NEW DELHI — India helped liberate Bangladesh from the tyrannical rule of Pakistan some three decades ago, but ties between the two neighbors have often been marked by suspicion, even hostility. This animosity have its roots in a boundary dispute and a smuggling issue, as well as illegal migration by desperately poor Bangladeshis into the Indian border states of Assam and Meghalaya.
The situation is complicated further by the shifting boundaries, thanks to the numerous rivers there that change their course ever so often. There are over 110 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 50 Bangladeshi enclaves in India along a no man’s land that stretches to an uncomfortably long 4,000 km.
Last week, a Bangladesh Rifles battalion marched into Meghalaya and tried to capture an Indian Border Security Force post. A day later, a border Security Force patrol of 16 men in Assam was dragged into Bangladesh by its Rifles soldiers, dressed as civilians, and killed in cold blood.
When handed over to the Indian authorities several days later, the bodies were found to bear marks of severe torture. The victims were also mutilated, some beyond recognition.
The incident shocked New Delhi, which just could not explain why two supposed friends had turned into foes, particularly when Dhaka is under the rule of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose father, the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had founded the tiny nation with the help of Indian troops in 1971.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the entire episode brutal and did not mince words in condemning Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina was a trifle late in expressing “regret” in a statement that came in only on Sunday night.
Deeply disturbing is the thought that a similar skirmish can happen all over again, given the locations of the enclaves, and the strong anti-Sheikh Hasina feeling in Bangladesh. There are elements even within her own ruling party, Awami League, that believe that she is but a puppet of India.
With the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh due within a few months, the prime minister will hardly want to give the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party — headed by her archrival, Khaleda Zia — a chance to gain an upper hand among a populace whose religion, Islam, has always proved a barrier against India’s Hindu majority.
Certainly, if Dhaka does not want to further embitter its relationship with New Delhi, India is not in a position to have one more enemy on its border.
Pakistan — and to an extent, China — have kept New Delhi on tenterhooks for years, draining it of scarce resources, which could have been put to much better use than to fighting meaningless battles and creating a nuclear stockpile.
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