Sunday, May 6, 2007

Bangladesh's nuclear dreams: Will India oblige?

A recent report on Zee News has stated that Bangladesh has asked for India's help in setting up a 600MW nuclear reactor in its quest to generate 1500 MW of nuclear energy to meet the current shortfall.

(the report may be found at

Whether it is in India's interest to oblige remains to be seen. There's the Indo-US nuclear deal that is yet to finish the marathon. The fact remains that every step that India takes will be watched very very closely by the members of the NSG, all of whom must be convinced that it is in their interest to supply India with technology and material. There is also the fact that India is not a part of the Nuclear structure. A small step like this would be quickly seized upon by the Non-proliferation ayatollahs as a sign of Indian 'nuclear proliferation'.

Then, there is the general Western mistrust of nuclear power in the hands of a muslim country. The Euro-centric world-view is a carryover from the age of Empires, and will take some time to get over. The delay and debate in making Turkey an EU member is a prime example, as is the continuing crisis in East Asia.

Yet another reason to think carefully is the pitfall of over-enthusiasm on the part of the government. Although it would appear that helping out Bangladesh would cement our influence, that may not be the case, and may be counter-productive in the long run.

The previous NDA regime did greatly improve relations between India and the world, and in a sense, helped smoothly usher India into the nuclear age, as a confident, if sometimes gawky member of the Nuclear club. However, it neglected the surrounding smaller countries that are crucial for Indian influence in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region. Problems in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives were ignored.

The UPA government has quietly repaired the bridges that had rusted during the BJP days. It has improved relations with Burma, quietly eased problem in Nepal (remember Karan Singh's trip to Kathmandu), and reiterated the warm relations with Male and Bhutan. Relations with Pakistan have been solidified. Most of these have been built on the foundations the NDA laid in the early part of its second tenure, but forgot to build upon.

Still, to assume that Bangladesh is a friend and ally would be sheer folly. A country where the leaders use the canard of Indian Imperialism and anti-Hindu rhetoric to garner votes is to be handled cautiously and pragmatically. Nuclear cooperation indicates a close relationship, which we certainly do not have.

On the contrary.

We must remember that Bangladesh is a close ally of China, which is building a port and railways, supplying weapons and aid. Pakistan's ISI has started using Dhaka as a nice launching base for operations that it is unable to do from the west. This is not Hydel or Thermal energy we are talking about. It is nuclear power, technology that can easily be misused, and something that takes years to develop. why would India give up the technology that has been developed by it and risk our painstakingly built expertise in Reactor design to espionage from Pakistan and China (a very likely possibility).

Bangladeshi stability is another worrying factor. Islamists are gaining momentum, and a disturbing trend of terrorism has taken root in Bangladesh. Persecution of Hindus is regular, established and even condoned. Then there is the matter of Support to ULFA and other NE rebel groups, which has remained a thorn on the Indian state. Massive infiltration of refugees (for want of a more appropriate term) still continues, and firing by the BDR continues.

Dhaka's repeated stonewalling of the Oil pipeline from Myanmar has also irritated New Delhi. Under all these circumstances, is it wise to offer our technology to Bangladesh to satisfy its energy needs, especially when it continues to stymie ours? Probably not.

And yet, there may be many valid and excellent reasons to go ahead and help Dhaka. If we don't supply, then China will. This project would be a great way of creating influence in the country. it would also be a nice way to validate our local designs. It might also work well as a bargaining chip. As for the above issues, there will always be the argument that India must not ignore or antagonize Bangladesh but work with it and move it away from China and Pakistan's sphere of influence. Most of the other problems can be worked out. Personally, this seems to be an acceptable preposition, albeit a risky one, with doubtful long-term benefits for us.

Can we use this opportunity to bridge our discords with Dhaka and usher in better relations? Yes, we can. But it would require us to give up some of our prejudices and previous positions, and take a leap of faith, while requiring the same of Bangladesh. For that, we must be firm.

It might work if our Policy makers ignore Gandhi and Nehruvian idealism for some hard-nosed realpolitik, and invoke Sun-Tze. We must be benevolent towards our neighbour, but it must be aware that our patience is not granted, and if angered, we will act forcefully. Unfortunately, that has rarely happened in the land where we can lose thousands to terrorism and yet only come up with a condolence note.

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