April 02, 2020
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Thud And Blunder

Book fair diplomacy boomerangs, ruining Sheikh Hasina's visit

Thud And Blunder

THE plotline was great: invite the prime minister of Bangladesh over as chief guest for the 1999 Calcutta Book Fair, combine good diplomacy and culture, and bring West Bengal and Bangladesh a little closer. But the authors-in this case, the Publisher's Guild-hadn't counted on Murphy's Law stepping in to play the villain of the piece. A fortnight after the book fair ended, the controversy over how the Bangladeshi delegation was treated is still raging in both Dhaka and Calcutta.

Billed as the century's last cultural milestone for Calcutta, the organisers thought they had scored a coup when they chose Bangladesh as the theme, inviting Sheikh Hasina to be the chief guest.

But the first portent struck early, when the police made an unprovoked lathicharge on journalists, barred from attending the inauguration to which they had been invited. As the jinxed fair lurched from one blunder to another, India-Bangladesh schisms replaced regional bonhomie.

The opening ceremony held little joy for the chief guest. Sheikh Hasina had to hear herself described as the 'chief minister of Bangladesh' at least thrice by official speakers! In a breach of protocol, Bangladesh foreign minister Abdus Samad was asked to speak after the visiting premier.

Though the organisers apologised later for the unintentional slight to Sheikh Hasina, it was too little, too late. Her opponents had already started sniping. Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief, charged that Hasina was conspiring to sell the country. 'Conspiracy is on to make Bangladesh a province of India,' screamed fundamentalist mouthpiece Daily Inquilab in a banner headline: .

More trouble lay ahead. The organisers were accused of failing to provide enough space for Bangladeshi publishers, while delegation members complained of poor treatment. Reputed author Zillur Rahman Siddiqui griped: 'The word 'hospitality' doesn't seem to exist in their lexicon.'

But inefficiency was by no means a West Bengal monopoly. The Dhaka government had decided to send an 82-member delegation of writers. But their mission in Calcutta was given details a bare 48 hours before the delegation's arrival. At such short notice, Indian writers and poets couldn't be invited in time. So the Bangladeshis found that they had travelled all the way merely to meet one another.

Though Hasina did retrieve her situation somewhat on returning to Dhaka, she'd left a trail of indignation with an ill-chosen remark. 'Bangladesh would be the major centre for the development of the Bengali language, Dhaka the centre for Bengali culture,' she said at the book fair. Not a remark one would expect Calcutta to digest easily.

Novelist Sandipan Chattopadhya was among many who pointed out that Bangladeshi literature, at best a mere 28 years old, had yet to produce writers of the calibre of a Tagore, Nazrul or Bankim Chandra. It was unwise, he said, to make such presumptuous claims.

Royalties sparked off the next serious debate. It would have been naive to expect publishers to agree on the subject of book piracy, mainly restricted to Bangladesh, and they didn't. Here, Sheikh Hasina wisely refrained from joining battle, declaring that it was an internal matter for the publishing trade to sort out.

But the thud of another diplomatic blunder was heard when Sheikh Hasina claimed that not a single Bangladeshi had entered West Bengal illegally. It provoked a strong denial from West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu; and to Bangladeshi journalists, he added that he also supported the concept of a barbed-wire fence between the two countries.It's one case where good fences might actually make better neighbours.

By the end, the saga of Indo-Bangladesh relations had become a page-turner for all the wrong reasons. But a few voices of reason did emerge from the throng. Leading Bangladeshi columnist Shahriar Kabir blasted fundamentalists and opposition leaders back home for blowing the 'Chief Minister Sheikh Hasina' issue out of all proportion. 'No sensible person can treat the gaffe seriously,' he said. 'At best, you can make fun of it.'

Debate in Dhaka and Calcutta continues about whether the roster of blunders added up to a comedy of errors or to much ado about nothing. But everyone agrees that it was definitely love's labour lost.

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