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Subir Bhaumik
Date of Publish: 2016-02-26


The new face of Bangladesh diplomacy


Bangladesh is no longer seen as a basket case but as a confident young nation with a clear development focus and an emerging economy. Much as this owes to the country’s actual performance – 6 percent plus annual GDP growth, a huge foreign exchange surplus , successful crackdown on Islamist radicalism and other armed groups ( including those from India’s Northeast) and so much more.  But the fact that Bangladesh’s message goes out loud and clear to the rest of the world and its voice is taken seriously in the comity of nations is because of the quality of its current diplomacy. And this is because Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina , specially in her second term in power, has left the job to be done by professionals.

Her first foreign minister was Dipu Moni , a foreign-educated doctor turned politician but very well read and suave. She stood head and shoulders above her South Asian contemporaries. When her Indian contemporary S M Krishna was reading out the speech of the Portuguese foreign minister by mistake in the UN ( to huge embarrassment of our diplomatic corps) and when her Pakistani contemporary Hina Rabbani Khar was always in news because of her expensive handbags , Dipu Moni articulated a wonderful (and uniquely) Bangladeshi vision of basin management for settling river disputes in South Asia and carried the country’s voice to the rest of the world.

But Hasina gave her an advisor who has been on the global high table for long years. Gowher Rizvi, my teacher at Oxford, has been an reputed professor of diplomacy and international relations, who later served as the South Asia chief of Ford Foundation and as Aspen professor at Harvard. As the international affairs advisor to the Prime Minister, the gentle, suave , hugely erudite and persuasive Rizvi brought to Bangladesh diplomacy a modern style rich with content of message and sophistication of delivery. His huge contacts, his erudition , his charm were all contributing factors to the success of Bangladesh diplomacy.

The present foreign minister A H Mahmud Ali is also a career diplomat, the first Bengali to revolt against Pakistani superiors who set up the Swadhin Bangla mission in Washington in 1971. The soft spoken but again very erudite  Mahmud Ali was inducted because Hasina wanted his Jatiyo Party to be partner in her coalition even as it positioned itself as the nation’s major opposition party in parliament in the absence of the BNP. But Mahmud Ali has helped keep the nation’s diplomatic focus firmly on its priorities – friendship with all, enmity with none (unless provoked) , development, trade and growth. He is a man driven as much by content as by the quality of delivery.

But Dipu Moni , now an Awami League general secretary and working hard as a party organiser, remains the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, always contributing to debates and field diplomacy and backing up the Foreign Minister by her considerable presence in places where Mahmud Ali is not available for commitments elsewhere. 

She came to our first Tripura Conclave as lead speaker in July 2014 and wrote a brilliant foreword for my book 'Agartala doctrine', where she described Agartala as the“war capital of the Bangalee nation. The little girl who sat on her father's shoulder to hear the great Bangabandhu declare Bangladesh's independence on 7 March 1971 has not forgotten the role Tripura's leaders played in her country's fight for freedom. But Tripura is Bangladesh 's gateway to Northeast -- so Dipu Moni was quick to point out our interests ( Swartho) and aspirations (Swapno) are the same . Tripura becomes India's gateway to Northeast , what with the opening up of Chittagong-Asuganj  route and Agartala becoming India's third internet gateway, much as it becomes Bangladesh's gateway to Northeast and hugely gain in terms of trade and economy. That should incentivise the rest of Northeast to improve bilateral ties with Bangladesh .

As someone said in Dhaka recently, "we have three foreign ministers."  True but they function as a team and not work as cross purposes. State Minister Hassan Shariar Alam brings up the rear , his business background helping in Bangladesh's economic diplomacy.

On Thursday morning, I was in the Bangladesh High Commission to thank its new India envoy Syed Muazzem Ali for agreeing to launch my new book ' Agartala Doctrine"  alongwith India's former foreign secretary. Realising my long career in journalism in Northeast, he lost no time to make the point that Bangladesh is keen to look east through India's Northeast and not merely through the sea. "We look west to Delhi and Calcutta  but we are keen to look east through Northeast ," said Ali reminding me of his family's long association with Assam. He comes from the family of one of the greatest Bengali writer of all times, Syed Mujtaba Ali, the master of wit and travel writing, the ultimate in sarcasm and detail.

"Even my father in law served in Assam Engineering Service-- and my father served in so many places from Dhurbi to Dibrugarh" says Ali , keen to building bridges with India's northeast.

Bangladesh has delivered on the region's security concerns by cracking down hard on insurgents and ready to address the issue of illegal migrations. The country is keen on legal labour exports which brings in huge remittances , the second major source of foreign exchange for Bangladesh. Illegals dont send back money and Hasina's government is not interested in promoting illegal migration. In the last few months, there has been a huge crackdown on illegal labour exporters . A new law has increased the penalty for that.

As I finished my tea, Ali got busy to welcome 13 African head of missions in Delhi who were to lunch with him. Bangladesh will soon hold an African Summit like India has done -- primarily to intensify labour exports. It has such deals with a few African nations , but Dhaka is looking for more. Rarely has a country made such effective use of its working class as a driver for its economy and social growth. UN is excited about this because its experts see the East Bengali rice farmer , whose ancestors tamed the chars of Brahmaputra, as the key to boosting famine-ravaged Africa's agricultural output. The Sachu Miahs and Delwar Hussains are going to the world to help tackle its problem of hunger , not contributing to the numbers of the hungry any more, nor theorising hunger a la Amartya Sen.

Its army 's huge role in UN peacekeeping has helped Hasina divert the men in uniform from the allure of power and emerge as a responsible professional institution. Now export of farm labour in huge numbers will turn an liability into an asset -- surplus population. Recently Bangladesh has signed a deal with Malaysia to send 15 lakhs workers , mainly farm hands, over the next five years. It is these tough East Bengali farmers  who give new meaning to Tagore's "ocean of great man" ( Mahamanaber sagartirtho). So it is time that we in Northeast realise Bangladesh is no longer a problem but an asset. They are not interested in sending illegal migrants for political or economic reasons. In fact, one thing most Bangladeshis in positions of power complain today is the lack of effecxtive crackdown on Islamic radicals in West Bengal and Assam, when many such elements fleeing the fierce crackdown in Bangladesh are fleeing to these Indian provinces.

Out of Muazzem Ali's room and into the chamber of my friend Enam, a veteran journalist now Press Minister in the Bangladesh high commission in Delhi. He is calling furiously, inviting 300 journalists to his party at the Press Club on Feb 27 and reminding them he will serve Dhaka's kacchi biriyani . Food diplomacy , should we say ! Nobody knows this better than a Bangladeshi . And the scale ! American diplomats prick your brains over coffee and cookies, even the normally generous Chinese have now cut down on their usual 15 course dinner. But Enam wont buy that -- the route to a South Asian heart often is food.

Muazzem Ali's team is carrying forward the great work done by his predecessor Tariq Karim, who is now an World Bank advisor based in Delhi. He rushed to a shipbreaking conference in Gujarat and met up with Modi much before he was anointed the BJP's PM candidate in 2013. Modi was looking for legitimacy and Karim became the first envoy of a Muslim preponderant country to meet him. That helped Bangladesh later with the change of power in Delhi, something Karim saw as coming. This is diplomacy at its best  . Ali is committed to focus more on Northeast . In the likes of Ali and Karim, Bangladesh has some of the finest diplomats in South Asia to carry forward Hasina's message of 'friends with all, enemy with none'.  Pakistan is the only exception .

Subir Bhaumik

( Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC journalist and author of three well acclaimed books on India's Northeast including the "Agartala Doctrine" that has just been published)


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