July 3, 2022, 9:22 pm


Dr Syed Anwar Husain

Published:
2020-03-17 16:29:56 BdST

Architect of formative phase of Bangladesh foreign policy


Bangladesh is a small state; and at its birth, besides being small, it was also weak. Smallness and structural weakness resulted from the circumstances at the time of its birth. The nine-month long Liberation War and the deliberate Pakistani strategy of wanton destruction and plunder had left the nation with very few resources to eke out an honourable living on its own. Consequently, the prime thrust of this nation's policy – domestic and foreign, was to devise a survival strategy. 

Under such circumstances, the major goals of foreign policy of this new state were preservation of national independence and territorial integrity, quest for recognition from as many countries as possible with a view to establishing diplomatic relations with them, acquiring economic and technical assistance from different sources; and finally, to secure the membership of the United Nations. The foreign policy that gradually took shape under those most trying circumstances was, for understandable reasons, impacted heavily, by the ideas, ideals and directions given by Bangabandhu. 

Because of his pivotal role in the freedom struggle, as well as his overpowering charisma, Bangabandhu played the central role in policy-making in the new state. He made some statements that foreshadowed the foreign policy. One such frequently quoted statement was about making Bangladesh "the Switzerland of South Asia." This was a short but loaded statement that provided the perceptual basis of Bangladesh foreign policy. Another statement of similar significance required Bangladesh to pursue friendship with all, and malice towards none. The position of Bangladesh vis-à-vis the Muslim countries was indicated by Bangabandhu in his home-coming address on 10 January 1972 (after having been freed from Pakistani captivity), wherein he emphasised that Bangladesh was the second largest Muslim country, while Pakistan was the fourth. The loud and clear message was that despite being secular, politically, Bangladesh had to be accorded a significant position in the community of Muslim nations because of the sheer size of its Muslim population. While receiving the peace prize at the Asian Peace Conference held in Dhaka on 23 May 1973, Bangabandhu made clear the position of Bangladesh vis-à-vis the cause of world peace in the following words:

We do not believe in the arms race. We seek the friendship of all nations in order to promote the welfare of the oppressed and exploited people everywhere. . . we are. . . following a positive, non-aligned foreign policy by keeping ourselves aloof from the military power blocs. Promotion of international peace and solidarity is not merely the policy of the government; it has been enshrined in our constitution as one of the fundamental principles of state policy. 

Up to August 1975, the personal image of Bangabandhu acted as the single most important catalyst in ensuring the desired spin-offs for Bangladesh foreign policy. The major goals and directions thus set in those formative years have remained basically unchanged in the subsequent turbulent years.

South Asia

Geo-politically, Bangladesh belongs to South Asia. The task of pursuing foreign policy goals in this region has always proved to be a difficult one because of the historical legacy of inter-state tension and the circumstances that led to the emergence of Bangladesh. However, at the same time, the national objective of safeguarding the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, renders peaceful borders and friendly regions a major policy concern. Those are the concerns that compelled Bangladesh subsequently to conceive frameworks for regional and sub-regional cooperation. 

As the largest and strongest nation in South Asia, India tops the list of Bangladesh's foreign policy concern. Moreover, Bangladesh is literally India-locked on its three sides; and even the southern sea opening is under the preponderant influence of the Indian navy that has no parallel in the regional waters. The special and idyllic relationship in which Bangladesh and India found themselves following the Liberation War began with a dramatic turn. Without having first consulted Indian authorities, Bangabandhu declared an early withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh; an issue, if left to linger, would have certainly strained bilateral relations even during that euphoric phase. When on 8 February 1972, Bangabandhu met Indira Gandhi, the latter faced a fait accompli; and it was agreed that the Indian troops would be withdrawn by March 1972. 

Bangladesh was successful in arriving at an array of bilateral arrangements with India consummated in treaties/agreements; the major ones are:

1.    Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace (19 March 1972);
2.    India-Bangladesh Trade Agreement (28 March 1972);
3.    New Trade Agreement (5 July 1972);
4.    Land Boundary Agreement (16 May 1972);
5.    Indo-Bangladesh Agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (27 August 1974);
6.    India-Bangladesh Air Agreement (3 July 1974);
7.    India-Bangladesh Cultural Agreement (27 September 1974) and 
8.    Indo-Bangladesh ad-hoc agreement on Farakka (18 April 1975)

The first of these was a treaty that was slated to serve a symbolic purpose for the new-born and diplomatically isolated country. By the ad hoc agreement on Farakka Bangladesh was to receive 44,000 cubic meters per sec of the Ganges water during the lean season; the quantum was the highest in comparison with what Bangladesh received subsequently.

In South Asia, the only other country impinging heavily on Bangladesh's interests is Pakistan. In 1972, Bangladesh's concern vis-à-vis Pakistan included such issues as recognition, repatriation of Bengalees from Pakistan, repatriation of non-Bengalis from Bangladesh; and securing of assets worth 24 billion dollars. By 1973, repatriation of Bengalis from Pakistan was nearly completed; and on 22 February 1974, Pakistan recognised Bangladesh. The remaining two issues still remain unsolved.

The greatest achievement of Bangladesh foreign policy, over the years, has been to endow a volatile region like South Asia with the first ever framework for regionalism. The cooperative regime that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) subsequently translated into a reality was indeed foreseen by Bangabandhu, while speaking at a public reception in Kolkata on 6 February 1972. He exhorted the leaders of South Asia in the following words:

. . . Let us bring to an end once and for all the sterile policy of confrontation between neighbours. Letus not fritter away our national resources but use them to lift the standard of living of our people. We should not be wanting with all concerned for creating an era of peace in South Asia, where we could live side by side as good neighbours and pursue constructive policies for the benefit of our people. 

Muslim Countries 

On account of intensive anti-Bangladesh campaigning by Pakistan during the Liberation War, initially, most of the Muslim countries acted inimically toward Bangladesh. They held the emerging Bangladesh as anti-Islamic. However, immediately after the independence, Bangladesh sent special envoys to the Arab world to counter Pakistani propaganda and explain its secular position on the principles of democracy. An intensive diplomatic initiative and the growing image of Bangabandhu as the champion of peoples' rights helped clear their misgivings about Bangladesh. As a result, most of the Muslim countries recognised Bangladesh before August 1975.

The first sign that the Muslim countries had begun changing their attitude towards Bangladesh was evident at the 1972 meeting of the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation AAPSO.The meeting condemned the genocide and atrocities committed by the Pakistan military junta. With full support of the majority of the Arab states, Bangladesh was admitted as a member of AAPSO on 27 March 1972. In the same year, UAR, Iraq and South Yemen voted in favour of Bangladesh's membership in the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Fourth Non-aligned Summit (September 1973) witnessed some dramatic developments bearing directly on Bangladesh's relations with the Muslim countries. After Bangabandhu's meeting with King Faisal, a Saudi spokesman commented that Bangladesh was a better understood country in the Arab world, than ever before. Bangabandhu's meeting with the Libyan leader Qadhafi resulted in what might be called a melting of the ice. After the meeting, Qadhafi, until then with anti-Bangladesh attitudes, voluntarily led a prayer for the prosperity of Bangladesh. 

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Bangladesh's close identification with the Arab cause had the impact described by an Arab correspondent to his Bangladeshi counterpart in the following words: "Your Prime Minister [Mujib] has won half of Africa including the Arab world in a big battle without firing a single shot". The epitome of the success of Bangabandhu's diplomacy was the membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) granted to Bangladesh on 23 February 1974. It is worth mentioning that by joining the OIC Bangladesh did not compromise its secular character. As Bangabandhu made it clear "we are willing to join the summit meeting (Lahore) notwithstanding the fact that 80 percent of our total population being Muslims, we are a secular state." It is thus clear that whatever the consolidation of  the Bangladesh-Muslim countries relationship we witness in the post-1975 period had its clear beginnings during the pre-1975 period under the guidance of Bangabandhu. 

Big Powers

Immediately after independence, Bangladesh foreign policy appeared to demonstrate some kind of anti-Western stance. Such a stance originated out of the wounded psyche of Bangladesh because of the official policy of the U.S. Government, of not supporting the Liberation War. However, such an orientation of foreign policy was short-lived. Given the gargantuan need of Bangladesh for foreign aid/assistance and given the resource constraint of India and the Soviet Union (which had supported and aided the Liberation War) Bangladesh had to diversify its aid-seeking diplomacy. In the process, Bangladesh had to normalise its relations with the West and the Muslim World – the two major sources of aid for the Third World developing countries. As reported by one of his young supporters Bangabandhu said:

Why do you all the time plead for a pro-Russian policy? You should also take America into consideration. They have also helped us. I would pay everyone as per his due. None of them should be deemed dearest friend and arch-enemy. We have to maintain a balanced approach. 

Indeed, Bangabandhu advanced a balanced foreign policy for the new state of Bangladesh. It was based on objective reality that Bangladesh confronted as a fledging state immediately after independence.

Bangladesh in the International Scene

At independence Bangladesh entered the international scene with a profundity of public goodwill from all across the world, but with diplomatic recognition from two neighbours only: Bhutan and India. The Mujibnagar Government (the first government) had started its diplomacy for recognition as early as April 1971. Between 24 April and 4 December 1971, four letters had to be written before India could recognise Bangladesh, on 6 December. Bhutan recognised Bangladesh the following day. The primary concern of Bangladesh foreign policy was, therefore, to mount diplomatic offensive for a quick recognition from as many countries as possible. It goes to the credit of the government, headed by Bangabandhu, that by 1974, as many as 131 countries had recognised Bangladesh. By August 1975, China, Saudi Arabia Jordan and Iran were the countries which had not recognised Bangladesh. However, the background for facilitating recognition had been prepared during the pre-1975 days. In 1972, China, for example, had sent a Red Cross delegation to Bangladesh on a goodwill mission. In May 1975, China-Bangladesh trade pact was signed. A Bangladeshi diplomat, then serving as the Foreign Secretary, wrote about the progress in the establishment of diplomatic relations between these two countries: 

I mention that Chinese ambassadors in various capitals were unusually warm and friendly to the heads of our missions and we in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were encouraged by the signal. We concluded that before the end of 1975 normal relations with China would be restored. 

Bangladesh applied for UN membership in 1972, but had to go through an excruciating process of waiting for nearly two years for the membership. China voted against Bangladesh's membership, clearly to assist Pakistan in securing the release of Pakistani prisoners of war held in India. The US attitude was ambivalent. Eventually, however, the Tripartite Agreement of 9 April 1974, among Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and the mutual recognition between Bangladesh and Pakistan paved the way for Bangladesh's membership. On 17 September, a unanimous United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution admitted Bangladesh as the 134th member of the United Nations. With the UN membership Bangladesh became a fully-fledged member of the international community; and on 25 September, Bangabandhu addressed the 29th UNGA session in Bangla. 

Economic Diplomacy

The economic imperatives compelled Bangabandhu to diversify foreign policy and make it donor-oriented. Some of his opponents alleged that he was yielding to the Western block. But in reality, as Lawrence Lifschultz pointed out, it was "a desperate reaction to the crisis, not a firm commitment to principles". Consequently, the developed countries of the West appeared as the dominant donor group contributing 43 percent of the total aid commitment followed by 31 percent by the international agencies. The share of the socialist block and India stood at 21 percent, but the OPEC share stood at a meager 5 percent. A milestone in the early economic diplomacy was the trip of Bangabandhu to Japan, in October 1973, and his success in securing the Japanese aid commitment for the Jamuna bridge (completed and opened on 23 June 1998). On 5 November 1974, a Japanese delegation of experts visited Bangladesh and selected the site for the bridge. 

On 10 January 1972, Bangabandhu, having spent more than nine-months on death row of a Pakistan prison, took over the reins of government of a country that had been devastated during the same nine-month long Liberation War. Moreover, as a diplomatically isolated country with as yet no recognition from the international community, Bangladesh appeared initially to have a bleak and difficult future. It certainly goes to the credit of his leadership quality in that by mid-August 1975 (when he was brutally murdered) Bangladesh had achieved a firm footing in the comity of nations as a member of the world body as well as of other international bodies. Thus Bangabandhu was not only the architect of Bangladesh, he was also the architect of Bangladesh foreign policy. 

Concluding Observations 

Bangabandhu's accomplishments in crafting the foreign policy and foreign affairs of this new and delicate state were refreshingly outstanding. We have to bear in mind that as a new state Bangladesh had to start its journey in the international area in a very hostile environment. The superpower USA and the big power China, and also the Muslim world had not supported the Liberation War and remained inimical to the newly born state. Although USA recognised Bangladesh early in 1972, China remained unrecognised to Bangladesh's independence so much so that it relentlessly blocked Bangladesh's entry into the United Nations until 1974. But the foundation for normalishing relations with all such hostile countries was painstakingly laid under Bangabandhu's stewardship, and, but for which, the post-1975 expansion of relationship with these countries would have been problematic, if not entirely impossible. By the time Bangabandhu was brutally killed, Bangladesh had already effected a remarkable transition from its pathetic diplomatic isolation at birth to an exalted position as an honourable member of the international community. 

Dr Syed Anwar Husain is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)

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