Is Cosmopolitanism Dead? The View From Bangladesh – OpEd


Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the greatest philosophers of our time, like Diogenes (404-434) BC would like us to believe that the we live in a cosmopolitan world though Britain has voted for Brexit; Americans have voted Donald Trump to the White House; and the French have given almost 40% votes to Marianne La Penne, the highest Front National had ever got in general elections. Europe is struggling with the immigrant issue broadening it to a much larger quest of European identity.

Would the immigrant dilute the French identity (France has the largest number of immigrants)? This question reverberated during the recently held Dutch elections and could gain prominence in the upcoming German elections. Years back Angela Merkel, Berlusconni and Giscard D’estaing had reached the conclusion that multiculturalism was dead as the fissures created by religion, culture and language among others were too deep to be compressed to create one identity.

But then argument in favor of cosmopolitanism is strong if one were to borrow from the results of Human Genome Project of evolutionary biology that all human beings (homo sapiens) share a common ancestor who lived in Africa in the remote past, between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. The great divide between the First and the Third world coupled with the technological advancement achieved by the First leading to a long period of colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America during which period the metropolis enriched themselves with stolen wealth from the periphery which the colonies were forced to cede to the colonizers.

Thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was totally opposed to Winston Churchill’s cherished desire to hold on to the British colonies twentieth century saw colonies after colonies getting their independence. Albeit many were not then prepared to govern themselves with cosmopolitan ideas of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and so on and had overtime turned into dictatorial regimes. But this teething problem with democratic governance more pronounced in Africa and less in Asia( Pakistan and Maldives excepted) is expected to go away with globalization, despite some recent brakes, and is bound to bring about a more unified world.

Critiquing Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization’s late Edward Said wrote( Clash of Ignorance-October 2001) “It was (Joseph)Conrad, more powerfully than any of his readers at the end of the nineteenth century could have imagined, who understood that the distinctions between civilized London and “the heart of darkness” quickly collapsed in extreme situations, and that the heights of European civilization could instantaneously fall into the most barbarous practices without preparation or transition”.

Yet to be optimistically philosophical and being a realist can be vastly different. The world has to grapple with North Korean dictator who appears to be unstable and does not care about the fate of his people if a conflagration were to take place. The other protagonist is Donald Trump who as the Americans have come to realize changes his mind and consequently the US position quite frequently. The election of Moon Jae-in as the President of South Korea who prefers a negotiated settlement with the North may not go down well with Donald Trump and may embolden Kim Jong-Un to further pursue his nuclear ambition.

Jonathan Pollack ( of Brookings Institution) thinks that as yet North Korea does not pose a direct threat to the US though it does to the Korean Peninsula and Japan; Nicholas Kristoff writes in the New York Times of Vice President Mike Pence’s remark that the era of strategic patience is over. But what can Donald Trump do? An attack on the North will invite intense retaliation on South Korea resulting in the death of thousands of Koreans and US army personnel stationed there. If the Americans were to cross the 38th parallel that demarcates the “border” between the North and the South Koreas then China would definitely step in. China which has a 1300 kilometers border with North Korea is committed to a nuclear free Korean peninsula but it pleads helplessness to rein in North Korean nuclear ambition unless the North’s source of threat to its security emanating from US presence in the South, the installation of THADD, and annual US-South Korean joint exercises are stopped. China supports resumption of the six nation negotiation process on Korean issue. It is difficult to imagine that China as the second largest economy in the world and flexing her muscles over the Sprattly Islands to the discomfort of her neighbors would sit quiet by if the US-North Korea erupts into a “major, major conflict”.

Nearer home Bangladesh has to contend with Sino-Indian-Pakistan tensions of several strains. While Pakistan remains a rouge state by any definition; its continuing violations of the Line-Of-Control along the Kashmir border and defacing killed Indian soldiers, sending terrorists across the border into Indian territory (terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament and the Mumbai attack can be given as two examples); and the latest being the death sentence passed by the Pak military on an Indian naval officer charged with espionage and trial held in camera. Pakistan created on two nations theory with the belief that Hindus and Muslims could not live together belying hundreds of years of history of the sub-continent of peaceful coexistence between the people of the two faiths has proved to be false time and again (liberation war of Bangladesh and the current agitation in Beluchistan for separation from Pakistan to name two examples).

Pakistan’s leading historian Ayesha Jalal in her books The Sole Spokesman, The Pity of Partition, Self and Sovereignty, The Struggle for Pakistan, The State of Martial Rule had delved deeply into the history of the partition of British India. In an interview ( Herald April 13 2017) Ayesha Jalal said: Jinnah did not want Partition, in case people have forgotten that, Similarly, when the United Bengal plan was floated, Jinnah said it was better that Bengal remained united. She added: We know it led to about 60 years of Nehruvian dynasty. This dynasty would never have come about if Punjab and Bengal were not divided. Uttar Pradesh would never have dominated Indian politics. Punjab and Bengal would have called the shots. Where would Nehru be in that case? The Congress basically cut the Muslim problem down to size through Partition. But, in the process, it threw us out of India. Our cultural heritage is all there. Jinnah never gave up on that heritage. He fought tooth and nail that the name “India” should not be allotted to the Congress. He called the place Hindustan until he lost.

Be it as it may the reality is India and Pakistan- two nuclear nations- at daggers drawn since their independence from the British and Pakistan despite being militarily defeated by India several times would love to pounce upon India at the slightest pretext. Of course Pakistan can always depend upon China for all kinds of support including perhaps military. But a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan is a global nightmare particularly for neighbors. Such a war would certainly mean the extinction of Pakistan and incalculable damage to India. ‘A regional war between India and Pakistan, for instance, has the potential to dramatically damage Europe, the US and other regions through global ozone loss and climate change.’(London Review of Books- BooksV OL 39 No 10 18th May 2017 A Murderous History of Korea Bruce Cumings)

Though recently Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui argued that China had no intention to get involved in the sovereignty and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan and told the Indians that China had modified its position on Kashmir from a support for UN resolutions till the 1990s to support for a “settlement through bilateral negotiation in line with the Simla Agreement”. On the question of India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group the Chinese ambassador said that China did not oppose Indian membership but wanted that a “standard for admission should be agreed first”. Despite these verbal assurances China has a lurking suspicion that India with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and others would form a ring around China in case of a showdown in the Pacific.

In any discussion of politico-economic relations in this region one has to mention the One Belt One Road (OBOR) proposed by China. China thinks that India joining the initiative would be beneficial as India is now at least 13 years behind China and has the disadvantage of a comparatively less developed neighbours compared to China’s proximity to Hongkong, Japan and Singapore. Besides the wind of protectionism, anti-globalisation and anti-free trade blowing in the West would stand in the way of Indian aspiration to further develop its economy. But India is yet to be fully convinced of the efficacy China Pakistan Economic Corridor. According to former Indian Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon CPEC lacks economic justification though strategically it may be important to the two participating countries. Besides Menon points out that the corridor would pass through some of the lawless and insecure parts of the world. Additionally the corridor would pass through some parts of Pakistan occupied Indian territory and any long term investment would be legitimising Pak occupation of those territories.

If one looks at Indo-Bangladesh relations these never looked better than it does now. Despite energy and connectivity that will facilitate trade (Bangladesh’s huge trade deficit with India. In FY 2016, Bangladesh’s export to India was USD 689.6 million while Bangladesh’s import from India was Us D 5,452.9 million) and investment between the two countries added to billions of dollars of Indian loans given to Bangladesh, impasse over Teesta river agreement has thrown a cloud over the relations.

Somehow there is a growing feeling in Bangladesh that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been given a raw deal by India during her latest visit to that country. Does Bangladesh have a valid reason to be aggrieved? It is estimated Teesta is a major supplier of water to the North-Western region of Bangladesh and twenty one million people are totally dependent of Teesta water for their livelihood. Due to India’s withdrwal of water upstream the water flow to Bangladesh has reduced from 6500 cusecs in 1997 to 1348 in 2006 and further to 300 cusecs in 2016. One could hardly blame Bangladesh for this maltreatment of upper riparian withdrawing water at the cost of the lower riparian. It would be difficult to convince the people of Bangladesh to remain quiet when it is believed that Indian Prime Minister has the constitutional power to overrule Mamta Banerjee and bring to life the Teesta agreement. Sooner it is done the better.

In the ultimate analysis strengthening Indo-Bangladesh relations in all fields will benefit both countries. We have the same heritage. To quote Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal “Our cultural heritage is all there. Jinnah never gave up on that heritage. He fought tooth and nail that the name “India” should not be allotted to the Congress”. With West Bengal we speak the same language and Rabindra Nath Tagore is as much our poet as he is of the people across the border drawn by Cyril Radcliff who had never visited British India before he was employed by then British government to partition India into two parts. The question that nations of the world would have to solve is whether contested sovereignty over territories that are difficult to recover without full-fledged war; or trying to influence relatively weaker in economic and military terms should be given preference over economic benefits to the citizens of countries concerned and then to the people of the world.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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