The South Asian Tic-Tac-Toe

 Published in: The Daily Star on February 10, 2016

It took me ten hours to reach Islamabad from Dhaka via Bangkok. Other options available were via Doha and similar other places. A journey that could have taken only four hours ended up being almost 12. On the 13th hour, after crossing five security checkpoints, and reaching the hotel, I received a text on my phone on February 1 from my children. The text read: “So worried for you. Are you safe?” My safety has never been an issue. The question of being insecure even in the farthest corner of the globe is not applicable here in my case. But then again, I was in ‘Islamabad’ when I got the SMS. A Bangladeshi diplomat had just been released in Islamabad after he went missing and this had made breaking news. The report also read that this was perhaps done in retaliation. A Pakistan High Commission staff Abrar Ahmed Khan was detained at our end for his “suspicious movement”; therefore, this led Islamabad to retaliate and pick up Jahangir Hossain, personal officer of the press wing at Bangladesh High Commission. This is certainly news and does not make a great story, especially at a time when a few of us were attending a South Asian meeting in Pakistan to focus on economic collaboration. At a time when trust was the most critical issue amongst the South Asian countries, for all of us there, it was imperative to say our stories with utmost candour. Therefore news of this nature shook us up to a certain extent, especially when none of us wanted to broach the subject and risk a diplomatic failure. As recent chronology would have it, Pakistan High Commissioner Shuja Alam was summoned by us on February 2, and then Bangladesh High Commissioner Suhrab Hossain ended up being summoned to the Pakistan Foreign Ministry only 48 hours ago. While Fareena Arshad of Pakistan High Commission had to leave Dhaka in December, the Bangladeshi diplomat Moushumi Rahman was asked to leave Pakistan, right after, on January 5 on a 48-hour notice. This is somewhat an old South Asian story.

In reality, South Asia remains a hostage to all these strategic sub-regional ‘tic-tac-toe’. And common people like us wonder whether we are losing out on the regional fast track route, just because we don’t know any better and just because   the inner fears of a South Asian often hover around the lines of alignment with only two states, India and Pakistan. These sub regional tensions often prompt silence or indifference. And at the end, many a truth cannot be shared, uttered or even whispered in circles sensitive to diplomacy. However, a few episodes must be aired without fear or obstruction…So here we are.

Strangely the intra-South Asian trade has dipped to 4 percent in 2015. While Modi rigorously tweets about South Asian oneness and names prosperity for all in the region as his vision, while inaugurating the South Asian Games, the rest of South Asia wonders whether any of what he says will ever dispel the fear psychosis that many of us have on being overwhelmed by our big neighbour. The regional irritants, namely bureaucracy, non-standardisation and mindsets, have often resulted in a few negative issues, including the decline in trade. But then there are so many more channels in between the Pakistani and the Indian traders, including Dubai and Singapore. Who could stop trade there? In fact, who even counted? Who could ever stop the trading in the eight border haats that lie in between Bangladesh and India? Who could ever stop the flow of people? Who could ever stop Pakistanis from watching Indian movies and who could ever stop Indians from buying Pakistani shalwar kameez? Absolutely no one.

Yet, the intra-regional trade in 2013-2014 has been 460 million, a full 100 million lesser than the year before. With India formally importing $460 billion and Bangladesh only $460 million, which is 1/10th of 1 percent, isn’t there unimaginable potential that exists between the two countries that need to be taken into consideration before we resort to our usual rhetoric of our over-dependence on India? With a huge region to export to, one wonders how Bangladesh only exported $456 million to India, only when the total Bangladeshi export totalled $30 billion, with only 1.9 percent being exported to SAARC, whereas Bangladeshi export to EU was 54 percent, North America 24 percent, rest of Asia 11 percent and to the rest of the world 9 percent.  On another note, Bangladesh imported only 17 percent of its total import from SAARC while the rest 83 percent came from the other regions of the world. Centre for Policy Dialogue reports that only 10 percent reduction in trade related documentation will lead to 7 percent increase in bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh. In reality, there are hard infrastructure issues and soft regulatory issues that dampen the South Asian landscape. But what stands undeterred is the will of the people who make and break barriers, and disallow Felanis being stitched to the fence.

Towards the end of my first evening in Islamabad, I strolled into the malls to check out the products. The very first hushed whisper caught my attention: “Ahhh, Bangladeshi! Aaah Jamdani!” I loved the feeling. It was a warm one, after a long, long time. As a seven year old in 1971, I had never thought that there would be a day when I would be able to freely visit Pakistan and cover my wounds. To be honest, the wound is still very sore and beyond healing, but every time I looked at a young Pakistani, I failed to connect her to what “they” had done to us 44 years ago. I guess that’s where the new South Asian conscience needs to emerge, way beyond the burdening historical hurt.