘illegal immigrant’ irrespective of where were their roots. In a master stroke Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 15th May sent a message of felicitation to the Assam’s Chief Minister Mr. Sarma surprising many diplomatic pundits. She expressed her confidence in him saying “under your visionary leadership the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-faith people of Assam will progress towards a more vibrant society and greater development.” Highlighting how Bangladesh is “poised to graduate into a middle-income country”, Sheikh Hasina extended an invitation to Assam to “Reap benefits from our socio-economic development and growth trajectory.” In her letter Bangladesh’s Prime Minister focused on connectivity, saying “government of Bangladesh remains steadfast in strengthening connectivity for the north-eastern part of India” and “given our locational advantage as connectivity hub between south and south-east Asia we remain supportive of India’s Act East Policy.” She did not forget the Covid-19 pandemic taking a heavy toll in India and said “our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Assam and India as a whole for saving lives and restoring livelihoods”.Mention may be made Bangladesh has already sent two consignments of Remdesiver and other medicines to India as it struggles with the 2nd wave of Covid-19.  Most of the consignments go to the North-Eastern states of India. In the recent times Bangladesh has established an extraordinary connectivity with the North-Eastern states of India including Assam and virtually all the benefits going to these states.

The extraordinary diplomatic moves made by Bangladesh after the election results of these two neighbouring states of Bangladesh may be seen as Chanakya move in positive terms. Bangladesh has made its move before the dust of election settled in these two strategic neighbouring states and pushed the ball in their court. Though not much to worry about Mamata Banerjee it has put the Assam Chief Minister in a delicate position and would perhaps stop him, at least temporarily, mentioning anything about the so called imaginary ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladeshif he reads in between the lines of Sheikh Hasina’s letter to him. He has to prove that he is a Chief Minister of all his people and not a tribal chief.

Though Dr. Momen is not a career diplomat he heads the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry and has managed to establish connection and seems to be a fast learner. Primarily he is a bureaucrat and economist turn politician and spent substantial part of his life in US. He also served in different government and other international bodies, including Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to UN beforewinning the general election of 2018. He was made the Foreign Minister and so far has performed well. Coming back to Sheikh Hasina though she is heading the government for three consecutive terms, she studied Bangla literature and over a period of last four decades turned from a politician to an internationally recognized statesman. Now she has proved her extraordinary talent in demonstrating her ability as a diplomat. It reminds of her illustrious father, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s mastery of diplomacy as narrated by the people who worked with him. It was 1973, hardly two years after Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation when Bangabandhu attended the non-aligned meet at Algiers, Algeria. During the course of the conference he wanted an appointment with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. After few trials finally a short appointment was arranged. King Faisal was in no mood to show any warmth to Sheikh Mujib. He asked Mujib through an interpreter what aid would his new ‘break away’ country from Pakistan need from Saudi Arabia. Mujib was taller than King Faisal, both in height and intelligence. He looked at the eyes of the King and said ‘Your excellency, I have not come here to ask for aid. I ask you to permit the people of my country to perform Haj on regular passport. Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim country in the world and so far as your country has not recognized Bangladesh.  Our people have to perform Haj on special travel permits.’ The people in attendance, especially those from the foreign ministry, were left speechless and admired the courage of the man and later said he virtually taught us what diplomacy is all about.” Sheikh Mujib is gone from us but his legacy remains and is taken forward by his able daughter. As I have had the good fortune of working and travelling on few occasions with her, I have quite a few episodes to share –maybe some other day. Both the father and the daughter have shown what diplomatic moves are all about and you need instant understanding of the situation, be proactive and know what should be done and when.


The writer is an analyst

and a commentator.