Making A Difference

Friendship Row

The Bangladesh-India treaty comes under attack as polls approach

Friendship Row
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Ever since the Awami League government was overthrown in a military coup in 1975, the overriding preoccupation of successive regimes has been the friendship treaty, which has been used time and again to deflect public attention from domestic crises. The treaty has proved a useful weapon to vitiate feelings against the Awami League, which was in power when the treaty was signed in 1972.

The most blatant exploitation of the treaty is seen during election time. Begum Zia played this card just before the 1991 elections, decisively turning the tide against what many considered a certain Awami victory. The propaganda was so effective that even discerning voters were led to believe that New Delhi would actually rule Bangladesh through a puppet regime in Dhaka. And now that elections are due, Khaleda Zia is once again raising the pitch against the treaty.

The question remains, is the treaty actually a secret document of servitude as is often claimed by vested interests? "It's absolute nonsense," says Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former foreign secretary. The treaty is a published document available in the Foreign Ministry library. Second, there is nothing in the treaty which is contrary to the interests of Bangladesh. "If there was anything secret or inimical to our interest in the treaty I would have definitely known," says Ahmed.

Indeed, a closer look at the treaty reveals nothing incriminating. "The Bangladesh-India Friendship Treaty was nothing more than a token necessity. It had no definite objectives," Foreign Secretary Farooq Sobhan observed in the Bangladesh weekly Jai Jai Din . But it is amazing that the foreign secretary finds a treaty signed by his president only of "token importance".

However, some virulent critics of the treaty point to Article 8, which they say compromises the sovereignty of Bangladesh. It states: "In accordance with the ties of friendship existing between the two countries, each of the high contracting parties solemnly declares that it shall not enter into or participate in any military alliance directed against the other party." The article continues: "Each of the high contracting parties shall refrain from any aggression against the other party and shall not allow the use of its territory for committing any act that may cause military damage to or constitute a threat to the security of the other high contracting party."

 But former foreign secretary General Sams Kibria points out that at the time the treaty was signed, Bangladesh faced a threat from Pakistan, which was bent on destroying it in its infancy. China openly sided with Pakistan during the liberation war, the entire Middle East was against it and so was the US, which threatened to send the 7th fleet to prevent Bangladesh from seceding. "In that hostile environment, Bangladesh had no choice but to sign the friendship treaty with India, the country which actively supported the liberation war, in order to safeguard its sovereignty and independence," Kibria explains.

 Khaleda Zia, however, has ruled out further renewal of the treaty after its expiry in 1997. The question of renewal doesn't arise, say independent analysts, since Bangladesh has made peace with its former enemies, all of whom have improved bilateral relations with Dhaka.

Surprisingly, even the Awami League, which is accused of collaborating with India to make Bangladesh a vassal state, finds it expedient to use the treaty for political ends. Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina declared in 1994 that if voted to power, her government would not renew the treaty with India, giving credence to the feeling that it was anti-Bangladesh.

It's time the myth was debunked. According to a senior Indian diplomat, the point that all political parties and leaders in Bangladesh should remember is that "the Indian people and Government are totally indifferent to whether the treaty exists or not. If not renewing the treaty helps Bangladesh, then God bless them".

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