by rahnuma ahmed
TIMES NOW, a 24 hour English news channel, owned by the Times of India, based in Mumbai which broadcasts in India, Singapore and USA, ran an exclusive named “U.S. Eyes Bangladesh” on May 31, 2012.
The investigative report, which claims that the US wants to park its Seventh Fleet in a naval base in Chittagong — which has reportedly caught the Indian establishment “unaware” — was followed by its News Hour Debate, anchored by Times Now’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami.
The exclusive was widely reported in the Bangladesh media, spurring the foreign ministry to issue a press note which says the Times Now report is “baseless, unfounded and clearly fabricated.” No discussion regarding the use of Chittagong port by the United States to dock or park its Seventh Fleet has taken place. Not “at any level” between the two governments, not even during the recent visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (“Indian media report on US 7th fleet baseless: Dhaka,” BSS, in New Age, June 3, 2012).
One would hope so, particularly since the present regime has been less than forthcoming in matters crucial to national sovereignty.
For, after all, we’d learnt of the presence of US Special Forces in Bangladesh via Congressional hearings reported in the American media.
US Pacific Command admiral Robert Willard informed the hearing that South Asia as a whole was of “major strategic importance to the US.” That “security partnerships” were increasingly vital to the US Pacific Command’s mission. Special forces assist teams are currently laid down in Bangladesh, he said, as “part of the effort to enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities” (“US Special Forces are in Bangladesh,” bdnews24, March 2, 2012).
But so had India’s citizens. They too had learnt of US special forces being stationed in Indian soil through media reports of the Willard congressional hearing (Special forces are present in three other South Asian countries as well, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka; see Times of India report, “Counter-terrorism: US special forces stationed in India, reveals Pentagon,” March 2, 2012).
It was immediately denied by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MOE), and the Defence Ministry. Willard’s claim was dismissed as being “factually incorrect so far as the reference to India is concerned.”
Anger and outrage had followed. The Communist Party of India had demanded to know why the news had been kept under wraps, why the government had not taken the Parliament into confidence. Sections of the Indian media — not content with MOE’s assurances that India and the US occasionally conduct short duration special forces exercises in India, or with the Defence’s insistence that special forces were not “stationed” in India — had pointed out that it left open the question “whether a component of Pentagon’s special forces, who conduct operations of hazardous nature such as snatches, sabotage behind enemy lines or liquidation, were secretly stationed in the [American] embassy or one of the consulates – as they do in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan – to track, kill or assist in killing militants.” The question had been put to Indian officials, who, interestingly enough, had chosen to remain silent. (“No U.S. special forces in India,” The Hindu, March 3, 2012).
But to get back to Bangladesh, reticence is not particular to this regime; the previous government, the military-installed caretaker government of Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin (2007-2008), had not informed Bangladesh’s citizens either that representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Pacific Command, and US Border Patrol had completed a survey on border security in Bangladesh (see my “Re-constructing the nation: Imperial designers at work,” New Age, December 22, 2008). This news had later been echoed in WikiLeaks revelations of the US embassy’s cables from Dhaka (September 1, 2011).
All governments lie, had said American rebel journalist I. F. Stone, and, whether the present government too, is lying about this matter, is not known. Time will tell.
But today I write not about whether the US is planning to set up a naval base in the Bay of Bengal, but focus instead on how Times Now, through its reportage of the news (“unfounded” or not), attempted to forge “an Indian perspective” on the issue, albeit one which included both supporters (Maroof) and critics (Arnab, Wasbir, Chari) of the Seventh Fleet being housed in Chittagong — positions which can be briefly summarised as American hegemony vs. Indian hegemony. Arguments framed within the latter discourse were noticeable for forcibly denying Bangladesh an independent entity, for state-centric responses, rather than people-oriented ones. Also, for being ill-informed if not downright crass and idiotic. As when Arnab Goswami said, “when India carried out the liberation of Bangladesh..” Excuse me, “carried out”? But just in case there are a few Indian chamchas around, who, in defense of Goswami will rush to insist that it was an innocent slip of the tongue, I draw the attention of readers to the Telop underneath the screenshot (see photo) to point out that this was the tone and tenor of the whole programme. The Telop says, “Should India allow the American navy to use Bangladesh as its docking/ parking slot?” India allow?
My point about thick-headed Indian jingoism — to which Sikri was a notable exception
— must by now be so obvious to readers that I will not dwell on it further. I’d only like to add that one would have expected better from Goswami who was awarded best Broadcast journalist of India (2008-2009), an award presented by someone no less than the Indian president.
Now, to give full intros to the half dozen panelists who had been invited to the debate: Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation (from Washington), Veena Sikri, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh (2003-2006), Seshadri Chari, member of the National Executive Committee of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Maroof Raza, strategic affairs analyst, Wasbir Hussain, consulting editor of Times Now (from Gauhati), and Antony Ou, China representative in the Centre for Strategic Research and Analysis (from Hong Kong).
Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, when asked why America would want a stronger military or naval presence or a base in and around or within Bangladesh, immediately dubbed the story “a bunch of hype.” She spent the rest of her talk-time on mollifying Indian fears: the US and India enjoy a very strong relationship. The US would not consider adjusting its strategic posture in the region without consulting India. The US and India have the same concerns over Chinese policy in the maritime domain. Bangladesh is an important partner too, but to think that there is some kind of “secret agreement” between the two governments, one which does not take India into confidence, is why, nothing but sheer “hype.”
Flimsy words, baseless words which attempted to draw our attention away from the fact that the US has spawned a global empire of military bases. According to official sources, they number 737 (2005), installed, as American historian Chalmers Johnson had reminded us, in “other people’s countries.”
Which ignore other facts too, such as, a Heritage Foundation report on post-invasion Iraq which had proclaimed, “Protect Iraq’s energy infrastructure against internal sabotage or foreign attack to return Iraq to global energy markets and ensure that U.S. and world energy markets have access to its resources.” And, the report itself is titled (what else but?) — ‘In Post-War Iraq, Use Military Forces to Secure Vital U.S. Interests, Not for Nation-Building’ (Baker Spring and Jack Spencer, September 25, 2002).
Why bother to listen to shoddy propaganda, I thought, and turned to what Anthony Ou, representing the China line, had to say.
I was “surprised,” he said, for, if it is true why should Bangladesh agree to become “a strategic reference point for quote-unquote US imperialists?” Bangladesh and China have strong military (tanks, frigates, missile boats and fighter jets) and economic (third largest South Asia trading partner) ties. They have entered into many agreements signed when former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had visited Bangladesh in 2005. If problems do exist, surely these can be resolved through “peaceful arrangements, conversation [and] dialogue between the two states”?
But, said Arnab, no one wants the Bay of Bengal to become another South China Sea, where Chinese bases form a “string of pearl.”
Anthony, however, was not given a chance to respond, neither by Arnab, nor those who sat behind the control panel: other panelists were invited to speak, not him; when he persisted, his microphone was switched off, and finally, his frame/slot was deleted from the screen (shoddy technical work too, I thought, as I watched a brief shot of a color-coded countdown leader).
Wasbir, Time Now’s consulting editor, provided the case details: strategic consultations between the US and Bangladesh dates back to 2008 (later corrected by Sikri, 2006), the Americans had proposed to survey airfields, had wanted terrain intelligence and command post exercises, had wanted its marine fleet to reach inland waters as far in as Narayanganj. Wasbir also spoke of the apprehension and fear of people in the strategic community — former top commanders of the Bangladesh military intelligence, army generals — those who are “not part of the government.” Acceding to US overtures, they felt, would be an “absolute blunder,” a fear exacerbated by the fact that Sheikh Hasina faces elections next year. It might make the Bangladesh establishment to “actually go an extra mile” and concede to some of the American demands.
No mention of apprehension and fear among the ruling Awami League because of seething resentment among members of the public over relations with India: hundreds of miles of barbed wire fencing higher than Israel’s apartheid wall, trigger-happy border killings, sharing of river waters, sending electricity over the border. Unresolved chitmohols or enclaves.
It was left to Chari of the BJP to rationalise the hierarchy of nations in the region: India has a pre-eminent role in the Indian Ocean region. Neither the Chinese nor the American navy should settle in these waters, it should be “no go.” The US should not do anything unilaterally. We should not take anything that undermines India’s position and India’s strategic influence in the region lightly. We should remain alert. When invited to speak the second time round, Chari had gathered enough steam to say, America should not treat India in the same manner as it deals with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Myanmar. We are a powerful strategic partner in this region.
Maroof disagreed. Memories of America sending the Seventh Fleet in 1971 in aid of Pakistan are distant. History, time and strategic equations between Delhi and Washington have moved on. America’s desire to to re-engage with Burma, to get strategically involved in Bangladesh, benefits India. It gives her more batting time. Since India has limited resources, India’s strategic interests are better served by India playing the same game as the US.
Since this did not go down well with either Arnab or Wasbir or Chari, Maroof rebounded later with what he called a “simple question.” America has been in this region for 10 years, since the Af-Pak region is also near us, how has that interfered with India?
This question, obviously, was not taken up by any among those to whom it was addressed. The dismemberment of Pakistan, obviously, is in the Indian national interest.
Veena Sikri’s ideas of national interest were markedly different. India must strengthen its relations with its neighbours. Good relations would enable us to discuss such issues with our neighbours. There was no reason for India to like an American presence in the Bay of Bengal, because one in the west, in Pakistan and Afghanistan “had created its own problems.” We need to know what are America’s intentions, “is it against China, is it happening to control what is happening in South Asia, to control, to watch India’s role in South Asia.” India should concentrate her efforts on being on the same wavelength as her neighbours, to “build our own prosperity,” so that no “outside power[s]” can have the reason to intervene. Bangladeshis, she added, are a “very proud and independent people.” Their ready acceptance of a US naval base seems unlikely.
The Times Now Bureau Report had pointed out that a naval base in Chittagong could “put India on the backfoot.” If the Seventh Fleet is housed in Bangladesh, “all of India’s security installations will come under the scanner.” I myself am not too convinced given that the ties between Israel and India, according to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “don’t have any limitation” (1997). Reaffirmed by the Israeli ambassador to India who had said, “We do have a defence relationship with India, which is no secret. On the other hand, what is a secret is what is the defence relationship” (2008).
Indians, said Arnab, are “strongly vested in Bangladesh.” But probably, the real concern surfaced when Arnab asked, “Could it be possible that Bangladesh is taking advantage of its strategic uniqueness to get the most mileage out of China and America?”
He sounded worried for this would unsettle the Indian establishment’s hierarchical ordering of South Asian nations.