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Basis of Indo-Bangladesh Cooperation

Paper No. 6100                                 Dated 13-Apr-2016

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

Zia Haider Rahman’s article in the New York Times (Oh, So Now I’m Bangladeshi? April 8 2016) provokes the thought whether the so-called enlightened people of the Western world are not closet racists after all.

Rahman a British citizen was introduced at the PEN Printers Prize ceremony where he was a judge in the following words “Born in rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, Munich and Yale Universities. He has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human rights lawyer.”  He is concerned, and rightly so in the present time of confusing more than a million Muslims with the terrorists who are killing innocent, men, women and children in the name of religion. Rahman is concerned whether “keeping me Bangladeshi has the advantage of enabling some people to tell me to go back to my own country. The issue is not what I choose to call myself but what the supposedly educated Briton chooses to call nonwhite British citizens.

 Britain has a problem with otherness. This problem is not exclusively a British one. …. To the white Briton, the hyphenated identity — Bangladeshi-British, Pakistani-British — only highlights otherness. Each side regards the hyphenated identity as a concession to the other, rather than both rejoicing in a new stripe in a rainbow nation. It does not come easily for white Britons to speak, face to face, of a nonwhite Briton’s nationality. The shuffling feet, the throat-clearing, the unmet eye give it away. Hyphenation sounds clunky, feels awkward; even calling someone just British is less pointed, less charged”. He is terrified when he reads about the holocaust because in his mind a thought revolves in his mind “As a boy, I read about the destruction of millions of Jews and was gripped by fear: If white Europeans could do that to people who looked like them, imagine what they could do to me”.

One could wonder if Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness--1899) could give some answer to the primeval activities of the malcontents. In his book the central figure-Kurtz-freed from taboos and societal mandates is dehumanized and in his final moments he realizes that “Congo is not the "heart of darkness", but it is actually the heart and soul of every human. One learns that the natives in their primitive and brutal ways are actually more pure and good, than the Europeans and their greed". Conrad uses Kurtz, an ideal human of remarkable mettle and impervious morals, and demonstrates what lies beneath all men, the evil that is present and waiting in all of us.

One could also wonder whether Rudyard Kipling’s exhortation to the colonialists to shoulder “The White Man’s Burden” did not explicitly endorsed “superiority” of the Whites over the natives who needed to be civilized. This claim of “superiority” demolished by Columbia Professor the late Edward Said who harshly critiqued both Princeton Historian Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington (of Clash of Civilizations fame) as the two were intellectual founders of a Western policy  of a new “crusade” based on the superiority of Christianity over Islam. As the majority of the Christians are Whites as opposed to majority of Muslims being non-White there can be a logical deduction of racial superiority of one over the other.

 According to FBI data for the period 1980 to 2005 42% of the terrorist attacks on US soil were perpetrated by Latinos, 24% by extreme left wing groups, 7% by Jewish extremists and 6% by Islamic extremists.  Why then the Muslims are almost universally regarded as terrorists? An attempt to answer this question can be found in the book Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mersheimer and Stephen Walt. But then this piece is not to apologize for the terrorism by Islamic terrorists and the depth of their barbarism not seen by the world since the Holocaust.

Yet like a slithering snake either wittingly or unwittingly racism has been prevalent in the minds of the people from time immemorial.  Columbia Professor Lawrence Blum argues that “racism” be restricted to two referents: inferiorization, or the denigration of a group due to its putative biological inferiority; and antipathy, or the “bigotry, hostility, and hatred” towards another group defined by its putatively inherited physical traits (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

 Despite practice of racism having been outlawed in most countries people from different racial and ethnic background face discrimination every day. Discrimination is also produced by inequality of income with the same society and/or between countries. It is more pronounced between the rich and the poor, the rich harvesting the opportunities inherited from parents or accumulated by them providing good schooling and other facilities that go with money. The poor deprived of these facilities remained entrapped within the vicious circle   of poverty denying them the social mobility of climbing up the socio-economic ladder.

 Inequality is more than just economics, writes British Geographer Daniel Dorling, it is the culture that divides and makes social mobility almost impossible. In one of his research into how the lives and ideas of the 1% impact on the remaining 99%; he found the findings shocking. Inequality in the UK is increasing; more and more people are driven towards the poverty line. Even before birth, being born outside the 1% will have dramatic impact on the rest of your life: it will reduce your life expectancy, educational and work prospects, as well as your mental health.

 Nobel laureate Joseph Stieglitz reached similar conclusion. In one of his articles (THE GUARDIAN Climate change and poverty have not gone away Joseph Stieglitz JAN 7 2013) Stieglitz warned that “An economic and political system that does not deliver for most citizens is one that is not sustainable in the long run. Eventually, faith in democracy and the market economy will erode, and the legitimacy of existing institutions and arrangements will be called into question. (While) the gap between the emerging and advanced countries has narrowed greatly in the last three decades hundreds of millions of people remain in poverty, and there has been only a little progress in reducing the gap between the least developed countries and the rest”. He also asserted that in the US  “Our skyrocketing inequality — so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” — means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential”.

Another Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote in the same vein of rising inequality’s obvious economic costs: stagnant wages despite rising productivity, rising debt that making the economy more vulnerable to financial crisis. It also has big social and human costs. Besides, Krugman says, extreme inequality creates a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality — and simultaneously gives these people great power.

 Despite the speeches given by our leaders and the elections held both nationally and locally one wonders if the governance of Bangladesh has not largely been given away to the plutocrats. Thomas Hobbes’s description of “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" being essentially a constant despite vast technological advances achieved since the 17th century and majority of our parliamentarians being involved in business one may wonder if some of the decisions made in the name of the people are not actually made for the benefit of the plutocrats and whether the raging debate of 1% versus 99% is not equally applicable for developing countries like Bangladesh.

One must applaud the achievements of the Awami League government in the fields of education, energy, agriculture, and rightening the faltering roads, highways and bridges, making the country self sufficient in food despite doubling the number of population and importantly intra-regional cooperation. Security and emerging Islamic insurgency despite administration’s efforts remain causes of concern. The natural trend of secularization of centuries old tradition, of people of different faiths living side by side( there are occasional inter-faith terrorism notwithstanding)  has put Bangladesh at a different level compared to Pakistan or Afghanistan in this region and Middle East and Africa globally.

The present Prime Minister of Bangladesh already hailed as a visionary leader by globally acclaimed magazines like Foreign Policy could someday be called the architect of modern Bangladesh. The policy direction of her government appears to be in the right direction.

 Emphasis on education, health( Amartya Sen in one of his lectures in January 2013  cited  the example of Bangladesh — which has put in concerted efforts to promote gender equality — Professor Sen pointed out that Bangladesh  left India behind in all social indicators. “The large number of women health workers or school teachers has actually helped [Bangladesh] them to overtake India in every aspect of Human Development Index”. It is not to argue that Bangladesh has surpassed India or it has any plan to do so.

India remains a major power on the global stage and its economy may become the third or fourth largest in the world in a few decades. Bangladesh will gain from closer relations with India which is the declared policy of the present government. It would be stating the obvious that Bangladesh has a compulsion to improve politico-economic relations with India because India can provide security and our need for manufactured goods, such as steel, chemicals, light engineering goods, capital goods, coal and limestone.

India’s stated policy of close relations with neighbors is belied by the fact that while more than 80% of Indian total equity is spread among South East Asian and African countries, only about 10% was invested in South Asia. A few obstacles are responsible for limited intra-regional trade: - most South Asian countries being primary producers tend to export similar items; with the exception of Sri Lanka high tariff and non-tariff barrier discourages intra-regional trade; lack of adequate transport and informational links; and political differences affecting economic decisions. Added is the fear of disparate stage of economic development between India and Bangladesh. In such cases the relatively more developed economy is regarded by the less developed ones in terms of center-periphery/ metropolitan-subaltern relationship that existed during the colonial era. The fear of the less developed ones that they may turn into a hinterland of the more developed economy discourages the former to strengthen their economic bonds. Besides imbalance in trade is held responsible for asymmetric trade relationship without recognizing the fact that the less developed has a far smaller export basket and their main focus of export is to the developed countries and less within the region.

In the regional context the more developed economies could consider according zero tariff and removal of para-tariff barrier for the least developed countries of the region. As time goes by the impediments—both structural and political—will surely improve along with the realization by  the leaders and the people that Indo-Bangladesh economic development are entwined and benefits earned by one country will have beneficial effects on the other.  Most importantly the basis of cooperation is the cultural, historical and ethnic ties  of the people of India and Bangladesh.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh)