Association of Eastern States of South Asia–II, III, IV, V & VI

The second in the six-part series on the subject.

Posted on 11/12/21
By Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotka | Via Daily Times
Wikimedia Commons
Shipping and maritime travel has a long history around the Bay of Bengal. While the Portuguese conquered of the western coast of the subcontinent in 1498, the capture of Melaka in 1511 started Portuguese activity on the east of Cape of Comorin and Bengal was clearly the initiative of Portuguese privateers for numerous reasons, viz (1) to escape judicial action for crimes committed (2) to evade religious persecution spearheaded by the growing power of the Inquisition and (3) or simply to make more money than that offered by the unreliably paid salary of the state. However, their prime reason was the increasing commercial vitality of the region during that period, particularly with the growing importance of intra-Asian trade.

The Portuguese in the region came to be centred not only around Hooghly (now Kolkata Port) and Chittagong but also the smaller deltaic ports of Bakla, Sripur, Loricul, Dianga and Sandwip. These served as operational bases for them. They reached Chittagong, the most important port of Bengal, in the early 16th century.  By 1535, they had acquired the right to establish a custom house there.

By the early 17th century, the Portuguese in the south-eastern delta had two kinds of settlements. The larger and the relatively long-lasting ones like Chittagong, Dianga, Chandecan, Sripur, Sandwip and Syriam and then the seasonal and functional settlements like Chargin and Anga. In 1632 Portuguese rule of Hugly came to an end after the sacking of the port by Shah Jahan’s forces. The Dutch, and then the English, began exerting their influence over the region from the early 18th century.

The second “business” of the Portuguese (and the Dutch and English after them) was piracy. The south-eastern delta region of early modern Bengal became home to a significant population of Portuguese privateers, adventurers and renegades, who were seeking opportunities outside the control of the Portuguese state. These privateers while wreaking havoc on coastal Bengal through slave raids, also significantly contributed to the economic and political life of the region, and, even if for short periods, individual Portuguese men commanded territorial units and significant power in the region. The region was ideal for pirates – rich and busy trade routes inadequately protected by strong states and navies, a maze of islands crisscrossed by narrow straits that created commercial bottlenecks, and coasts lined with dense mangrove swamps that provided safe havens for outlaws. The heyday of piracy occurred between 1750 and 1860.

Various factors led to the rise of the slaver raids in Bengal. Despots understood that foreign slaves were preferable to an enslaved indigenous population if the economics was attractive enough. Moreover, semi-skilled/skilled slaves were also required in the newly acquired uncivilised lands. The budding Dutch Empire’s spice plantations and mines demanded countless slaves. The Aceh Sultanate of Sumatra also required many slaves to expand its plantations and toil in its tin mines. With her millions of civilized citizens Bengal could meet such growing demand. Indian slaves were also prized for skills in crafts and textiles and were dispatched even to new African colonies.

The port city of Chittagong became the nerve centre for Portuguese operations in the region, critical for supporting their new colonies in South East Asia, especially after Shah Jahan expelled them from Hooghly for wanton cruelty. However, within a century the Dutch eclipsed Portuguese power. The Portuguese consequently supplicated to the Rakhine kingdom (in today’s Myanmar), despite clashes in the past. Sandwiched between the Mughal Empire and the Burmese kingdom, the Maghs believed offence was the best defence. The Portuguese navy would be a critical component of this strategy. Moreover, the raids and slave trade would also be a good source of income. The raids commenced around the 1610s: many armadas disgorged Portuguese and Magh marauders into Bengal. Their savagery was terrible and the term Hamard (from “Armada”) entered the lexicon as a word for a loathsome criminal. The Maghs were also skilled seafarers and operated fast war-boats called Jelias which could sail up the Delta. Many towns and villages were deserted in fear, or depopulated by the raids by these river pirates. The initial Mughal responses were largely ineffective: their navy was weaker in comparison, and the Rakhine terrain was conducive to predatory raids.

In 1663, the Bengal province was in trouble. The recent succession wars had disrupted the whole Mughal empire and the raids were inflicting great damage. The previous governor, Mir Jumla died following a disastrous war with the Ahoms (an ethnic group from the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.) The new governor Shaista Khan was Emperor Aurangzeb’s uncle. His commendable record had been wrecked by Shivaji, the enraged Emperor had banished his kinsman to tottering Bengal. Nevertheless, Shaista Khan setting out to work immediately and ending the threat from the seas was of paramount importance. There was the matter of revenge too: Prince Shuja and his family had sought asylum with the Rakhines after he was defeated by his brother Aurangzeb in the succession wars. Accounts speak of the Rakhine king treacherously murdering Shuja and his sons and violating Shuja’s daughter, who later committed suicide. Shaista Khan was tasked with settling the blood debt and recovering any surviving members of Shuja’s family.

Shaista Khan quickly beefed up the imperial infrastructure: forts and public works were commissioned, and armies and naval squadrons were raised. He also secured Dutch support. In 1665, the Mughals captured the strategic island of Sandwip from the Rakhines. Annexing Chittagong was a key objective, Shaista Khan utilized a brewing dispute between the Portuguese and the Rakhines. He convinced the Portuguese to ditch their capricious masters: the Portuguese would be truly appreciated by the more composed and business-like Mughals. Apparently a large bribe also helped. The Portuguese defected and moved en-masse to Dacca. The Rakhine forces quickly consolidated themselves in Chittagong but Shaista Khan sent an army overland, marching parallel to a combined Mughal-Portuguese navy headed for Chittagong. The combined assault destroyed the Rakhine forces.

This victory did not eradicate piracy in the Bay of Bengal and adjacent rivers, incidentally even today sea and river pirates prey on Rohingya boats and Bangladeshi fishermen. However, the loss of Chittagong and Portuguese support was a mortal blow. The Maghs did not possess the know-how to build and operate large warships, and they had suffered great losses in the war. Moreover, Shaista Khan had built up a very potent navy. The Rakhines could not prey like they did before. The rump kingdom shambled on, wracked by internal strife and dominated by mercenaries, till it was annexed by the Burmese in 1784. Bengal, however, rebounded under Shaista Khan’s long and able stewardship.

From the eighteenth century onward, the diverse Portuguese population, their descendants and the mixed race descendants of the Portuguese and other European adventurers in Bengal, gradually got subsumed by the expanding British Empire in the region. A close look at both West Bengal and Bangladesh’s culture and memory even today reveals remnants of their legacy, though in a much-muted form.

A defense and security analyst, the writer is Chairman Karachi Council of Foreign Affairs (KCFR) and the Vice Chairman Board of Management Quaid-e-Azam House Museum (a Nation Building Institution) and Dr Bettina Robotka, former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Editor of the Defence Journal and a Consultant to Pathfinder Group.

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Association of Eastern States of South Asia–III

India’s North Eastern Region (NER) includes the states of Assam, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Pradesh, Sikkim and Tripura. Together, they represent a distinct geographic, cultural, political, and administrative entity. Ethnically and culturally, this part is more connected to Tibet and South-East Asia. Part of the Eastern Himalayas, the area is also of geo-strategic significance as it shares 90% of its borders with five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Myanmar and Nepal. It is connected to India only by a narrow piece of land called the Siliguri Corridor, sometimes referred to as the ‘Chicken’s neck’.

This far-away part of the country has been neglected by New Delhi. Seventy years after independence, these states still lack basic services, including health and education. They only occasionally get news coverage highlighting the human rights violations meted out to the civilian population during the years of conflict. The Union of India is a federation of states, but the central government dictates much of the policy in this region, and colonial-style resource extraction has continuously expanded through mining, hydroelectric power plants, and military infrastructure, while basic necessities remain unmet. While the brutal repression in Indian Held Kashmir cannot be supressed, the rule of law in the seven sisters is akin to a virtual police state under the façade of “democracy”. Given that at least 3 of these States have majority Christian population, one wonders where are the Christian zealots who rail endlessly against Muslims? This has created multiple problems and raised constant protest from the local population including the demand of separation from India and independence.

The cause of the situation was British colonial policy that was bent on exploiting the resources of the countries they occupied. The integration of the North Eastern Region into British-India was abrupt, with no prior history of contact to India. The states were demarcated into ad-hoc units for administrative convenience, principally economic and resource planning and security calculations. After Indian Independence from British Rule in 1947, the North-eastern region of British India consisted of Assam and the princely states of Manipur and Tripura. Subsequently, Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya in 1972, Arunachal Pradesh in 1975 (capital changed to Itanagar) and Mizoram in 1987 were formed out of the large territory of Assam. Manipur and Tripura remained Union Territories of India from 1956 until 1972, when they attained fully-fledged statehood. Sikkim was integrated as the eighth North Eastern Council state in 2002. These dates listed like this conceal the struggle that the local, mostly tribal population had to fight in order to achieve separate units and a certain autonomy for their respective people.

The region’s own politics and the political aspirations of the tribal people were neglected by New Delhi, partly because of their small numbers and the fact that they were far away from India proper. India is trying to deal with the unrest and partly armed insurrection by imposing controversial laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), which allows armed personnel to conduct arrests, searches and encounters without a warrant. The actions permitted under the Act are not subject to the law of the land and violations cannot be pursued in the courts. Currently, AFSPA is enforced in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya Mizoram and Nagaland, and has not been conducive to development, peace or stability.

The insurgency and the consequent counter-insurgency measures became a part of everyday life. The attendant human rights violations, combined with sluggish economic growth in the region, has paralyzed development, further enabling illicit economic enterprises in an already militarized zone. The response of the central government has included ill-considered approaches to conflict management and the injection of development funds into the oil, tea and coal sectors, all of which are concentrated on resource extraction. Together, these have nurtured a climate of ‘sustained low-intensity conflict’, which allows many activities to fly under the radar and for government officials, political elite and armed rebels to control their respective sub-states.

The pervasive anger against the 2020 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Assam, has sustained the separatist narrative and has not lost its edge. That is not to say the Indians have not tried, the signing of the Bodo Accord in February 2020 is an example. New Delhi gave in to certain demands of the All-Bodo Students Union and various factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), both militant outfits. Short of statehood, New Delhi created the Bodoland Territorial Region, effectively pitching the nationalist Assamese against Bodo groups.

Even the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which has a history of factionalism, is now after the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 part of India’s political tapestry rather than a disconnected whole with a distinct demographic constituency seeking separation. In Manipur, which houses numerous insurgent outfits, there is hardly any group that does not have a patron in Imphal or New Delhi. In fact, akin to the organized crime-politics nexus in other parts of India, these groups constitute the intrinsic underbelly of India’s political landscape in the Northeast, instead of being independent actors that truly seek separation from India.

Such comprehensive and undemocratic connections between India’s political parties, security agencies, and the Northeast’s armed actors is a house of cards that can easily be disrupted. Moreover, given India’s fears about China’s support for any Indian rebel outfit, many of these groups often simply exploit Beijing’s openness to “do business” with them as a tactical tool to exert pressure on New Delhi – without China’s knowledge or approval.

But in India’s North-East as elsewhere life never stands still and changes have been quietly coming. India’s road network has benefited greatly from the National Highways Development Project (NHDP). A Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for the North East (SARDP-NE) for the development/improvement of more than 10,000 km roads in the NE states has been formulated. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has been paying special attention to the development of national highways in the region and has assigned 10% of the total allocation of funds for the NE region.

Another major aim of surface infrastructure projects in the NE states is to be linked up with parallel developments in the neighboring countries, particularly with Bangladesh. The restoration and extension of pre-partition land and river transit routes through Bangladesh has been recognized by India to be vital for the transport infrastructure in NE states. However, this is not looked at favorably in Bangladesh. Other international cooperation, such as the revival of the Stilwell road connecting Ledo in Assam to northern Myanmar and extended up to Kunming in south-eastern China, Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project and Trans-Asian Railways could open up an eastern window for the land-locked NE states of India. Various regional initiatives, such as the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMTTH) project to link the markets of South and Southeast Asia, are in very initial stages.

Despite serious political problems within India and between India and China and others, today even India cannot disregard global and regional trends and the need to put one’s economy in order. Ethnic, cultural and autonomy problems are being defused if not buried when the economic and living conditions of the people are improving.

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Association of eastern States of South Asia–4

The idea of an economic zone is certainly what one could call a long shot. Mostly it is dependent upon India. If India chooses to allow the construction of three or even four North-South Road and rail corridors emanating from China and passing through the Himalayas and then through North-east India (Seven Sisters), to the Bangladeshi and Indian ports in the Bay of Bengal, could be a regional economic alliance in instead of becoming a political entity. More than seven decades after independence from the British who only exploited the resources of the North-eastern territories of India with the minimum necessary development. Every one of the constituent states has been in turmoil for many years.  The same can be said for land-locked Bhutan and Nepal, India has given them grudging (and infrequent) access to the Indian Ocean.  The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims at opening up the until now inaccessible or accessible only with difficult regions.  Looking at the map and keeping in mind the history of this Asian region as well as the current forceful globalization drive connected to (but not restricted to the BRI).

With multiple political states and their political alliances and sensibilities involved, this plan is going to incur any hick-ups and, accordingly, will take time to develop. But socio-economic reasoning, i.e. helping economies along and improving the lives of the people, should be able to overcome those obstacles in the longer run. The construction of a road, rail, and pipeline network that connects these areas with Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong, Chalna, Payira and Matarbari, (and the Indian port of Kolkata in West Bengal to remain of part of India) would revolutionize the economies of the eastern states of South Asia or Greater Bengal as once the Quaid envisaged. The Quaid’s vision saw it is as a possible plan in 1946 when AK Fazlul Haq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Abul Hashem came to him with the idea of a Greater Bengal comprising both East and West Bengal as well as Assam and the seven sisters.  The British, and the Indian Congress, shot it down on an absurd technicality.  While a political creation of the proposed economic zone is only a dream, things have moved quietly along in the infrastructure field.

A look at the history of road connections in the region that would serve as examples and that could be integrated into the regional network would be of help. There was apart from the Silk Road that had linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce between 130 BC-1453 AD but had then fallen out of use. During the 20th century new efforts to restore connectivity were made, this time not so much to promote trade than rather to promote warfare and troop movement. The first project was the Burma Road. With a length of 717 miles (1,154 km) it ran through a rough mountain country between Western China and Burma.

The sections from Kunming to the Burmese border were built by 200,000 Burmese and Chinese laborers during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and completed by 1938. During World War II, the Allies used the Burma Road to transport materiel to China, especially after China lost sea-access following the loss of Nanning in the Battle of South Guangxi. Supplies were landed at Rangoon (now Yangon) and moved by rail to Lashio, where the road started in Burma. The Japanese overran Burma in 1942, thus closing the Burma Road for the allies. They thereafter had to supply Chinese troops by air, flying over “the Hump”, the Himalayas from India.  Starting with 25 aircraft, the 10th Air Force than became an Air Force Transport Command. The final assembling of C-47 aircraft (the backbone of the air fleet) which were shipped from the US in crates was done at Panagarh, the Indian POW Camp from where I (Ikram Sehgal) escaped in 1971. This was also a base for forming the famous “Chindits” (the 77 Bde led by Brig Gen Orde Wingate) which went into Burma and disrupted Japanese Lines of Communications (LOC) to some extent.

Finally, in order to supply the Chinese troops of Chiang Kai Check in their war efforts against Japan there was a need to create a new road connection to China because for full air supply not enough airplanes were available. With Burma in the hands of the Japanese East India became the logical starting point for the new road. Being an overland connection between India and China, it was constructed under the leadership of General Josef Stilwell of the US army and later given the name of Stilwell Road. The 1726 Km long historic road was constructed by the allied soldiers lead by America during the Second World War. It started from Ledo in Assam, one of the railheads of the Bengal-Assam railway in the valley of the Upper Brahmaputra.

It passed through Lekhapani, Jairampur, Nmampong and the Pangsau pass on the India-Burma (now Myanmar) border and wound up the passes of the 9000 feet high Patkai Range, then emerged at Shindwiyang and reached Mitkyina where it joined with the old Burma Road. To move supplies from the railheads to the Army fronts two more all-weather roads were constructed in record time during the autumn of 1943.  With super Chinese technology in tunnel making, this makes the planned road very workable. The campaign won Central Front Road within India from Dimapur to Imphal, and the southern road from Dohazari south of Chittagong in British India. After the war, the Stilwell Road fell into disuse. In 2010, the BBC reported that much of the road had been swallowed up by jungle.

Driven by the economic potential and the need to reinforce transport network in the region, an increasing clamor of voices in China, India and Myanmar is calling for the restoration of the road. It is time for the three countries to deliberate upon this project seriously. India is worried about the reconstruction of the road for two reasons. First, the road starts from Assam, a state where local militants have become increasingly active. Second, China-made products can flood into the Indian market through the road. Some political problems connected to the colonial distribution of territory since independence and the colonial-style attitude of successive Indian govts have led to the estrangement of the Indian Northeast.

Bangladesh is actively pursuing an open-door policy to  international traffic by taking  advantage of  its strategic location in terms of easy access to the sea and being the gateway between the Eastern and Southern parts of Asia. Accordingly, the Government has been making efforts to improve the road connectivity with neighboring countries through various regional cooperation forums such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), Bay of Bengal Institute for Multi-sectoral Technical and  Economic  Cooperation  (BIMSTEC)  and  Bangladesh-China-India Myanmar (BCIM).

Bangladesh has acceded to the Asian Highway Network also known as the Great Asian Highway in 2009. This is a cooperative project among countries in Asia and Europe and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), to improve the highway systems in Asia. It is one of the three pillars of the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project. The project aims to make maximum use of the continent’s existing highways to avoid the construction of newer ones, except in cases where missing routes necessitate their construction.

The physical alignment of an Asian Highway Route in Bangladesh is more or less completed so far as the road connectivity is concerned. GOB has planned to upgrade almost the whole part of the Asian Highway Network in Bangladesh by phases in order to bring the same in harmony with such networks outside Bangladesh. This initiative has been taken by the GOB in connection with plans to construct two new deep-sea ports, one in Matarbari south of Chittagong and the other at Payira, located on the Ramnabad Channel near the Bay of Bengal. Both are under-construction deep-sea ports and are supposed to go into business by 2025.

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Association of eastern States of South Asia–5

When looking at the map there are mainly three North-South connecting routes that would come to mind. The first is the route coming from China/Tibet through Nepal and India reaching down to the western ports of Bangladesh at the Bay of Bengal, Mongla or the forthcoming port of Payra. Parts of this connection are already in place, some other parts are still missing. In 2016 China announced the construction of a China-Nepal friendship road, a road and rail connection to Nepal with the purpose of promoting trade.

It starts from China’s western Gansu province and reaches Kathmandu through Xigaze in Tibet, the last point on the Tibet railway network in the west, with the goods then transferred to road transport until Kathmandu. By 2018 more than 10 agreements involving technology, transportation, infrastructure and political cooperation had been signed between the two countries. The Nepalese PM Oli disclosed to reporters that “cross-border connectivity” was Nepal’s top priority. From the very beginning, China has had a “Himalayan Economic Corridor” in mind that would include India and Bangladesh, but India so far has been a rather reluctant partner. Since then, China has been very active in developing infrastructure through Tibet, right through to the border with India, where smart new multi-lane highways come up to an Indian border all-together devoid of infrastructure. China has been keen to develop outlying towns of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and has done so with the Beijing-Lhasa railway being extended to Shigatse in 2014, Tibet’s second largest city. The Nepali government has also asked China to expand the Arniko Highway as a four lane highway connecting Tatopani, near Shitagse to Kathmandu.

This is causing concern for Indians on their side of the border, watching Chinese-funded infrastructure and wealth being generated on the Tibetan side. The same is partially true in Nepal and creates both consternation and embarrassment in Delhi.

Kathmandu, on the other hand, has been enthusiastic about receiving larger amounts of Chinese investment. Nepal is reliant on India for the movement of its goods, is keen to reduce that dependence and wishes to present itself instead as a transit hub for cross-Himalayan trade. That would link it with China’s Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu Provinces as well as with Tibet and allow it to process trade between China and India.

A second connecting route would be from China through Bhutan, India down to Kolkata, Mongla or Payra. But there are serious problems for the time being that prevent fast progress of this connection. Bhutan’s border with Tibet/China has never been officially recognized and demarcated what created trouble. Chinese governments thought of Bhutan as belonging to China for quite a while. In 1998, China and Bhutan signed a bilateral agreement for maintaining peace on the border thus recognizing Bhutan’s sovereignty. But the border area was never properly demarcated. When China began stepping up its infrastructure program BRI announced in 2013 road construction started in Tibet close to the Bhutan border in the area of the Doklam plateau which China considers part of Tibet. This led to a border crisis in 2017. Bhutan protested to China against the construction of a road in the disputed territory of Doklam, at the meeting point of Bhutan, India, and China. The Indian army blocked the Chinese construction of a road in what Bhutan and India considered Bhutanese territory in a 72-day stand-off. Since then, China has been stepping up pressure on Bhutan to settle their bilateral border dispute so as to be able to proceed with the infrastructure development. Bhutan has ever since Doklam been dismissive of China’s intrusion into the country, whether in economic or political terms. China has intensively tried to build official bilateral relations and partner with Bhutan on the BRI, but Bhutan has continuously declined despite the pressure. So this connecting channel needs more time to become viable.

The third corridor would be from China through the ‘Seven Sisters’ (that have become eight actually after the addition of Sikkim in 2002) to the eastern ports of BD Chittagong and Matarbari. Here there would be two main constraints: one, the political tension between China and India and India’s membership in anti-China alliance Quad. And secondly, India’s northeast is and has been in turmoil for decades. Even when lately separatist movements have lost some steam, most of the insurgent groups exist mainly to make money through extortion, kidnappings, tax collection from local people, demands for toll from development projects and attacks on communication links and energy infrastructure. Furthermore, northeast India is an important transit route for heroin trafficking from the neighboring “golden triangle” of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to Europe, with local insurgent groups involved in this flourishing trade. Thus, the building of an economic corridor will be risky through this region at least during the foreseeable future.

There is a fourth project already under partly construction on the Chinese side: The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC). The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum for Regional Cooperation, earlier known as the “Kunming Initiative” is part of China’s BRI program. The BCIM-EC is planned to extend on three routes: one, known as K2K, will run from Kunming to Kolkata via Myanmar, Northeast India and Bangladesh; the other two will go from Mandalay of Myanmar to Chittagong of Bangladesh in one direction, and to Sittwe seaport at Rakhine state of Myanmar in another direction.

The large trans-border region, connecting Bengal in India, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and Yunnan in China to each other, has been shaped by multiple polities under the pressure of global empires. In this project we strive to understand the complex and interlinked webs of relations within the region during the formation of modern Asia. Two related aspects are given special importance: the role of natural conditions and the impact of human mobility in the historical processes shaping human and human-nature relations. There remains ethnic insurgency in Northeast India and Myanmar as well as the Rohingya issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, which poses lasting security threats to the building of the Corridor. Even when the corridor is completed, transportation of personnel and goods may still face constant security threats from local insurgency. The same is true for the Rohingya insurgency in Myanmar.

In addition, India has never participated full-heartedly in the BCIM EC negotiations. The Kathmandu Post in an 2020 article called it a “camouflaged participation” China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has shaken up India’s hegemonic balance and given other, smaller regional nations a chance to rise up against the dominant influence in the region. China has been penetrating regional diplomacy in South Asia, all the while keeping in mind its larger aim of further securing its Westers territory. For countries in the region such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the BRI is seen as a more neutral, if not benign force and has pushed India to become more considerate of changes. But small countries like Bhutan that are ethnically and culturally so close to Tibet/China fear to be overwhelmed by the large neighbor though the Indian alternative is threatening as well.

New Delhi feels uncomfortable with all Chinese attempts to secure road connections via the Himalayas and port access agreements along the Indian Ocean in places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and New Delhi is probably watching Myanmar closely as well. The bottom line is that India will not want to relinquish its dominant position in the Indian Ocean and it will take time to make it do so.

While China has aggressively sought to connect its borders, India neglected its own, creating massive disconnects between its borders and hinterlands, especially on its Himalayan front. By helping create multiple access points via roads and ports, China is able to present an alternative to South Asian nations and cultivate the means to challenge India’s role as a South Asian power.

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Association of eastern States of South Asia–6

If Bangladesh’s problems were confined to over-population and natural disasters that retard economic growth, it would be bad enough, but the problem is that Bangladesh has the world’s only predator nation, India, at its doorstep. Other nations do try and impose hegemony, India occupies territory by force of arms.  Instead of helping to alleviate the miseries of its poor neighbors, desperately keeping their heads (literally) above the rising waters, Indian machinations in the countries on its periphery, particularly in Bangladesh, knows no end.

Despite the tremendous economic success, India’s undue interference has contributed to increasing the poverty and sufferings of the peoples living adjacent to its borders. Five decades into existence as an independent nation, Bangladesh still finds itself insecure, until and unless Indian designs of regional hegemony are frustrated, this Sword of Damocles will stay over the heads of 160 million people.  Presently Bangladesh is doing exceedingly well economically with a very great percentage of the labor workforce engaged and with extensive socio-economic infrastructure in the works, one can say that the vision of “Sonar Bangla” can become a reality.

Bangladesh means land of the Bengalis, Muslims, Hindus and other minorities included. Given the major ports of the region that include Calcutta in West Bengal, and Chalna and Chittagong in Bangladesh, this area by itself can exist as an effervescent economic region without facing chronic shortages of food and other necessities. Looking at historical and ethnic realities existing in the many nations of this region, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Gurkhaland, Sikkim, Bhutan, Meghalaya, Bodoland, Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Tripura and Manipur to name only some, all are fiercely independent in their outlook. Even the only Hindu Kingdom of Nepal would cease to be endlessly land-locked by India (geographically and economically) and be a willing member of an Association of Eastern States of South Asia (AESSA) economic alliance.

These effective geographical and economic units can form a Common Market without anybody’s hegemony. Access to the ports of the Bay of Bengal would favor especially the landlocked territories, but an extension of the number and capacity of ports is in process and in the interest of Bangladesh. Moreover, Bangladesh needs to solve the problem of Farakka Barrage and the six other catchment dams which have become a matter of discord with India over the years. Given the Indian track record, it will take more time than available to arrive at an equitable arrangement about water, Bangladesh will have to look elsewhere for help and helping oneself is perhaps the best (and only) way to do it. We must remember that this particular area has been a hub of agriculture, manufacturing and trade in the past as well.

AESSA is the acronym for Association of Eastern States of South Asia and the idea consists of the creation of an economic union or common market of the states that so far have suffered from geographical, political and economic isolation. Opening up this region by promoting internal trade relations between the countries and connecting it all to the new continental trade routes of BRI as well as to maritime trade routes centered around the Bay of Bengal is the gist of the idea. This idea was developed during the 1980s and published for the first time in March 1990.

It did not create many waves then. But today, over 30 years later, we are looking at an entirely different world. Globalization has matured and the post-WW II political power allocation has changed from a bipolar world caught in a vicious cold war scenario has moved towards a unipolar world with the US as the sole superpower that considered itself to be the global policeman. This rather short phase has come to an end with the rise of China to challenge the US on economic, military and conceptual turf by designing a new global political power system based on multipolarity.

I quote my article, “AESSA CONCEPT AND THE CONFEDERACY IDEA dated May 10, 1997”, “Association can never be successful between unequal partners. In its present size and with its aggressive defense posture, India is very much a persistent threat to its neighbors in the region, forums that it organises can only be at best shotgun marriages in the manner it has presently with Pakistan. By suggesting confederation and sub-regional groupings on the basis of economic principles and geographical proximity justifying such moves, India has provided a window of opportunity for a more practical and comprehensive proposal for the entire region. The Gujral Doctrine, annunciated when IK Gujral was Foreign Minister in Indian PM Deve Gowda’s Cabinet, clubs together with the complementary economies with the geographical proximities of the Eastern States of South Asia ie. Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan with the other country in common to all the three, India. However, it is only the troubled eastern states of India which are involved.

Because of a lack of adequate transit facilities through Bangladesh, Assam and the other Eastern States of India, these have to be served by road and rail around the periphery of Bangladesh. India has been neglecting this region economically, politically and socially, treating it as a source of raw material (mainly oil, timber and tea) more or less in the same way as during colonial times. To keep this neglect from boiling over, India has been using force for virtually the full 50 years of its independence. With as much as 17-18 full-fledged insurgencies to cope with because of perceived economic and political disparities, the Indian Army has been engaged in constant counter-guerrilla

warfare to hold the country from disintegrating for nearly five decades. For some time after the creation of Bangladesh, these guerrilla movements suffered a setback, they are now back in full operation. The region is so cut off geographically that it was abandoned administratively even before the Chinese forces were in a threatening position to come down from the mountains during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict (the Chinese made a unilateral stop at the base of the mountains at a place called Foothills). To have a more direct route, India has been pushing for the construction of a barge-bearing canal cutting across the width of Bangladesh but that would effectively divide Bangladesh into two halves despite the good feeling for India in the present ruling Awami League (AL) government they will never accept this let alone risk public opinion which in Bangladesh seems to be more anti-Indian than pro. The logic behind PM IK Gujral’s arguments is a natural cohesion rather than any artificial re-configuration, unless this arrangement is structured around independent states it would run counter to his theory. Nepal and Bhutan’s hydel possibilities would provide Bangladesh with access to cheap electricity, at the same time the landlocked eastern states of India, among them Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, etc would be best served by using the port cities of Chittagong and Chalna with direct road/rail access,” unquote.

The US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the region has left the door wide open to new alliances especially of the economic type. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations includes plans for a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, referring to the Indo-Pacific Sea routes through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. And that is where the AESA regional concept fits in with Bangladesh as its centrepiece.

Historically the Bay of Bengal was the trade route for what was the biggest economy of its time, centered in the area now comprising Bangladesh.  The North-South Corridor can also be a South-North Corridor which the western nations which were once predators in the 15th century onwards can now become trading partners in the real sense and invest in this region to bring economic emancipation to the most impoverished people on this earth.  Not only this region but the States along the east coast of India and Burma would also benefit from the force-multiplied economic activities both ways.   Therefore it is important for the world not to look at AESSA as anything but a great boost for the peoples of this region, with the entire world benefitting from the multi-trade that it will bring about.

A defense and security analyst, the writer is Chairman Karachi Council of Foreign Affairs (KCFR) and the Vice-Chairman Board of Management Quaid-e-Azam House Museum [a Nation Building Institution] and Dr Bettina Robotka, former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Editor of the Defence Journal and a Consultant to the Pathfinder Group.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of ViewsWeek.com, and hence do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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