The New Face of South Asia
Image Credit: US Mission Geneva

The New Face of South Asia

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When outsiders think about South Asia, they typically picture a region that’s wracked by violent religious extremism, a place where groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are active and deadly. Then there’s the image of clandestine nuclear proliferation, personified by A.Q. Khan and his network. And of course there’s the enduring hostility between India and Pakistan. Despite occasional peace initiatives, the region’s nuclear-armed rivals find themselves frequently at loggerheads, not least because of concerns in India that terror attacks launched there have the support or encouragement of Pakistan.

However, while this view of South Asia is still too often reality, there are also some encouraging signs of change, a shift being led by India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.

Sri Lanka has made rapid progress since the end of the Tamil insurgency. It has signed a free trade agreement with India, and Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral trade is booming. Indian investment firms and multinationals, meanwhile, have played a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s economic growth. It’s true that although the civil war is over, Tamil political demands haven’t yet been resolved. Still, the country’s strong economic performance is cause for genuine hope.

Even more encouraging for the region, though, has been the progress in relations between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh had been threatening to emerge as a major trouble spot during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led regime, which included Islamist parties bent upon boosting religious extremism in the country. Indeed, the sudden upsurge in extremism had even led some to speculate that Bangladesh could become the next Afghanistan.

But successive Bangladeshi governments have chosen not to tread this path. First, the caretaker government led by Fakharuddin Ahmed moved to try to rein in extremism. Then, Sheikh Hasina and her administration, after being ushered into office with an overwhelming majority, took up the fight against extremism with vigour. For example, her government established a war crimes trial for parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, which committed atrocities against the local population during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It also took down several cells of Pakistani terror groups operating in Bangladesh. In addition, action was taken against the local Islamist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. As a result of the clampdown on anti-India terror groups, India-Bangladesh relations improved significantly, especially after Bangladesh handed over several insurgent group leaders to India who had been hiding in Bangladesh and waging an insurgency in India’s north-east.

Such cooperation hasn’t gone unnoticed in India, and bilateral ties reached a new high when Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010. Since then, both sides have taken steps to improve ties further, and they are working to resolve several outstanding issues, such as disputes over land boundaries, sharing of common river waters and addressing the trade deficit, which is currently unfavourable to Bangladesh.

Importantly, there has also been some understanding reached on the issue of transit. India has long been demanding transit through Bangladesh to its landlocked north-east, something it had actually had until 1965. Bangladeshi regimes since then have denied India this right, but Bangladesh now plans to involve Bhutan and Nepal in the transit issue. For example, it has allowed both Nepal and Bhutan, which are landlocked, to use Chittagong and Mongla Port. Bhutanese vehicles will use Indian territory to reach Bangladesh, and an agreement to this effect was signed during Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna’s recent visit to Bangladesh. While there, he also signed an agreement on the protection of Indian investments in Bangladesh. Indian multi-nationals plan to invest $3.5 billion in Bangladesh in the near future, which is likely to further boost Bangladesh’s economic growth. Further, unilateral, trade concessions are also likely when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh later this year.

All this mark a new beginning for a significant part of South Asia. Pakistan and Afghanistan may still continue to be embroiled in religious and ethnic conflict, but the rest of the region appears keen and ready to move beyond such strife by prioritising economic growth and regional integration. Perhaps sometime soon, this characteristic of regional cooperation can also become a model for those parts of South Asia where peace and stability have for too long proven elusive.

Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.

Comments
9
kuldeep
August 18, 2011 at 19:15

lavigne please busy yourself in playing basketball and not comment on serious issues.

kuldeep
August 18, 2011 at 19:13

India is a big and the richest nation in the subcontinent and bangladesh is a new LDC much smaller in size. the natural course should be to take advantage of india;s huge market and cultivate friendly relations with india which liberated bangaladesh from pakistani clutches. let’s be grateful and have a fruitful relationship india shares border with bangladesh on three sides and is one of the only two neighbors of bangaladesh.china is nowhwere in the picture and should not be it’s a competitor of india and inviting it to indian backyard should logically have consequences for the host.any grouse with a bigger neighbor is understantable and one can sympathise with bangaladesh, france germany US china brazil russia all face such issues with there neighbors. lets cooperate and make bangladesh prosperous and not next afganistan in the region.hasina is a beacon of hope with good enlightened policies and clarity contrast that with bigoted view of begum zia because of which bangladesh got stuck for so many years.

Lavigne
August 14, 2011 at 12:27

Slam dunkin like Shaquille O’Neal, if he wrote infomraivte articles.

bose
July 30, 2011 at 17:43

My Dear Bangladeshi friends please think before you write something there would have been no Bangladesh today without India look at the history what India has givento Bangladesh. and what Bangladesh has given to India ….Bangladesh was born because of India orelse Bangaladesh would have been under the cheap Pakistan………..Bangladesh can never repay back to India what India has done for them so the small disputes between India and Bangladesh could be resolved and Bangladesh should provide and assist India wholeheartdly to benefit india which would also cause a better and prosperous Bangaladesh…………

Ryan
July 26, 2011 at 18:44

@ Rashid: Are you like on something?? No country which is friends with China has ever fared good!!! Look at Burma and North Korea!! Bangladesh has been robbed dry by China, where it gets to sell all its junks and we the tax payers are having to pay for that junk. China and Pakistan are natural enemies of any other country in this world and I am not saying India is perfect, but at least it is a lot better. The reason why Bangladesh can’t get a better deal with them is lot more to blame on the incompetencies of Bangladeshi politicians and government officials, whose only goal in life is to destroy Bangladesh. So before you try to blame India and try to make best friends with Bangladesh’s enemies, take a hard look at Bangladesh first and think with some brain!!

Satish a
July 26, 2011 at 05:40

I guess N Rashid would still have the West Pakistan Army running riot over East Pakistan today killing raping their brothers and sisters instead of being the nation of “Bangla Desh” Damn sevile Awami leaguers wanting to break away from Pkistan eh and Ofcourse ISI activity including spreadinf “fake” Indian Rupees , terrorism etc is nothing more than tourism. Lts see the PRC has major Naval projects in Cox Bazaar, Chtagong ets so their sailors can come there for R&R Of course being servile to the PRC is good eh just like Pakistan. Being a tool of the PRC is better eh and how may that be. Of course if the majority of the people in Bangla Desh want this it will happen

N Rashid
July 25, 2011 at 22:02

Munshi: I couldn’t agree more. This whole article is a whitewash, penned from an obviously Indian point of view. But what else should we expect from an Indian defence analyst? In fact, as you say, Bangladesh has gotten practically nothing out of its relations with India. And the Awami League Government’s abject, servile attitude toward it is an utter disgrace. Bangladesh is infinitely better off, in my opinion, developing closer ties with China…

Ranveer
July 24, 2011 at 14:25

In my opinion that’s your personal view and you have right to it. I don’t think India is being hegemonic, to arrive at a unbiased view i would like you to turn page and look at the other side(Indian perspective), as the article itself states that “Bangladesh could become the next Afghanistan”. There is grave issue of illegal immigrant from BD side, it has been reported thousand times taken up with BD govt. several times still it occurs. It disturbs the population imbalance of India moreover radical elements do creep in, then fake currency notes supplied by ISI also comes through that route.And whoever(US, China and Europe) BD govt. wishes to invite it hardly matters India.There has been rapid surge of Muslim population along the Indo-Bangladesh border which has been highlighted in different census conducted by India, which suggests of immigration from BD.

How do you justify that?

MBI Munshi
July 23, 2011 at 10:56

I am at the point of exhaustion in trying to explain that the friendly relations between India and Bangladesh is anything but. The majority of people in Bangladesh view relations with India as one of subservience and the AL adopting a servile attitude to our big neighbor is widely resented. Bangladesh has hardly benefited from the close relations with India with all economic and trade advantages accruing solely to India. Bangladesh nationals are still being killed without respite on the border while Indian politicians continue to make condescending and patronizing comments about Bangladesh. Indians are trying to monopolize trade relations with Bangladesh while pressuring to exclude the US, China and Europe from the Bangladesh market. Frustration with India runs deep and has nothing to do with religious differences. It is Indian arrogance and its design for hegemony and domination that grates on Bangladeshi nerves.

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