A BENGALI FRIEND told me many years ago of the renown among Persian travellers of hikmat i Chin and hujjat i Bengal (the wisdom of China and the wrangling of Bengal). Some Bengalis in our times like to talk or write fondly, with more than a trace of pride, of what they suggest is a typically Bengali institution, adda, which very briefly means a few people whiling their time away, chatting or gossiping, over cups of tea or coffee anywhere: at someone’s home, in a dingy teashop or the Coffee House on College Street in Kolkata. Those with intellectual pretensions like to think that the talk at the adda is all intellectual. In the real world the adda is neither very intellectual nor is it any more Bengali than Tamil, Malayali, Panjabi or Indian. It is in fact ubiquitous in the entire Indian subcontinent, where humanity is in plentiful supply and opportunities for usefully employing the mind or the body scarce. Similarly our Persian traveller could well have talked of hujjat el Hind or the wrangling of India. In 1980 or 1981, when I was in Dhaka I would have characterized Bangladeshi politics as one of perpetual contestation and deplored the Bangali taste for pointless and endless debate. I now know that there is nothing particularly Bangladeshi about these traits either—we encounter them everywhere in India, and maybe in greater strength in some places than in Bangladesh. For all that, when I arrived in Dhaka, it was hujjat i Bengal that was the concern of the mission I was to work in for the next two years or so.
Politics in Bangladesh had begun to settle into normality after the initial few months of confusion following the assassination in August 1975 of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family. Though General Zia-ur-Rahman, who had taken full control before the end of 1975, had established his authority over the country, had founded his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and by 1977 got elected civilian President and in spite of his repeated assertion that he had been associated with the liberation struggle of Bangladesh from the beginning, that he was indeed among the first of the freedom fighters, the majority of Mujib’s political party, the Awami League, questioned the legitimacy of his rule. Their misgivings about him were heightened by the fact that the military officers who had been openly mentioned as being directly involved in Mujib’s assassination had been sent out on diplomatic assignments, giving the Awami League ground for saying that Zia was protecting Mujib’s killers—the trial and punishment of Mujib’s assassins had become a constant in the list of the Awami League’s demands in all their anti-Zia agitations.
Zia, because of the hostility of the Awami League towards him, turned to those sections of the new Bangladeshi middle and entrepreneurial class who had felt excluded from the Mujib dispensation, elements of the old Pakistan Muslim League some of whom had started their political careers as members the Muslim League of India before 1947 who had till the end defended the unity of Pakistan, a number of defectors from the Awami League and sundry other conservative or opportunistic groups for political support. He had cobbled these sections together into the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. With the help of this new political party Zia had given to his régime a civilian appearance, although the mainstay of his power was still the Bangladesh Army.
Because of the perception among Zia’s people, not entirely without foundation, that India, being close to the Awami League, was not friendly towards his régime and the perception in many circles in India that dependent as Zia was on the political support of many right wing regressive elements in Bangladesh society his government was not sufficiently mindful of India’s interests, relations between Bangladesh and India, ever since Zia ur Rahman had taken over had been tainted with mutual suspicion. These suspicions extended to matters of national security: the Bangladesh government feared that India might use diehard anti-Zia people like ‘Tiger’Siddiqi or the large Chakma population that, to escape dangers to their lives, had taken refuge in India, to unsettle the Zia régime. People in India were convinced for good reason that some governmental agencies in Bangladesh not only gave sanctuary but also material help to many insurgent groups active in Northeast India in a continuation of the policies of successive Pakistani governments.
The visit of Prime Minister Morarji Desai to Bangladesh in April 1979 had not in any noticeable manner cleared the atmosphere. I do not know what the Bangladeshis thought about the longevity of the Morarji government, but many in India, myself included, were persuaded from early 1979 that the Morarji government was on its way out; if the Bangladeshis also thought India was at the point of a change of government, the Morarji visit was hardly likely to produce significant results.
WHEN INDIA OPENED A DIPLOMATIC MISSION in Dhaka soon after the liberation of Bangladesh, most of the people it sent to man that mission were, at the senior level, Bengalis by accident or design. Not only the High Commissioner, a long retired member of the venerable old Indian Civil Service, but also the Press and Information Officer, the Education Officer and one of the Political Officers were all Bengalis. This was not the only time, nor the last, that Government of India substituted what it thought was a clever appeal to emotions for sound diplomacy. During my time in Dhaka, but also later from people who were in the Indian High Commission in those early years, I heard that the first Indian High Commissioner never dealt with anyone in Bangladesh government except the President, Sheikh Mujib and, occasionally, with his Prime Minister, Tajuddin. Another senior member of the High Commission, not a Bengali, a man not known for his ability to resist showing what power or authority he had , would, I was told, be very unhappy if anyone in Bangladesh Government below the level of a Cabinet Minister tried to deal with him. People who had served in the Indian High Commission in those early years talked wistfully of the goodwill of the people towards them as well as the access to high places they enjoyed. I also heard of the great expectations the leaders and the people of the country had from India in those early years.
In 1974-75, as Bangladesh sank deeper into the economic and political crises which climaxed in the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, India was caught up in political and economic crises of its own which brought about Mrs. Gandhi's declaration of emergency. Even without the bloody change of régime in Dhaka, the goodwill of those early years could not be sustained for the simple reason that it was overblown, dripping with sentiment. With Mujib's assassination, that bubble burst abruptly. In the post-Mujib years people in Bangladesh, even those who were 'well-disposed' towards India, talked of mistakes committed by India, of India's insensitivity, of India's overbearing attitude, even of Indian businessmen and traders taking advantage of the favourable position of India immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh to sell shoddy and substandard goods. This image of 'the ugly Indian' has ever since suited and been used by elements hostile to India in Bangladesh. India became a country to be feared and suspected. Yet, in spite of it all, a great deal of the friendship and goodwill remained.
People who opened the Indian High Commission in Dhaka operated under difficult and extraordinary circumstances. It is easy to be critical with hindsight but unfair. They could be blamed neither for the euphoria nor for the high expectations of the initial months. They did much good work. Programmes and policies they started continued in later years, certainly during the years I spent in Dhaka. In my area of work, that of publicity, they built two valuable platforms. One was a monthly magazine in Bengali called Bharat Bichitra, which was a judicious mixture of Bengali fiction or poetry, composed by well-known or unknown Bengali writers and official Government of India publicity. The second was regular screening of Indian movies, Bengali and Hindi, open to anyone in the country who asked for and got free admission tickets from the High Commission.
These were so popular that I concluded soon after my arrival that rather than expending energy on forging new instruments, I would be well advised to concentrate on expanding both the programmes hoping thus to increase and widen the audiences these two instruments gave us. Bharat Bichitra was mailed free of charge to a large number of people, many of whom would write to us to be placed on our mailing list. Some copies found their way into the market and would be sold for one or two Bangladesh takas. Some copies of the magazine would be kept at the reception outside my office to be picked up by anyone who wanted to collect it from there. There were at least two occasions when staff at the reception had difficulty pacifying groups of students who were angry because no copies of the magazine were left when they came. Likewise the film shows were so popular that I had no difficulty in running two shows a day on practically all working days and yet not be able to meet all the demand for entry tickets. It became one of my boasts to say that I managed one of the most popular movie halls in Dhaka and published one of the most popular Bengali monthlies there.
In the High Commission of India, many of my colleagues felt and talked as if we were under siege in those post-Mujib years. People complained about being tailed by Bangladeshi intelligence men wherever they went. They complained about the difficulty of meeting and befriending Bangladeshis saying that intelligence men would interrogate their visitors after they had met them in office or on social occasions at their homes. Having by the time we got to Dhaka got used to spending much of our time with people outside the closed circle of our own embassy, we decided to do what we could to break out of that ‘siege’. We made two rules for ourselves. One was that when we went out, we would not look back to see if we were being followed and the second was that we would be indiscriminate about whom we met and tried to get to know.
The second rule needs some explanation. Many Bangladeshis, when they came to the High Commission officials asking for something would start by saying that they themselves, or a brother or an uncle or the father-in-law of a cousin had been freedom fighters in 1971 or were related to some important leader of the Awami League. Some of them would also tell us which of our other acquaintances had been a ‘collaborator’ in 1971 or belonged to a family of collaborators, which one was a friend of Khondkar Mushtaq Ahmad—a political untouchable for Government of India—and which one had been in the Muslim League or belonged to a family of Muslim League sympathizers. Most people at the High Commission divided all Bangladeshis into two groups: those who were freedom fighters or sympathizers of freedom fighters and therefore ‘for us’ and those who had been ‘collaborators’ or their sympathizers and therefore ‘against us’. This was a discriminitation I decided not to make in my own approach. I discovered that it worked.
My work, in particular my movie hall, put me in a position in which people wanted to keep in touch with me. As it became known that I kept an open door both at home and in office, the circle of my acquaintances expanded. Some of them also discovered my readiness to help them get visas for India without interminable waits in five to six hundred long queues. Consequently there was never a shortage of people who came to office and who in the style of the Indian sub-continent would talk a great deal about practically anything before coming to the main business of their visit. They found in me a willing listener as they talked, sense and nonsense. For me the advantage was that I developed my own understanding of the attitudes of a large variety of Bangladeshis.
SOON AFTER OUR ARRIVAL, I went through the routine of going across to meet the editors of all major newspapers. Some of these people became good friends later so much so that there were very few questions we could not discuss with absolute candour even when our opinions might be unpalatable to each other. Most of these people were very well informed about India. Many had an intimate understanding of the workings of the Indian political system and of the wellsprings of Indian government policies. Any hope I might have of impressing them with official glosses was forlorn. They were all friendly. They were also all good company. One of them, the editor of a weekly, claiming he was a true revolutionary in the mould of Mao Dze Dong, opposed to the 'Soviet revisionists', opposed to the 'Indo-Soviet axis', would use any and every opportunity to denounce Indian 'hegemonism and expansionism’ and talk of the danger India posed to the sovereignty and independence of Bangladesh. He would also be game whenever invited home, perfectly civil and quite sporting in any discussion. On one occasion when talking to another friend I mentioned the rigging of elections in Bangladesh, I found myself at great disadvantage in the face of his remark that we Indians were the first to develop rigging into a fine art in Jammu and Kashmir and practised it with sophistication in every election there since 1957 and that the other countries of the Indian subcontinent had simply adopted our model. On other occasions he talked of the superiority of the hilsa fish from his native Diamond Harbour in West Bengal when compared to the hilsa from the Padma estuary in Bangladesh.
There was one editor, that of a newspaper brought out by the Jamaat i Islami of Bangladesh whom the High Commissioner, K. P. S. Menon, a complete gentleman in every sense of the word, did not approve of and suggested I did not go to meet him. His objections were ideological. But he accepted my counter-argument that it would do us no harm to be in touch even with those groups whose politics might be inimical to our interests. Thus I went to meet him, a dark complexioned man with a black goatee who with his black goggles looked like a cardboard Mephistopheles. I must have talked to him for more than an hour. I found his positions so irrational that I decided that I would not be able to have another conversation with him. He said or did nothing to indicate that he would be interested in keeping in touch with me either. He seemed to have only dogmas and no opinions.
One of the first Bangladeshi officials I got to know was a man called Zill-ur Rahman who headed the Shilpa Kala Academy—the Academy of Fine Arts and Crafts—of Bangladesh, a pleasant and friendly man. Some of my 'freedom fighter' friends told me later that he was a 'razakkar' (the name of one of two militia groups used by the Pakistani government in 1971 in their campaign of repression during the Bangladeshi struggle for liberation) meaning that he had a history as a collaborator and therefore 'ill-disposed' towards India. I said to myself that I would not mind knowing such a friendly 'razakkar' and continued my relationship with him. Very early during our stay in Dhaka, my wife and I had an invitation to a dance and music performance at the Shilp Kala Academy. After the performance, seven or eight invitees, including us, were asked to tea in a small room with the Chief Guest, Prime Minister Shah Aziz-ur Rahman to whom we were introduced. The Prime Minister had a perfectly civil conversation with us in very good Urdu, for about fifteen minutes, to the exclusion of everyone else in that room. People told me later the Prime Minister had been a member of the Muslim League, ergo someone committed to Pakistan and its unity and integrity, ergo someone opposed to the liberation of Bangladesh, ergo someone hostile to India.
Later, because of my movie hall, I came to know rather well a young professor of physics at Dhaka University who ran a film club and at whose request I also organized a weeklong film appreciation course in Dhaka. His father was Minister for Food, another man supposedly with a past as a 'collaborator'. We were invited to their house on a number of occasions including on the days of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adhha. We have very pleasant memories of the warmth and cordiality we were welcomed with in that house. Another family we became very friendly with and in whose house we must have spent innumerable evenings was that of an independent Member of Parliament and a newspaper proprietor. He told us how when a Pakistani army officer came to arrest him during the liberation struggle, he told the officer that if someone like him had to be arrested, that was surely the end of Pakistan. He who paid something like three and a half million rupees as income tax was Pakistan, he had added. His wife was deeply interested in politics. His wife's sister and her husband were supposed to have been 'collaborators'. A cousin of his who lived in his ancestral village where we spent a day had suffered at the hand of the authorities after the emergence of Bangladesh because of a 'collaborationist' past. A close family friend of theirs, no hero of the freedom struggle, whom also we got to know reasonably well, was Zia-ur-Rahman's information adviser.
I came to hold the view that, because numerous bonds of friendship, blood or kinship straddled political divisions among Bangladeshis, we Indians should stop classifying them between erstwhile freedom fighters and people who had collaborated with the Government of Pakistan and deal with any individual or group which was prepared to deal with us as friends. I did not think then nor think now that this was a particularly original or insightful opinion. On the contrary, I thought that what I was arguing was self-evident. Such opinions were, I discovered, considered heretical, if not downright naïve, even stupid, in a High Commission markedly biased in favour of the Awami League and suspicious of anyone with a ‘collaborationist’ past.
Some time in 1980 there was an Indian Book Fair in Dhaka. The High Commissioner attached great political importance to the event. At one stage he asked me for my opinion about who should be invited to inaugurate and close the event. I suggested Prime Minister Shah Aziz-ur-Rahman who was also Education Minister for the inauguration and Shams-ul-Huda Chowdhury, the Information Minister, another member of the erstwhile Muslim League, for the closure. The High Commissioner demurred. I argued that in case the ministers did not agree, we could conclude that they did not wish to associate themselves with such an event, but if they accepted his invitation, the gain would be all ours as we would then have two ministers supposedly representing the policy of distancing Bangladesh from India, associating themselves publicly with an event meant to enhance exchanges between the two countries in a sphere as important as education. He then expressed the fear that back in India he might be criticized for inviting these Muslim League men. I suggested that in that case he should say that given their official positions in Bangladesh Government they were the appropriate people to invite. In addition he could give the arguments I had given in support of these invitations. Both the Prime Minister and the Information Minister were invited to the two occasions and they came. They spoke with varying degrees of enthusiasm of the importance of events such as the Book Fair. But the High Commission's bias did not change.
There was much in the relations between the two countries that was mutually advantageous. There were many in Bangladesh who saw advantage, even reassurance in good relations between the two countries. Yet there were three issues or 'disputes', each one capable at least of being downgraded in importance if not altogether avoidable, which did much to create public quarrels between the two countries generating much noise and hot air and some bitterness. Very often, political groups, not friendly to India, whose fortunes might be on the decline, were able to derive sustenance from them. For India, it would have made sense to minimize their importance, which we Indians did not always do, at least on the issue of sharing Ganges waters during the dry season, the most vociferous and the longest lasting of the three quarrels.
SOME BRITISH ENGINEERS observed towards the end of the 19 th century that the main flow of the Ganges as it approached its delta had started shifting from the Hooghly (Bhagirathi in ancient Hindu texts), on which Kolkata is located, to the Padma, which is the main branch of the river flowing through modern Bangladesh. Kolkata at that time was the capital of British India as well as the port through which the bulk of India's foreign trade passed. It was important to save the port and the city from the consequences of this natural phenomenon. One engineer thought up a storage barrage at Farakka above the point where the Ganges divides into the Padma and the Hooghly and a canal, which would carry additional water from the reservoir of the barrage to the Hooghly as the best solution to this problem, a kind of insurance, that the Hooghly did not dry or fill up. Thereafter many things happened such as the shifting of the capital of British India from Kolkata to Delhi, the First World War, the emergence first of the Indian National Congress and then of the All India Muslim League as major political forces in India, the Second World War and the partition and independence of India, not to speak of the changes in the ecology and the demography of the Ganges basin. In the years since India's independence other changes have happened because of which Kolkata progressively ceased to be the hub of India's industry and commerce. During the brief period of Marxist rule towards the end of the 1960's decade a degree of de-industrialization of West Bengal also took place. Additionally, with the construction of two new seaports on the East Coast of India, not far from Kolkata, the Port of Kolkata became far less important for the foreign trade of eastern India than it had been for the whole country towards the end of the 19 th century. Besides, dredging the river bed at Kolkata and further downstream offered a quicker and more effective solution to the problems of the port.
After independence when India started its development plans it also embarked upon the construction of a number of dams and canals which had been conceived of and for some of which engineers had done initial work such as ground survey many years before independence. When the construction of the barrage and canal at Farakka came up, the Government of Pakistan objected, raising questions about East Pakistan's share of Ganges waters. Through the 1960's there were unproductive Indo-Pakistan talks towards an agreed water-sharing formula. No formula proposed by India would be acceptable to Pakistan, which kept upping its minimum demand through successive meetings. India concluded Pakistan was being deliberately obstructive and decided to go ahead with the construction of the barrage at Farakka nevertheless. It was completed in 1971 and commissioned in 1975.
In 1975 India reached an interim sharing agreement with Bangladesh and hoped that with a friendly government in Dhaka it would without the old Pakistani obstructionism be able to add the minimum of 40,000 cubic feet per second of water during the dry months of April and May to the flow of the Hooghly, the quantity reckoned by its engineers to be necessary for keeping the Hooghly and the port of Kolkata in good shape. Bangladesh argued that it would be left with so little water in the Ganges basin during the dry months that people's livelihood as well as the ecology of the region would be badly affected. Over the years Indian and Bangladeshi arguments acquired more fat. India talked of the construction of hydel and flood control barrages on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and of a 100 mile long canal, most of it running through Bangladesh territory, to bring surplus water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges at some point up stream from Farakka so that at Farakka there would be enough water for both the countries. Bangladesh argued that the countries of the entire sub-region, including Nepal, Bhutan (and why not China? some would ask) should jointly plan the optimum utilization of the waters of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra basins. There were other refinements added to these arguments and counter-arguments with the passage of time. The debate became more acerbic with the introduction of expressions such as lifeline, national river, intimate association with the nation's history and civilization, way of life, hegemony, domination, great power complex. The post-Mujib government of Bangladesh took its dispute with India over the Ganges waters to the United Nations in 1976 but found that the international community had no stomach for it.
In the ensuing years, the Farakka barrage became the focus of all manner of agitational politics in Bangladesh, only some of which was aimed at India. In 1977 the non-Congress government in Delhi signed an interim five-year sharing agreement with Bangladesh guaranteeing to it certain minimum quantities of water during the dry months. Politicians in power in Delhi at that time were quietly of the view that India needed to be softer towards its neighbours than Mrs. Gandhi had tended to be. Some officials, who were in Delhi when the interim water sharing agreement was signed, angrily thought it was a sell out. At least one such person was in our High Commission in Dhaka during the years I was there.
Occasionally some Bangladeshi group would take out a procession up to the Indian High Commission to protest the 'damage' caused to Bangladesh by the Farakka barrage. Equally frequent were long commentaries in Bangladesh newspapers detailing the Bangladesh case on the waters of the Ganges, which were implicitly or explicitly critical of India. When such commentaries appeared in major publications a letter to the editor with important contributions from those in the High Commission who had a better claim than I to a ‘correct’ understanding of our case on the issue, and of our national interest, would be drafted for me to sign and send on. On one occasion our letter to the editor was as long and as full of detail as the original article which provoked our letter. Neither our active stance in the press nor the annual meetings of the Joint Rivers Commission, which by then had become part of Indo-Bangladesh diplomatic routine, did anything to lessen the anti-Indian agitation on this issue or increase the chances of a solution.
Once, after the appearance of another especially 'hostile' article on the subject, I went up to the High Commissioner and asked him why he was so upset whenever someone in the country wrote or spoke something on the Farakka Barrage. I suggested we would lose nothing by ignoring most of what was written or said on the question arguing that since the barrage was in India, Bangladesh would get only as much water as we would be willing to release which we did on the basis of inter-governmental agreements. Then I said that answering objections raised by various groups in Bangladesh on the question of Ganges waters could not be one of our essential interests in the country. We discussed what could be our essential interests. To what purpose, I did not know.
After that conversation we stopped writing letters to editors on the Ganges waters. Different groups of Bangladeshis continued their agitation through the years. They did not cease even after the conclusion in 1997, when I. K. Gujral was India's Prime Minister and Sheikh Mujib's daughter Hasina Wajed was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, of a long term sharing agreement, increasing Bangladesh's share of the dry season flows beyond the 1977 agreement. With a change of government in Dhaka in 2001, the Farakka barrage looks like becoming once again an issue for public wrangling.
What time and energy was left by the debate over the Ganges waters was taken by two utterly futile but no less noisy quarrels. One of these was over the transfer of a small enclave in the north of Bengal from India to Bangladesh. Its name Tin Bigha (a land measure equal to no more than two acres) describes the tininess of the territory. In spite of an India Bangladesh agreement of 1974, control over this territory had not been transferred to Bangladesh in 1980 and would not be for another twelve years. Lawyers, constitutional and land revenue experts, diplomats and politicians on the Indian side explained from time to time the problems faced by Government of India. Bangladeshis held this up as another example of Indian bad faith. All the objections of all the Indian experts were forgotten after the actual transfer of this territory to Bangladesh in 1992.
The third quarrel was over the possibility of Bangladesh selling natural gas to India. Bangladesh had reserves of natural gas variously estimated to be between modest and large but in any case much larger than the actual and potential requirements of the country. Investment for full exploitation of these reserves would be feasible only if Bangladesh exported the gas. For Bangladesh gas there was no more attractive export market than India. In Bangladesh, during the Zia-ur-Rahman years, once every few months, some group or the other would accuse the government of selling out the country's interests or worse by agreeing to sell natural gas to India. Some would talk of unfavourable terms; others opposed the idea of selling gas to India on any terms. The fact that there were no serious negotiations was not relevant. Many on the Indian side saw this Bangladeshi position as another example of the country’s adversarial attitude towards India. In all the years that have followed this has remained a question for many in Bangladesh to orate about from the nearest soapbox. In the middle of the year 2000, the Finance Minister of Bangladesh told the Indian Finance Minister that Bangladesh would be prepared to start talks about natural gas with India after the general election of the following year. At that general election the government led by Sheikh Mujib's daughter was voted out and replaced by a government led by Zia-ur-Rahman's widow. Flow of natural gas from Bangladesh to India may yet be in the distant future but I wonder if there are not people in Bangladesh even now who are prepared to agitate on this question.
There were two other questions that generated noise. One was about illegal immigration of people from Bangladesh to India mainly on the look out for opportunities for earning a livelihood. This debate became enmeshed with party political competition in India, especially in Assam. India’s case, almost certainly with a clear basis in fact, was that Bangladesh Government must help stop this flow. Bangladesh Government denied that such emigration took place. The second related to the Indian proposal for transit facilities for Indian goods between some of its northeastern states and the rest of India, facilities which if agreed to, could shorten distances for India and be a source of earning for Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, transit facilities for India were presented as a threat to its sovereignty. Twenty-four years later both the debates continue with the possibility that the immigration question might some day get entagled with the old Hindu-Muslim communal problems of the Indian sub-continent. When nationalistic fervour reigns political leaders talk belligerently and diplomats, taking the cue from their political masters, drop the language of moderation and accommodation. Such risks are ever present on the two sides of the India-Bangladesh divide.
A man I knew well in Dhaka, a man from an established middle class family of bureaucrats, journalists and people in other liberal professions, headed one of the several small Marxist political parties. In February or March 1980 I took him up on his repeated invitations and went to meet him in his office. We talked about the world, India, Bangladesh and about relations between our two countries. He explained how the bourgeoisie of undivided India had agreed to the partition of the country in 1947 in order to safeguard its interests. He said that it suited the bourgeoisie of Bangladesh to keep up a state of tension in Bangladesh's relations with India and that his party firmly believed in working for close and friendly relations with India as that was the best way of serving the interests of the masses of the two countries. He then said his party had started a weekly newspaper and showed me one of its early issues. The paper had, spread across its front page, a headline printed in bold, two-inch high letters, which could be roughly translated as ‘Zia is now an India-roader’. When I looked up from the page, a little quizzically, he said with a faint smile (he did not wink!):'If you practise politics in this country, you have to do these things'. He was not the only one to think so.
In December 1979, Bangladeshi newspapers started reporting prominently on their front pages a 'border incident' at a place on the Bangladesh border with the Indian State of Tripura called Muhurir Char. According to the report Indian Border Security Forces had fired on Bangladesh peasants working on their land. Diplomatic protests were made. Over many weeks of sensational reporting the rhetoric became ever more strident. Curiously there was nothing in the behaviour of people we knew or met in Dhaka to even distantly match the atmosphere that the media and some political groups in Bangladesh tried to create. Some people in Dhaka even talked of the incident privately as if it was a big joke. Reports that the Indian High Commission had from the concerned Indian agencies suggested that there had been no incident. Most people at the Indian High Commission were persuaded that this entire incident had been deliberately invented. According to the High Commission, the purpose was to have a 'border incident' alive and ready in view of the near certain return of Indira Gandhi to power after the Indian general election of early January 1980. If the Zia-ur-Rahman government felt that they could have reasonably trouble-free relations with the new Indian government, the Muhurir Char incident would be forgotten about, we felt. Otherwise this could be built into another dispute to be used for ‘dealing’ with India. After the swearing in of the new government in Delhi, in mid-January 1980 Zia-ur-Rahman was the first foreign Head of Government to visit Delhi for political discussions which seemed to have gone well from his point of view. Muhurir Char was not heard of again.
After the return of Zia-ur-Rahman from Delhi, Indo-Bangladesh relations settled down to a rhythm of fairly constructive co-operation and exchanges in many fields of activity, notwithstanding the noise and bustle of the public debate and agitation over some of the perennial disputes. Zia-ur-Rahman felt sufficiently encouraged by the state of bilateral relations to write in May 1980 to Mrs. Gandhi suggesting the establishment of a regional inter-governmental institution. This seed eventually came to fruition in the form of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Successive governments in Bangladesh have ever since taken a paternal interest in the SAARC project.
FROM THIS DISTANCE in time two episodes, one tragi-comic and the other purely comic, that I am now going to narrate are like miniscule ripples on the surface of tranquil waters. In India, Mrs.Indira Gandhi's new government soon settled down to the routine of governance. Different groups described how the credit for engineering the chain of events that started with the fall of the Morarji government and ended with mid term elections and for the victory of Mrs. Gandhi's political party at those elections belonged to Sanjay Gandhi. Though not a minister in Mrs. Gandhi's new government he was believed to be the most powerful man in Delhi. It was bruited about that during her years out of power Mrs. Gandhi had become fonder and more dependent on him than before. Politicians, civil servants, diplomats and businessmen alike mindful of their future prospects endeavoured to keep mother and son in good humour.
At about 7.45 one morning in June that year someone I knew at the BSS, the main news agency in Bangladesh, telephoned at office to tell me that Sanjay Gandhi had been killed in an aircrash in Delhi a little while ago. 'Good riddance', I nearly blurted out but did not and later congratulated myself on my self-possession. I informed the High Commissioner. The immediate response of one of the senior colleagues in the High Commission, who wore his high principles on his sleeves, was to think of opening a condolence book and of other manifestations of official mourning. He reluctantly agreed that since Sanjay Gandhi did not hold any office in government the High Commission could not go into official mourning for him unless there were specific instructions from Delhi. No instructions came that day.
V. V. Giri, who in 1969 had been elected President of India mainly because of Mrs. Gandhi's support, died the next day. Instructions came promptly asking for the opening of a condolence book and the flying of the national flag at half-mast—all that was laid down for a former president. Unobtrusively tagged on to these instructions was a brief paragraph about embassies also opening a condolence book in case people wished to express their sorrow on the death of Sanjay Gandhi. After it was all over I, as the press officer, received a message asking me to put out a communiqué expressing the gratitude of the Prime Minister to all those who had condoled with her in her moment of grief. Fearing that very few newspapers might take notice of a press release on the subject from us, I simply bought prominent space on the front pages of a few dailies for communicating the Prime Minister's sense of gratitude and sent clippings of what had appeared in the press to my correspondent in Delhi. All that was routine but I had caused annoyance to some people in the High Commission who probably thought I was engaging in one-upmanship—almost as if my letter forwarding the clippings would be seen by Mrs.Gandhi personally. I had no such illusion. I simply saw myself doing a job I had been asked to do.
In the morning of Independence Day, August 15, 1980, when the High Commission was naturally closed, there was nothing much we had to do at home. My wife and I decided on an impulse to walk down some three kilometres to the daily market for fresh produce. The market was located on one of the main traffic arteries of Dhaka. The walk was pleasant on that cool dry morning. Mornings were a good time to buy fresh fish, which is what we set out to do.
As we arrived at the market, there came up on the road a large procession organized by the Awami League and some other opposition political groups to mark the anniversary of Sheikh Mujib’s assassinaation. This was an annual feature and the processions ended with public meetings at which speakers would denounce the government for its various failures. The government did not like these shows of strength by the Awami League but felt powerless to stop them. We stopped by the roadside, near the entrance to the market, to look at the procession. Among the people at the head was a man, known to some of his erstwhile Pakistani political friends as the Governor, who occasionally dropped in for a chat with me. His conversations were invariably a mixture of reminiscences about the political movement against the martial law in undivided Pakistan and a description of the current political situation in Bangladesh. Spotting me, he gave the barest sign of recognition, which I did not acknowledge.
In its issue one or two days later, a Jamaat i Islami affiliated weekly newspaper whose name I forget, printed on its front page a photograph of myself and my wife taken from behind us, with a view of the Awami League procession in the background. The caption underneath read:'The Press Counsellor of the High Commission of a neighbouring country and his wife seen encouraging Awami League demonstrators'. The fact that the photograph showed us making no gestures was irrelevant. The story accompanying the photograph gave me a much larger role than mere encouragement in the organization of that demonstration. Some other newspapers or magazines reprinted the photograph and different versions of the story. A week or so later the same Jamaat affiliated newspaper wrote another story about me elaborating further on their earlier story, further enhancing my part and this time mentioning a group of 'secularists' which had supposedly brought out some subversive pamphlets with my help. Some of the Bangladeshis I knew joked with me about the photograph and the news story. I also looked upon them as mere laughing matter. I was wrong.
Not long afterwards, P. V. Narasimha Rao the Indian Minister for External Affairs came to Bangladesh on an official visit. At one stage, in the course of the bilateral discussions, the seniormost official assisting the Bangladesh Foreign Minister pulled the seniormost official who had come from Delhi with the Indian Minister to tell him that the Bangladesh Foreign Minister had intended personally to ask our Minister for my removal from Dhaka. He had been asked to pass this on to our side. As it happened, I stayed on not only to complete my expected two-year tour of duty but also an additional six months. None of my hierarchical superiors warned me or asked me to mend my ways.
In Dhaka I might have been involved in no more than three ‘subversive’ activities, beside, that is, ‘encouraging’ an Awami League demonstration. One concerned a leading Awami League figure who for fear of being branded an Indian lackey—a term applied routinely to Awami League politicians by the Awami League's political opponents including the Zia-ur-Rahman government—did not wish to contact us openly. His five or six year old daughter suffering from a serious illness needed medical treatment which was available at a hospital in Mumbai. The man called the Governor asked me on behalf of the Awami League man if we could help. I passed on this request to the High Commissioner and we did make all the arrangements for the little girl’s treatment.
The second was some help to a small, not very significant, group, mostly Muslim but comprising one Hindu, in organizing a symposium on 'Nehru, the Humanist'. These people describing themselves as ‘secularists’ opposed to the ‘increasingly obscurantist policies’ of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party wanted help by way of as much published and printed material as possible, which I arranged for. They wanted some pecuniary assistance. I persuaded the High Commissioner to pay them, as I remember, something like 5000 Bangladesh Taka. And, one of the prospective speakers at the symposium, the leader of a small Marxist political party, a Hindu, wanted to have a discussion with me before he prepared his presentation. I met him and held forth on Marxism, humanism, Jawaharlal Nehru and his policies for more than an hour flaunting my own half-baked knowledge.
And my third act of subversion had to do with a front-page news story in the largest circulation Bengali daily that said that our Defense Adviser had been holding meetings of various opposition groups in his house and that on one occasion Tofail Ahmad, an Awami League politician, was going to one such meeting but, spotting the correspondent of the daily in the vicinity, turned back. People at the High Commission were upset and wanted a formal denial to issue from the High Commission. I argued against it, suggesting that a statement issued by Tofail Ahmad would be better. I called a newsman at the news agency, BSS, who had told me that he was a close personal friend of Tofail Ahmad and asked him to ask Tofail Ahmad what he felt about this news story. Tofail Ahmad said the story was false and issued a statement to say so—his denial was printed by the daily.
It took me many months to understand that I had slowly been establishing a reputation as an organizer of subversive activities in Bangladesh, a man to watch, a possible spy. In one conversation the chief of the Defence Forces Intelligence of Bangladesh, to whom I had been introduced at a party said to me with a knowing wink that ‘we intelligence people can sniff each other out’. On another occasion, a newspaper editor, a good friend, asked me, in a manner as crudely suggestive as that of the Defence Forces Intelligence man, who the main Indian intelligence operative in Dhaka was. I also discovered after I moved on from Dhaka that my notoriety had in fact travelled to lands much further away, but of that later. And the most telling was a peroration made by an additional secretary in the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I went to take leave of him before my departure. He said that in Third World countries people did not always understand the role of diplomats and diplomatic missions, adding that people in security agencies were not well informed enough to be able to make a distinction between diplomats and spies. This was particularly true in a newly emerged country like Bangladesh, he added. He hoped I had enjoyed my stay in Dhaka and that I would not carry with me memories of any misunderstanding that might have been created because of some people’s ignorance.
COMPARED TO THE PREVIOUS YEAR, the year 1981 was very eventful for Bangladesh, for the Indian High Commission and for me personally. It started placidly enough. An Indian trade fair in Dhaka early that year organized by the Association of Indian Engineering Industries was considered a proud achievement not only by everyone at the Indian High Commission from the High Commissioner downwards but by the Indian association organizing the fair. The Indian Minister of State for Commerce came for its inaugural and was received well. Other trade promotion measures such as bilateral trade talks and the extension of Indian credits to Bangladesh happened in their normal course. All concerned with the management of Indo-Bangladesh relations had reason to be happy that these relations were coasting along nicely.
If in the temperate climate of Europe the Muse of poetry stirs with a new élan in April, inspiring Chaucer, Browning or T.S.Eliot to write about this ‘cruellest’ month, in the plains which extend from Lahore to Dhaka and Guwahati, April can mean the sudden and unpleasant arrival of the hot season, making people choleric or bilious. That year the hot season came early and as the month of April progressed the heat brought another eruption of a noisy Indo-Bangladesh quarrel. Among the numerous unresolved boundary disputes between the two countries one concerned two tiny islands formed by sand and silt in one of the mouths of the Ganges dividing the two countries. Bangladesh called them South Talpatty and India preferred the more English name, New Moore. Both sides claimed these islands and produced proof and argument in support. By the end of April Bangladesh had deployed a naval patrol boat and India two ships in the area thus creating—to borrow a cliché from Indian journalese—‘an eyeball to eyeball confrontation’. Bangladeshi newspapers published stories about this confrontation under extra large letter headlines and talked of Bangladesh’s determination to stand up to pressure and aggression and about not ceding ‘an inch of our territory’—another cliché of the Indian subcontinent. Someone reading Dhaka newspapers at that end of April would have thought the two countries were about to have a naval skirmish.
One day I chanced upon two colleagues at the High Commission discussing in all seriousness, one of them with childish excitement at the prospect of a war, the exact time when fighting between the two navies would break out. I remember saying to someone else at the High Commission that this entire episode was a charade being played out in order probably to cushion the impact of an important political development that was to take place two weeks later. Some fifteen years later, when I was the Ambassador of India in Kyiv, our Naval Attaché there told me that he was on one of the two Indian Navy ships, a transport vessel, sent to New Moore during that ‘confrontation’ of April-May 1981. He described those three weeks aboard that ship as the most uncomfortable—at one stage, fresh water had to be rationed and they could not bathe in that hot and humid place—but also said that the relations between the sailors on board his ship and those on board the Bangladesh patrol craft which was almost alongside were genial enough so much so that many times the Indian sailors ‘borrowed’ fresh water and the Bangladesh sailors ‘lent’ it. The Naval Attaché was amused when I told him of the headlines in Dhaka newspapers.
Ever since the assassination of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, his eldest daughter Hasina Wajed and her nuclear physicist husband had lived in exile in India. She and her husband were returning to Dhaka in the middle of May 1981. Through quiet contacts between the two governments, assurances about the safety and freedom of Hasina Wajed and her family in Bangladesh, should they decide to return, had been given by the Zia-ur-Rahman government. After long delays I had finally been given permission to go on much-looked-forward-to home leave in mid-May and we left Dhaka one day before the return of Mujib’s daughter to her country, missing one of the major political spectacles of our stay in Bangladesh. Once airborne on the flight from Dhaka to Kolkata my mind was switched off from Bangladesh.
WE STOPPED FOR TWO OR THREE DAYS in Delhi on our way to Srinagar in Kashmir. I was so completely tired of some of the meanness and villainy I saw in the High Commission in Dhaka that I requested Ram Sathe, who was then foreign secretary, that I be moved out—that request was made briefly and directly and Sathe, having mentioned a few possible places he might consider me for, left matters at that. Thereafter we went on to Kashmir—the first time for us. We spent about ten days in the valley ending with Srinagar where we were lodged in a pleasant Jammu & Kashmir Government Tourist Bungalow, located on Nagin Lake, some eight or nine kilometres north of the centre of Srinagar, not far from the Hazratbal shrine. There was only one other guest, a lady, staying at the Bungalow. We could ask the cook there to make whichever meal we wanted. We did so for some, which were eaten in the common dining room. One evening when this lady and us were at the dining table together, she wanted to make conversation. I, out of my aversion to getting into familiar conversations with strangers, hid behind a wall of monosyllables. Yet, persistent as she was, the lady renewed her assault the next morning, May 31, at breakfast. As soon as she prised out of me the information that I worked at our High Commission in Dhaka, she said to us quite matter-of-factly: ‘But your President was assassinated this morning’. She, a professor at a college in Nagpur, brought out her portable radio receiver on which we learnt from a news bulletin of All India Radio the barest details of the murder of Zia-ur-Rahman in Chittagong that morning. Our curiosity having thus been satisfied, we resumed our holiday wanderings.
On our descent to the June heat of the plains, we stopped again for one or two days in Delhi. I saw foreign secretary Sathe who told me that he had proposed my name as the Indian Ambassador in Kinshasa. The approvals of the Prime Minister and the President should come in two or three weeks, he said, and added as if to overcome any hesitation I might have that Kinshasa was a kind of place where some people went, gave up and went to seed while others took up the challenge and tried to do something. I was so glad at the prospect of leaving Dhaka soon that there was no room in my mind for any negative thoughts about Kinshasa. I thanked Sathe and left. We wended our way through the hot, parched and ugly North Indian plains during most of the rest of that June.
We returned to Dhaka in the last week of that month. After Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination, Vice-President Justice Abd-us-Sattar had in the normal course taken over as the Acting President. He was also the Presidential candidate of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party at the Presidential election that had been announced for later that year. The main opposition party, the Awami League had not yet decided on its candidate. On Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination, the most important Indian statement on the events in Bangladesh was made in the form of a message from Indira Gandhi to Acting President Abd-us-Sattar expressing not only her grief and sorrow over the murder of the President but also her hope that under Sattar’s leadership, peace, tranquility and order would prevail in Bangladesh. It was a perfectly correct statement to make, but some in Dhaka saw in it an indication of Indian support for the Acting President personally both in the immediate aftermath of Zia’s assassination and at the ensuing Presidential election. In truth while India could in many ways make things difficult for Bangladesh, it had no real capacity to shape or change the course of political developments there. That did not prevent many in Bangladesh and some in India from nurturing the illusion of India as a looming, menacing presence.
In Dhaka I came across many different versions, most of them speculative, of what ‘really’ happened in Chittagong on the night of Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination, for soon after Zia’s assassination, some soldiers, in an apparent fit of righteous anger, went and gunned down General Manzoor, the military commander of Chittagong. According to one version, the favourite of some in the Indian High Commission, the two deaths were planned by those officers of the Bangladesh Army who had stood for a united Pakistan till the end, while both Zia and Manzoor had joined the Bangladesh liberation struggle at the very start. A newspaperman, who later in the 1980’s joined General Ershad’s political party, told me that on the night of May 30-31, 1981, the Bangladesh Army had planned a putsch. President Zia, on a visit to Chittagong would be assassinated and then, in a coordinated action, the Army would simultaneously take control of all the major towns of Bangladesh and the Army Chief, General Ershad would take over as President. These plans got derailed due to delays in Chittagong. By the time news of Zia’s assassination reached Dhaka, Army moves elsewhere in Bangladesh had been called off. General Manzoor had to be silenced so that the Army could keep its secrets. I found this plausible. And then I asked Dawood Khan Majlis, who had been Zia’s Information Adviser, what had happened. He said I should not have gone on leave. That was a private joke. He referred to a facetious remark of my wife’s who had once said to him that in whichever posting we had been till then, there had been peace and quiet during our stay though after our departure there had been violence or major political change.
About a week after our return, the High Commissioner asked me what I thought of the prospects at the Presidential election. As soon as I told him that there was no stopping a Sattar victory, I understood that I had uttered a heresy, for already by the end of June almost the entire Indian High Commission had persuaded itself of the certainty of an Awami League victory. My status as a heretic was confirmed when some time later I expressed the opinion that the Awami League did not wish to participate in the election—its leaders had been issuing threats of a boycott citing several reasons—and that if it did, it might split after the election. When the Awami League announced Kamal Hossein as its Presidential candidate I became even more convinced of a Sattar victory because, having seen how at the end of 1974 Kamal Hossein had abandoned a beleaguered Mujib to seek peace and quiet at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, I did not see how he, an urban lawyer more at home in English and Urdu than Bengali, could enthuse the average Awami League worker.
I held on to my heresy, unafraid of being burnt at the stake, as I would be leaving Dhaka within a week of the announcement of election results. On the night in November the election results were coming in we were gathered at the house of a junior colleague for a farewell dinner for my wife and me. We watched over the television the announcement of the results as we ate. For every vote declared in Kamal Hossein’s favour a little more than two would be declared for Sattar’s. One of the gentlemen present that evening, who had invested heavily in a Kamal Hossein victory, kept on repeating till the end of the evening: ‘I refuse to call the results’. Sattar won convincingly. Some ten years later the same gentleman was visiting New York. We met at our apartment there. Our conversation turned to Bangladesh. In a play upon the name of our then High Commissioner in Dhaka, he said the High Commissioner was ‘kristfallen’. Apparently the High Commissioner had predicted an Awami League victory at elections that year in Bangladesh. The results were otherwise as indeed they had been ten years earlier.
EVEN AS MY APPOINTMENT AS AMBASSADOR IN KINSHASA had become formal and as I was awaiting the approval of the Zairian government, it was decided that around mid-September that year I would take over as Deputy High Commissioner in Dhaka on the departure of the incumbent. The morning after I became Deputy High Commissioner, even before being seated in my new office, I had to arrange for the departure of the High Commissioner for Delhi for urgent medical attention. I became our man in charge for the time being—between members of the (British) Commonwealth of Nations diplomatic representatives are called High Commissioners and Chargés d’Affaires ad interim are known by the much more pedestrian title of Acting High Commissioner.
During my time as Acting High Commissioner a large influx of Chakmas—a hill tribe of Buddhists, which inhabits the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh—into the Indian state of Tripura had taken place. Bangladesh governments and earlier East Pakistan governments had followed a policy of ‘integrating’ the Chittagong Hill Tracts into the rest of the country. This meant, in part, encouragement to people from the rest of the country to settle down in the region, threatening the Chakmas’ livelihood and tending to change the ethnic and religious composition of the region’s population. The Chakmas resented this policy. There had been a resultant low-level Chakma insurgency. Whenever the East Pakistan or Bangladesh security forces waged an energetic ‘pacification’ campaign, large numbers of Chakmas took refuge in the neighbouring Indian state of Tripura.
In September 1981, I was instructed to say to the Bangladesh Government that the influx of such large numbers of refugees strained our resources and created socio-economic problems in a sensitive part of India. We would like the refugees to go back but Bangladesh must create the conditions for their return with honour and security. When I communicated all this to an additional secretary in the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he took note of what I said but added that what I had said sounded like a threat, for what I said was exactly similar to what India had said in 1971 when the Pakistan Army was trying to bring East Pakistan under control and when millions of refugees had gone into India. I thought it best not to dilute the meaning of my message by adding any other comment. This was not the first time such a message had been delivered, nor the first time there had been an influx of Chakma refugees into India. In reality, pacification campaigns by the Bangladesh security forces in Chittagong Hill Tracts and the influx of Chakma refugees into India followed their cyclical pattern for many years to come, India’s protests or ‘threats’ notwithstanding. It was only in 1999-2000 that Sheikh Hasina’s government seriously tried to solve Bangladesh’s Chakma problem by establishing a well-defined autonomous Authorit for the region. Indian diplomatic representations on the Chakma problem till 1999 had produced no visible result.
During the month or so that I was Acting High Commissioner, a newspaper owner who was also a lawyer, member of an influential family, who did not hold any political office but was deeply interested, even involved, in politics, whom I knew very well said to me one day he did not understand why India was so supportive of Abd-us-Sattar who had never done any good work in his life. He then said that the Bangladesh Army had decided to let the November election take place smoothly, let Sattar win, become the President and make a mess of things. Thereafter in February or March the next year the Army would take over. A few days later, a journalist friend, someone originally from eastern Uttar Pradesh in India but married to a very nice and friendly Bengali lady told me exactly the same thing about the Bangladesh Army’s plans. Both my informants were eminently credible and I sent a report to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi. By the time a response came from Delhi asking a few clarificatory questions, the High Commissioner was back in Dhaka in full form. I had lost my temporary seat. The High Commissioner sent his comments on my report not only debunking my lawyer friend but also dismissing the possibility of an Army take over. I was already looking forward to my departure from Dhaka the date for which had by then been agreed. I said ‘a pox on all your houses’ under my breath and decided not to answer the questions the Ministry of External Affairs had asked me about what I had reported on the Army’s plans nor to try to find out more.
In going silent on this matter I was not racked by any troubling questions about not doing my work honestly. I was clear in my mind that even if the Ministry of External Affairs took my report seriously, there was not going to be a considered government assessment in Delhi any time soon whether or not an Army take over in Bangladesh would hurt our interests. I was equally clear in my mind that even if Government of India decided that an Army take over in Bangladesh would be prejudicial to India’s interests, there was little it could do to stall or altogether prevent such a development. In brief I knew that whatever more I might say about the Bangladesh Army’s plans for an Army take over in early 1982 would have as little relevance for any meaningful response from Delhi as what I had already said. As it happened the Bangladesh Army, under the leadership of General H.M.Ershad overthrew and replaced the Sattar Government in March 1982. I was already in another continent by then.
BEING AN INDIAN diplomat in Dhaka had its rewards. Friendship and special regard for Indians and India showed itself in plenty, sometimes in strange, unexpected ways. There were so many individuals who generously offered both their friendship and hospitality that it would be impossible to adequately describe them all. But it would be impossible for me not to tell three tales, all of them about general attitudes towards us. We had once gone to a function organized by the Shilpa Kala Academy. Having arrived a little early we quietly went and sat in places reserved for diplomats. After some time we were asked by someone to move elsewhere as those places we occupied were reserved for foreigners. He refused to accept us as foreigners even after we told him we were from the Indian High Commission. We were later rescued by the Director of the Academy who in effect placed us higher than the ‘foreigners’.
On another occasion, as we were returning home from the house of a colleague, when I was driving a little absent-mindedly, I suddenly saw a rickshaw in front of me and swerved to avoid it. My car jumped the storm water drain by the road and hit the boundary wall of one of the houses, making a large hole in the brickwork. As I looked at the damage to the car and the wall, making rough calculations in my mind about the drain on my depleted financial resources the repairs to both would cause, and as I decided first to look for the house-owner, I found myself facing an irate gentleman. I apologized and quickly accepted his demand that I pay for the repair of the wall. He asked for my name and address. The moment I told him that I worked at the Indian High Commission, his face softened, he smiled and said how happy he was to meet me adding that for him the accident was ‘a blessing in disguise’. He would not hear a word about compensation for the damage to his property. He also offered us tea.
In September 1979, almost the day after the departure of High Commissioner K.P.S.Menon from Dhaka my wife and I went on a two-week vacation in India by car. Our purpose was to visit our two children who were at two Roman Catholic boarding schools in Darjeeling. They had travelled alone to their schools in March that year, six or seven weeks ahead of our own departure from Paris. We had not seen them since then and were anxious to see how they had settled down in their schools. For the journey up to Darjeeling we had in any case decided to travel to Kolkata and then northward to Darjeeling. For the return journey we wished to take a straight road south from Darjeeling to Dhaka if possible. I looked up some general maps, which showed that there was a road down from Darjeeling to Siliguri and Jalpaiguri and then on to Rangpur in Bangladesh, whereafter to Dhaka. To be doubly sure I asked two colleagues in the High Commission whose positions gave them the ability theoretically to get accurate information about the real situation on the ground even if they did not have it with them. One of them said that the road from the border in the north to Rangpur was difficult but manageable. The other told me that he knew an American who had only recently travelled from Jalpaiguri to Rangpur by car and said that the road was motorable though in a bad state of repair. Armed with this information we planned on taking the direct road south from Darjeeling to Dhaka on our return journey. The journey from Dhaka to Kolkata was smooth and free of any mishap. So was the rest of our visit to Darjeeling.
Our return journey seemed to augur well. We motored down from Darjeeling to Jalpaiguri to Haldibari and then down the road towards Bangladesh until, at one point, the road ended. Ahead were rice fields and then a rather deep and wide depression in the ground. It was pouring on that end of September day. In front of us we saw a peasant with a bundle on his head walking across the fields towards us. We asked him if there was a police post nearby. He told us there was an Indian border post not far away on our east and pointed in its direction. We walked about half a kilometre in the rain through a tree-covered area to what turned out to be an Indian Border Observation Post. Those armed Border Security Force men at the Observation Post looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. Wet, lost, and helpless as we were, we could not have appeared dangerous and were allowed to climb up to their platform. We told them who we were and what we were doing there. They told us there were nowhere within a wide radius of that place immigration or customs facilities or a road into Bangladesh for car, man or beast to travel on and advised us to go back some ten kilometres to Haldibari to ask the police there.
At Haldibari we sought out the head of the local police. This gentleman said he had spent the last ten years at various places on the Indo-Bangladesh border between Kolkata and Jalpaiguri and that he knew the whole area very well. There was no place anywhere in North Bengal where it was possible to cross into Bangladesh through customs and immigration posts. He told us that such roads as were shown on maps leading from India into Bangladesh had all been cut for military reasons by the Pakistan Army during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 and had not been repaired since then. He then said the only other place where we might possibly cross into Bangladesh without going to Kolkata was Hili in West Dinajpur District of West Bengal. The border there was a railway line and the crossing was a level crossing. Hili was some 100 kilometres east of Raiganj in West Dinajpur District on the road from Siliguri to Kolkata, the main north-south road in West Bengal. The Haldibari police chief advised us that before leaving the Siliguri-Kolkata road to turn eastward to Hili, we should check with the Sub-divisional Officer at Raiganj whether at all it was possible to cross at Hili or else we might make a futile journey only to come back to the Siliguri-Kolkata road.
Thus advised we turned back to Siliguri and then southwards towards Kolkata. At Raiganj, I asked to see the Sub-divisional Officer. The head of the West Dinajpur District, the District Magistrate, was on a visit and was staying there that night. It is he who met us. He was welcoming and willingly helpful. We took our dinner and the next morning’s breakfast with him and were lodged for the night in the same bungalow as him. He not only checked up and told us that it was possible to cross by car at Hili but said he would send a message to the local police and the Border Security Force asking them to give us all help when we arrived at Hili. He also said that he was not sure about the condition of the road in Bangladesh between Hili and Joypurhat some twenty kilometres south. He sent a message to his intelligence people at his headquarters. By the next morning he had received advice from his headquarters that the road was bad but we could make slow progress on it by car. We had the best local information with us about the conditions of our onward journey when we took the road to Hili that morning.
At Hili in mid-morning, the local police met us and, between them and the border police and customs, ensured that our crossing into Bangladesh was quick and smooth. Just before we left Indian territory to go over that railway track, one of the Indian police officers—belonging, I did not know to which organization—called in a Bangladesh Rifles man from the other side of the border to tell him who we were and where we were going, adding that from then on we were their responsibility.
Crossing into Bangladesh, we were asked to wait at a government bungalow. While waiting I spotted a group of three or four men squatting on the ground near the rail tracks who did not speak Bengali. I asked them where they were from originally. They had come to East Pakistan from a place a few kilometres south of Buxar. They were evidently part of that population which still swore allegience to Pakistan, remained unintegrated with the local Bengali population, waiting to be taken to Pakistan except that Pakistan would not have them. To their delight, I talked to them for a while in Bhojpuri, the speech of Buxar. After some time when I had moved away to deal with some issue I overheard them tell their Bengali neighbours how much superior to them ‘their’ people were, proudly pointing at us saying we were people from ‘their’ land. Everything in the supposed mental make up of these people should have made them hostile to us, for people like them had been archetypical ‘collaborators’ during the war of liberation of Bangladesh.
Some half an hour after we had crossed, a flustered looking major from Bangladesh Rifles came along. He asked who I was and relaxed when I told him I was a counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. He explained that he had heard I was the Indian High Commissioner and had sent a message to his area headquarters at Rangpur, which had advised him that I could not be the High Commissioner as the Indian High Commissioner was on a tour in the region of Rangpur—I knew that Acting High Commissioner Kamal Bakshi would around that time have been visiting a Buddhist stupa at Mahasthan and some other places in the environs. I told the major as much. Having reassured him that I was not an imposter, I told him that I would like to move along as soon as possible. He asked us to wait a while longer and went away to come back with two police constables saying they would travel with us till Joypurhat. When I demurred he said sharply that as an army officer he knew the meaning of responsibility adding that the Indian police had told his people that after we crossed into Bangladesh we were their responsibility. He explained that the constables would not only protect us but would organize local help, just in case.
As we started we were told that the road was perfectly all right except within the village where the car would need to be pushed through muddy lanes. Half a dozen men were organized and we progressed through the village more on human muscle power than the power of the internal combustion engine. Once out of the village we moved short distances alternately on engine power and human power through shallow or deep slush. At every stage the villagers would say that just a little bit further we would hit dry motorable road. For full two hours or more some twenty people followed the car or pushed it over a distance of around two and a half kilometres when the road entered a pool of brown water fifteen to twenty feet long and wide and probably three or four feet deep. There were paddy fields on the either side. Crossing the pool seemed impossible until the villagers dug and brought enough earth to fill one side of the pool to make a passage wide enough along the edge for the car to cross over to the other side.
Watching us from the other side of the pool was a bemused gentleman who asked us where we were going as we crossed over. He told us that it was impossible to drive to Joypurhat as the road was worse further on and on the way there would be more than a dozen pools of the kind we had just crossed. He was in charge of the Bangladesh Rifles Observation Post, about one hundred metres down the road from where we were. He agreed that we could leave the car in the compound of the Border Post till I could come back when the roads were dry and drive to Dhaka. We were given tea and biscuits. There was a train the next morning which we could take to the ferry point where we could cross the river and then go on to Dhaka. We would have to go back to Hili to spend the night there. A train that was going to Hili around the end of that afternoon was flagged down so we could travel three kilometres back to Hili. On the moving train, even on that three-kilometre journey, it was a curious sight to see people throw small packets or bundles to the Indian side of the railway track as well as catch other similar bundles lobbed at them from below. Moments before the train pulled into Hili station, all this activity ceased.
Tired, hungry, dishevelled and in low spirits we were back at the government bungalow in Hili. In the evening a benevolent looking NCO from Bangladesh Rifles, white haired and with a flowing white beard brought us food from his camp and sat and watched with solicitude while we ate in that dimly lit room. The food was tasty but also the memory of that man’s concern for us has remained. He had insisted on bringing us breakfast the next morning before we took our train saying one should never start on a journey on an empty stomaach. In the train one of our fellow travellers, an army man, was also travelling to Dhaka. He decided to be our guide and protector till we arrived in Dhaka. While I waited in Dhaka for the roads to dry up Bangladesh Rifles Headquarters in Dhaka kept me informed every two or three days that my car was being looked after well. They would probably have kept other people in Bangladesh government informed too. We had after all created a border incident of sorts.
A colleague in the High Commission in Dhaka asked me if I would do that journey again. I said I would, meaning I would not be deterred by the fear of meeting the difficulties we met when we travelled on that road. If I was asked that question again, a quarter century later, I would answer in the negative, for the thought of going back to Bangladesh has never appealed to me.