A Different South Asia

South Asia, as a region, usually evokes an image of a place which is afflicted by several instances of violent religious extremism where militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Al Qaeda and the Taliban are active. The region has also gained infamy where a clandestine nuclear proliferation, in connivance with the AQ Khan network active from the heartland of Pakistan, has taken place. Besides, it is already beset with the enduring Indo-Pak rivalry and hostility, regardless of the occasional peace initiative. The numerous attacks of terror, launched within India, with alleged patronage, incitement and support of Islamabad, are a known manifestation of the rivalry.

While this newsworthy South Asia remains a harsh reality, what’s heartening is that not the whole region is in a delirious state. There is another part of South Asia which is attempting to overcome common problems and forge a fresh situation which is conducive to progress. India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan comprise this changing countenance of South Asia. Nepal, however, isn’t a constituent of this group as it’s still struggling to draft a constitution and instate democracy.

Sri Lanka, of late, has made notable progress following the end of its long decades of insurgency, led by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Colombo has compounded a free trade agreement with New Delhi and Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral trade is already booming. Indian multinationals and investment firms have played a vital role towards the economic growth of the island nation. Though the “ethnic war” is now over and the political demands of the Tamil populace are yet to be resolved, the country nonetheless is doing well for itself in the economic sphere.

But the most noteworthy development in the region, however, appears to be taking place between Bangladesh and India. The former, once, was threatening to surface as a major troublemaker during the BNP-led four party coalition rule. The party’s major compatriot in the then government included Jamaat-e-Islami, with connections to regional and international terror networks, and now standing trials for its involvement in crimes against humanity during the country’s liberation war of 1971. The coalition’s biasness towards Islamist radicalism, catered to the fillip of religious intolerance and the subsequent extremism in the country. The abrupt upsurge of fundamentalism even led to apprehensions that Bangladesh was well on path to become the next Afghanistan.

Sincere efforts, however, were made to shackle extremism in Bangladesh. This happened, to a large extent, under the last caretaker government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed. But a more decisive step against extremism was achieved under the Sheikh Hasina government which assumed office with a whopping three fourths mandate in the December 2008 elections. Armed with the overwhelming majority, the Hasina-led 14 party grand alliance government came down heavily on the fundamentalist forces. It also busted a number of modules and sleeper cells of Pakistan-backed terror groups. Action was taken against Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the domestic Islamist terror group.

Indo-Bangla relations have improved significantly ever since Dhaka’s crackdown on anti-India outfits active on its soil. Dhaka has already handed over many insurgent leaders to New Delhi who had sought refuge in Bangladesh and were waging covert offensives in Northeast India.

New Delhi has taken note of this cooperative effort extended by Dhaka. Indo-Bangla bilateral relations attained a new high when in January 2010, Sheikh Hasina came down to New Delhi. It marked a new era in the relations between the two sides. Over the last 18 months, following Hasina’s visit to New Delhi, both sides have adopted several steps in the forward direction. The plan for resolving the outstanding bilateral issues viz. sharing of the common river waters, disputes over land boundary and addressing the unfavourable trade deficit on Bangladesh’s side was drawn up. A joint Indo-Bangla group has already completed survey of the 4,156 km long common boundary and has identified the lands in adverse possession to be handed over to each other. The boundary, which remained enforced via verbal consensus only, has been demarcated with 1,129 strip maps. Beginning last week, the Bangladeshi high commissioner to New Delhi Tarique Karim and his Indian counterpart Rajit Mitter, have begun attesting their signatures to the maps, thereby giving it official and legal recognition.

Some understanding has also been reached as regards the issue of transit. India, for long, have had demanded transit through Bangladeshi heartland for accessing its seven landlocked states in the northeast. This was, however, denied by the past governments in Dhaka, though New Delhi had enjoyed the facility till 1965. Dhaka, at present, plans to involve Nepal and Bhutan in the transit corridor. It has given access to both the Himalayan countries, to use the Mongla and Chittagong ports. Bhutanese vehicles will be using Indian land for reaching Bangladesh. An agreement was reached when the Indian foreign minister SM Krishna visited Dhaka. Krishna also signed an agreement regarding the protection of Indian investments to Bangladesh. With Indian multinationals planning to invest over $3.5 billion in the near future in Bangladesh, the country’s eastern neighbour would be pushed down the avenue of further economic growth. This, in all probability, would furnish Hasina’s Vision 2021 document, in which the Bangladeshi premier has set the goal to elevate her country to the middle-income group. Further, New Delhi is likely to extend unilateral trade concessions to Dhaka when the Indian premier Manmohan Singh visits the country in September.

This is a new and fresh beginning for a key part of South Asia. Though New Delhi has stepped up its efforts to build infrastructure besides extend ding a humanitarian hand to Afghanistan, India’s northern neighbour and Pakistan still continue to be engaged in ethnic and religious conflict. On the contrary, the remaining part of South Asia seems to be keen on checking and going beyond such tendencies. They also seem to be dedicated in according priority to regional integration and economic growth. This has given hope that cooperation would soon appear as a model even for those parts in the region where stability and peace have so far been elusive.

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