Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed
Anybody interested in knowing and understanding India and its overall policies towards Bangladesh, first of all, instantly appears before him/her is to look at the seven sisters in the north eastern zone and then ask himself/herself why an India-friendly Bangladesh is coveted by/for India? Well, let us have a picture in mind that Bangladesh and India are not on good terms and all the passages from the mainland of India to its northeastern states over Bangladesh are not all open.‘Shiliguri Corridor’, the melting point of West Bengal in the mainland of India and Aurunachal Pradesh in the northeastern states. This passway is about 200 kilometers in length and 20 to 60 kilometers in width having the shape of chicken’s neck–located in the Indian state of West Bengal, with the countries of Nepal and Bangladesh lying on either side of the corridor. And now see that reverse is taking place in case of Bangladesh. Therefore, on the spot asking crops up, is Bangladesh in a position to weigh and apply her standing befittingly while dealing with India? This article is a kind of amplification of the writes-up ‘Indian seven sisters: Spark for Bangladesh’ printed in Dhaka Courier on 5 September 2014 and in the Burma Times on 09 0ctober 2014 under the title ‘Understanding Indian seven sisters from Bangladesh’s standpoints’.The Centre of attention of this write-up rotates around Bangladesh’s importance to India in the context of northeastern states widely called ‘seven sisters’ and which rose to ‘eight sisters’ with the joining of Sikkim as a part of India in 1975. India came into being on 15 August 1947 as a free and sovereign state from the yoke of United Kingdom, only with three states covered the area in the northeastern India. Manipur and Tripura were princely states, although a much larger Assam Province was under direct British rule. Four new states were carved out of the original land of Assam in the decades following independence, in tune with the policy of the Indian government of reorganising the states along ethnic and linguistic lines. Consequently, Nagaland became a separate state in 1963, followed by Meghalaya in 1972. Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972, and achieved statehood along with Arunachal Pradesh in 1987. Today, all these seven states together later came to be known seven sisters, also called “Paradise Unexplored”. Sikkim joined the Indian union through a referendum in 1975 and was recognised as part of Northeast India in the 1990s. Therefore, the number finally rose from seven to eight.
Dawning of the sobriquet “The Land of Seven Sisters” is really interesting and recalling. It was initially coined to coincide with the inauguration of the new states in January, 1972, by Jyoti Prasad Saikia, a journalist in Tripura in the course of a radio talk show. Saikia later compiled a book on the interdependence and commonness of the Seven Sister States, and named it the Land of Seven Sisters. It has been primarily because of this publication that the nickname has caught on. These states cover an area of 255,511sq km, or about 7 percent of India’s total area. They had a population of 44.98 million in 2011, about 3.7 percent of India’s total. Although there is great ethnic and religious diversity within the seven states, they also have similarities in political, social and economic contexts.
Out of these seven (now eight) states, Bangladesh has borders with Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. A number of pillars mark the border between the two states. Small demarcated portions of the border are fenced on both sides. The creation of ‘East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)’ as a part of free and sovereign Pakistan in 1947 produced a sort of geographical barrier for India as this was transformed into and came up as a foreign land standing between mainland India and its northeastern part putting all pre-partition free communications and transportations to end.
India, having no other alternative, readily created a corridor (in the sense of passageway) in 1947 connecting the mainland of India via West Bengal with Arunachal Pradesh, which translates to “land of the dawn-lit mountains”, is also known as the Orchid State of India or the Paradise of the Botanists, in the northeastern zone. This corridor is a narrow stretch of land at Shiliguri – about 200 kilometers in length and 20 to 60 kilometers in width having the shape of chicken’s neck–located in the Indian state of West Bengal, with the countries of Nepal and Bangladesh lying on either side of the corridor. In fact, at the time of India’s independence in 1947, the present territory of Arunachal Pradesh was under part-B of the Sixth schedule of the constitution as the tribal areas of Assam and it includes NEFT including Balipara Frontier Tract, the Tirap Frontier Tract, the Abor Hills district, the Mishmi Hills district and the Naga tribal areas. In 1951, all these together were renamed as North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which was reconstituted in 1955 and 1957. It became Union Territory in 1972 and acquired statehood as Aurunachal Pradesh in 1987.
Should India feel free, secure and comfort with this corridor? Answer is definitely not at all. Because Arunachal Pradesh, one of the 29 states of India, lies in the far northeast of the country bordering the states of Assam and Nagaland to the south, and shares international borders with Bhutan in the west(160 Kms), Myanmar in the east(440Kms) and the People’s Republic of China in the north(1030 kms). Between Sikkim and Bhutan lies the Chumbi valley, a dagger-like slice of the Tibetan territory. A Chinese military advance of less than 80 miles would cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and all of North-East India, containing almost 50 million people. This situation occurred in 1962 during the war between India and China.
China has long been claiming Arunachal is part of Tibet that is the territory of China, while Delhi claims it a fundamental part of India. The difference of opinion over Arunachal was the heart of a brief war between the two countries in 1962. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China speedily invaded Arunachal and chased retreating army of India up to the bank of Brahmaputra River in Assam, inflicting a humiliating defeat to India. But China, in the face of mounting international criticism, soon voluntarily withdrew troops back to the McMahon Line and returned Indian prisoners of war in 1963. Henceforth, after the India-China border conflicts in 1962, the North East became a strategic region as regards the national security of India.China considers Arunachal Pradesh to be an inextricable part of Tibet’s (the Xizang Autonomous region) “Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul” regions.
A new vertical atlas of China, an update of its official national map, issued by its Hunan Map Publishing House in the last week of June 2014 showing India held disputed Arunachal Pradhesh and parts of Jammu and Kashmir as the territory of China has raised further hullabaloo. It also raised question if China sticking to the map will go for annexing the territory that may lead to repetition of 1962 Indo-China war. It is interesting to mark that the vertical map was unveiled in Beijing in the last week of June 2014 marking celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheela Treaty, which was attended, among others, by Myanmar President Thein Sein and India’s vice-president Hamid Ansari. Panchsheela Treaty– five principles of peaceful co-existence – was signed in 1954 by China, India and Burma (now Myanmar).
The new vertical atlas of China has no doubt threw a new challenge to India, already perturbed by recent report of intrusion of Chinese troops 11 km inside Indian territory in Ladakh and strategically important Chumbi valley. The map also depicts China’s sea boundary in the South China Sea, through which $5.3trillion worth of goods is traded every year, and extending its northern land border to Meghalaya, Assam and Myanmar.
Speaking at the function marking the anniversary of Panchsheela Treaty Chinese President Xi Jinping said hegemonism or militarism is not in the genes of the Chinese. China neither interferes in other country’s internal affairs nor imposes its will on others. It will never seek hegemony, no matter how strong it may be. His statement was viewed as directed at India without naming it.
In another meeting attended by foreign diplomats, civil and army officials the President laid importance on strengthening the country’s frontier defenses on land and sea. China should bear in mind its history “as a victim of foreign aggression… The country’s weakness in the past allowed others to bully us.” However, he did not explain if the new map is linked with strengthening China’s frontier defenses.
The Indian Foreign Ministry issued a statement regarding the new maps, noting that “cartographic depictions do not change the reality on the ground. The fact that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India has been clearly conveyed to the Chinese authorities’” The timing of the controversy over the new map came while Indian Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari was on a five-day visit to China from 26-30 June for the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”
However, China’s deletion of Sikkim from the list of China’s “countries and regions’ showing Sikkim as a part of India following the China-India agreement of 2003 is a positive gesture indeed, although the Sikkim-China border’s northernmost point, “The Finger”, continues to be the subject of dispute and military activity.
Pre-1974 Sikkim was under British suzerainty enjoying the status of a quasi independent state with its own currency, flag and a monarchy. But like Bhutan, it was economically and militarily closer to and dependent on New Delhi. It became an Indian state in 1975, which was not recognised by China. Later some citizens of the Kingdom had been demanding representative assembly. The chogyal asked the government of India for help in taming rebellion. India instead stoked it further. When assembly was proposed the pro India party won all but one seat. The chogyal was forced to abdicate and Sikkim became a part of India. In 2003 PM Vajpayee inked an agreement affirming India’s recognition of Tibet as an integral part of China and Chinese returned the compliment by accepting Sikkim a part of India. Eventually, in 2014 vertical map released by China, Sikkim was shown as a part of India. This mutual agreement led to a thaw (melt) in Sino-Indian relations.
One should take due note of the 1987 crisis centering China’s intrusions into Sikkim. The 1967 Sino-Indian skirmish (encounter, clash) also known as the Chola incident, was a military conflict between Indian troops and members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who had infiltrated on 1st October, 1967 in Sikkim, then a protectorate of India. On 10 October, once again both sides had the conflict in Nathula in Sikkim, the Defence Minister of India, Sardar Swaran Singh addressed that government is looking after the developments across the borders. During whole conflict Indian losses were 88 killed, and 163 wounded, while Chinese casualties were 300 killed and 450 wounded in Nathu la, and 40 in Chola. The end of the battle saw the Chinese Army leave Sikkim.
Therefore, for India irrespective of the identity of the party/alliance in power , needless to say twice, Bangladesh is a coveted point of attention to get connected between the mainland and seven sisters plus Sikkim using many routes for the reasons that——————–
*Bangladesh has borders with Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram in the east and located in the west is Paschimbanga (former West Bengal), a state of India that is widely connected with the mainland states of India passing through Shilliguri corridor. Hence Bangladesh is a dependable bridge in many ways between the northeastern zone and mainland India via West Bengal;
*Bangladesh has border in the north-east with Myanmar, which is the connecting point between South Asia and South-East Asia and Myanmar has border with India through…. from this standpoint, Bangladesh also carries geo-strategic importance:
(b) There are a lot of problems including insurgencies in the area. Here the role of Pakistan, EU countries and US cannot be set aside. More important is China’s strong growing relations with Bangladesh since the change-over of 15 August 1975. Under such compelling circumstances, an India-friendly Bangladesh is what India wants;
(c) All sorts of possible trades and commerce may easily ply over Bangladesh using diverse modes of communications and transportations, under existing, renewed or new agreements/protocols, from mainland to the northeastern zone squeezing time, energy and costs;
(d) Milestone is the establishment of BCIM(Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) and the idea to construct and develop a highway and economic corridor from Calcutta in India’s West Bengal state to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province cutting through Bangladesh, India’s north-eastern states of Assam and Manipur and Myanmar’s northern provinces.”This highway and economic corridor will help integrate economies and open huge opportunities for developing concerned under-developed frontier provinces and create a climate of trust that will help resolve the border dispute,” said Kong Can, a Chinese expert;
Another attention is the Sonadia, a small island of about 9 km2 offshore of the Cox’s Bazaar coast in Chittagong Division, Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal Sea, which may emerge as a major regional trade hub as it provides sea access to China’s Yunnan province, India’s landlocked northeastern states, the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and Bhutan.
Since Bay of Bengal is a part of Indian Ocean, hence, few words about the importance of Indian Ocean cannot definitely be set aside The Indian Ocean provides major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and the Americas. It carries a particularly heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oil fields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia. Large reserves of hydrocarbons are being tapped in the offshore areas of Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Western Australia. An estimated 40% of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean. Beach sands rich in heavy minerals and offshore placer deposits are actively exploited by bordering countries, particularly India, Pakistan, South Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand; and
(e) From defense and strategic standpoints, India, in the wake of any conflict or war with bordering state China or Myanmar, can take notes and actions more promptly and logistically provided Bangladesh stands by her and responds accordingly. Thus, gravely enough, for many reasons, overt or covert, Indian defense expenditures for this zone may as well be reduced too much below a supportable point. India is determined to activate the wave of development by eradicating terrorism, drug-trafficking, smuggling etc bi-laterally or regionally. A peaceful and stable northeastern region with a spell of development is a guarantee for India’s growing hold in south Asia.Yes, India doctrine is not a mere utterance by the critics. Rather it has its root in the remote times of yore of the empire of Bharat. Later on, it was conceived and envisioned by J.Naheru, first Prime Minister of independent India, in a renewed and restructured form in the context of time, space and dimension. This has been being carried by all the successive regimes, whether it is Congress or Congress-led or BJP or BJP-led. Sitting Prime Minister Norendra Modi appears to be audacious and target-oriented in this regard. Resultantly, while dealing with India, Bangladesh must take into account implications and complexities of India Doctrine of India, Chinese Dream of China and BIG-B (Bay of Bengal Infrastructure Growth-Belt) of Japan in meticulous. Guarded attention should be paid to US, leader of the present uni-polar earth-planet. In the face of the challenges of competitive cooperation Bangladesh needs to be tactful, diplomatic and pragmatic under all the circumstances, approving or not.
(f) There is no denying the fact that India’s creation of the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) in 2001 is a milestone in this regard and it was accorded the status of a full-fledged ministry on May 2004. The ministry is mainly concerned with the creation of infrastructure for economic development of North-Eastern region. One should not make a delay to understand and realise the gravity of the appointment of state minister for external affairs former chief of army of India Vijay Kumar Singh, first of its kind, also as Minister of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) since May 2014. Here lies the crux of the matter of geo-political weight and importance of Bangladesh.
Therefore, the asking arises is Sheikh Hasina administration dealing with India having this very geo-political weight and importance rightly and befittingly? So far nothing substantial and rewarding took place for Bangladesh, save the ratification of the Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 by the Parliament of India in May 2015 and that shall finally be put into operation complying with other necessary formalities, and the dividends are increasing and swelling in favor of India. Critics are of the views that ‘Regime security is gaining over State security’. It s better for Bangladesh to embark upon ‘two India policy’ , one with India in general and other with bordering states in particular keeping in mind that later never has a chance to come up as an obstacle to the former in the final end. It’s very intricate and precarious initiatives that require constant alertness, viability and reality. I presume that Sheikh Hasina is now a matured statesman and she is capable enough to handle the landscapes, present and/or future, bringing and ensuring plus points for Bangladesh while dealing with India. As a result, for more, negative or positive, we have no choice but to rely on time, space and dimension having careful attention to the upcoming visit of Indian Premier Norendra Modi to Bangladesh from 6-7 June 2015 at the invitation of his counterpart in Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. And in tune with all these, next subject shall envelop ‘VK Singh: New Skipper of MDONER’.
(Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed, Chairman of Leadership Studies Foundation, member of International Political Science Association, writer and columnist at email@example.com, Bangladesh)
Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed