Friday, December 26, 2008

Will the Maitree Express turn out to be a train to nowhere?

- Will the Maitree Express turn out to be a train to nowhere?

The romance of the railroad generated confidence long before strategic
writers recognized connectivity as an essential element of bonding.
One of history's best-known examples is British Columbia's refusal to
join the Canadian federation until the Canadian Pacific Railway was
built. But romantics on either side of the Bengal-Bangladesh border
would be well advised not to be carried away by the heavy symbolism of
the flower-bedecked Maitree Express running for the first time in 43
years on Poila Baisakh.

True, India has no major political problem with Bangladesh, like the
Kashmir dispute with Pakistan or the border with China. But the state
of mind that generates mistrust is the most dangerous of all dividing
factors for it can breed monsters out of trivialities. So, when Pranab
Mukherjee told the Bangladeshi daily, Prothom Alo, that "the depth of
political relations between our two countries is now as deep as it
should be", it sounded like a realistic admission that, train or no
train, there never can be a return to the euphoric high noon that
animated the two Bengals in 1971. The external affairs minister's
compliment to the interim government for cooperating with India is
even more revealing. Despite its achievements, this government is not
politically accountable. It is an executive regime that can take
sensible decisions regardless of grassroots reactions but enjoys no
popular mandate. Precisely for that reason, it may also run counter to
the popular mood. An election may not uphold its values and virtues.

A small detail like the Maitree Express's change of engine and crew at
the border, however cordially carried out, highlights the absence of
trust between the two countries. Born on the rail track, as it were,
and bred in railway saloons and station retiring rooms, I have a nose
for these minutiae. For all the bickering between Singapore and
Malaysia, the train from Kuala Lumpur drives right into Singapore's
heart. The quaint little station at Tanjong Pagar, the tracks, rolling
stock and staff all belong to Malayan Railways. The same crew and
engine serve the entire route. There would be no train if Singapore
demanded proprietary rights. In the early Fifties, the vivid green
Parbatipur Express, with its huge white Arabic lettering, swept past
our bungalow in Kanchrapara as a mobile manifestation of Pakistan's
Islamic personality. I doubt if the engines and crew were Indian.

As a reporter covering Ireland's Troubles in the late Sixties, I often
rode the train from Belfast in British-held, fiercely Protestant
Northern Ireland to Dublin, mellow capital of the predominantly
Catholic Irish republic, and back. No one was aware of when and where
we crossed the border. Yet, those were the days when the Provos, the
murderous Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Royal Ulster
Constabulary each defended its pitch with the fervour they devoted to
god and Caesar. The railway could be ignored because the substance —
Protestant supremacy, Catholic emancipation — mattered more than the

For Bengalis, the symbol always takes precedence over the substance.
The tearful passengers on the train were refugees of the spirit,
dwelling nostalgically on the innumerable plates of chicken curry they
had devoured (or had heard of being devoured) on the pre-partition
Goalundo-Narayanganj steamer. Their objective is not sound political
and economic relations between the Republic of India and the People's
Republic of Bangladesh with an 89.7 per cent Muslim population whose
'state religion' is Islam. They yearn for the consolation of a mythic
East Bengal where hilsa was sold as a whole fish, not chopped into
pieces, and a goat slaughtered for meat.

I say 'mythic' because there are far more East Bengal zamindars in
Calcutta today than ever existed in real life east of the Padma. But
real or imagined, that lifestyle presumed a communal hierarchy —
Muzaffar Ahmed of the National Awami Party called it the "two-hookah"
culture — that played no small part in East Bengal's choice in 1947.
Beneath the bravado, Bangladesh lives in neurotic fear of attempts to
undo that decision. So does Pakistan. When a sentimental Bengali
gushed during the Calcutta visit of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's
suave former high commissioner, that the British mischief of partition
should be undone so that India could be united, he saw it as further
evidence of Hindus still not being reconciled to Pakistan.

There are some similarities with Russia's complex-ridden relations
with Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They have little in common with
each other but are strongly united in their suspicion of Russia, of
which they were once a part. Azerbai- jan's breakaway region of
Abkhazia, the secessionist Tskhinvali area of Georgia and Ukraine's
flirtation with the North American Treaty Alliance would not have
looked like serious casus belli if it had not been for underlying
misgivings. But there is a difference with the subcontinent. Russia
aggressively cuts off gas pipelines, threatens Nato missiles and makes
open overtures to breakaway regions. India is placatory, overlooking
even an estimated 12 to 18 million illegal migrants in our midst.

That does not appease a people who may now have revised their
liberation history, but who are haunted by the fear that what was done
in 1971 can be done again. That apprehension surfaced within months of
Mujibur Rahman's return to Dhaka, to the disgust of India's first high
commissioner, Subimal Dutt, who was a member of the Indian Civil
Service but also from a modest Chittagong family, and culminating in
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's visit in August 1974, months before the night of
Dhaka's long knives. Visible linkages like trains do have a place in
diplomacy, but mainly to impress and involve the populace in official
goodwill initiatives. That counts for little among an effervescent
people whose quick changes of mood are woven into my childhood
memories of Direct Action Day when it was "Allah ho akbar!" one moment
and "Hindu-Mussalman bhai-bhai!" the next.

Even if the next set of elected Bangladeshi politicians retains the
present regime's efforts, there is no guarantee that political
exigencies will not tempt them again to change course. Paradoxically,
the Bangladesh-India relationship is part of the equation between the
two Bengals that is subject to all the emotional vicissitudes captured
by Muzaffar Ahmed's two-hookah analogy compounded by the village-city
complex. Dhaka may long ago have far outstripped Calcutta, as rich
Bangladeshis never tire of reiterating, but objective fact does not
exorcise subjective reaction rooted in the past. If Bangladeshis had
not been so mercurial, Inder Kumar Gujral would not have warned, when
he was in office, against buying Titash gas direct even from Hasina
Wajed's government, suggesting that only a multinational middleman
could absorb shocks. New Delhi's insistence even now on protecting the
train and Mukherjee's "as deep as it should be" are reminders of
strictly limited expectations.

The emotional Bengali public is another matter. Large sections of it
imagined in 1971 that Epar Bangla Opar Bangla were about to unite.
Even if that hope was belied, they expected free travel without the
fuss and bother of passports and visas. That, too, was just wishful
thinking, as any Indian who had suffered the indignity of the
foreigners' registration office in Dhaka's Lal Bagh should know.
Bangladeshi uniforms have replaced Pakistani uniforms, but the men
inside are still the same.

Some caveats must be entered. There has always existed in Bangladesh a
substantial, reasonably liberal constituency that harbours only
friendly feelings for India. Greater interaction, courtesy Maitree
Express and other follow-up forms of communication, may strengthen
this lobby and help to dissolve Bangladeshi reserve. On the other
hand, too many people from Calcutta, especially non-Bengali traders,
may again arouse economic fears. Also, the understandable and
unavoidable ambivalence of Bangladeshi Hindus, about 9 per cent of the
population, is a permanent irritant. The Maitree Express is an
attractive idea, but no one should be surprised if it turns out to be
a train to nowhere.


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