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Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger train: A milestone in the strengthening of bilateral ties?

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Following the commencement of the Covid-19 epidemic, passenger rail services between Bangladesh and India were discontinued in March 2020. Before the suspension, two trains ran between the two countries: the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata and the Bandhan Express between Khulna and Kolkata.

But it’s a piece of good news for both Indian and Bangladeshi people that passenger train services between India and Bangladesh resumed Sunday (May 29, 2022), two years after they were suspended owing to the outbreak of the pandemic on March 28, 2020, with the Bandhan Express departing Kolkata for Khulna and the Maitree Express departing Dhaka for Kolkata. The Mitali Express, a third train has been already hailed by the two countries’ railway ministers on June 01, 2022.

Mitali Express, the third passenger train service connecting Bangladesh and India, began operating on Wednesday morning (June 01, 2022). In nine hours, the train will travel 513 kilometers between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka (Dhaka Cantonment station).

The Indian Railways Headquarters in New Delhi hosted the flag-off ceremony. The event’s main guests were Bangladesh’s Railway Minister Nurul Islam Sujan and his Indian counterpart Ashwini Vaishnav. The train will run on the Haldibari (India) – Chilahati (Bangladesh) line from New Jalpaiguri in India to Dhaka Cantonment Station in Bangladesh.

The new train and resumption of the two train services would not only improve people-to-people contacts between the two countries, but it is also intended to boost tourism between them. Shopping malls, hospitals, and low-cost hotels are also expected to be built in the vicinity, allowing people to move around the stations more easily. In the next days, a hospital, shopping malls, and low-cost motels must be available near the station. But both parties must remove all hurdles and complexities regarding the bilateral trans service. Visa- related complexities should be addressed properly. The Target should be the welfare of the people from both sides.  Millions of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens would be grateful to the Indian and Bangladeshi governments for restoring the train services. It would be much better if the procedure could be made more fluid.

This will help definitely enhance trade between the two countries, flourish tourism. The rail link will improve rail network access to the region’s key ports, dry ports, and land borders, supporting regional trade growth and encouraging regional economic and social development. The benefits of both products and passenger travel will be available to ordinary citizens and businesspeople in both countries. As a result, it will strengthen people-to-people communication even more. It will facilitate commercial activity and allowing more people to contact with one another.

The two countries have been collaborating in an effort to improve and expand rail connectivity. Both sides are working on a number of projects, and some historic railway lines are being restored at the same time.

The Bandhan Express was resurrected by reactivating a long-dormant rail link between Kolkata and Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city. The Barisal Express served this route until 1965, when it was halted due to the India-Pakistan war. Bandhan was revived in 2017 by Narendra Modi government and PM Sheikh Hasina administration.

Following the launch of the Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka Cantonment in April 2008, the Bandhan Express was the second train to depart. It spans the distance between Kolkata and Khulna, passing through Petrapole and Benapole on the way to meet the needs of people from both countries.

Since its inception, the Maitree Express has been a huge success. The 90 percent occupancy rate on the tri-weekly route between Kolkata and Dhaka used to be the norm.  Now, the Mitali Express has been started to run between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka in North Bengal. PM Modi announced this train during his March 2021 visit to Dhaka.

Both countries’ governments have been attempting to improve the rail link between them, and not simply through passenger trains. In August 2021, the two countries resumed regular freight train service between Haldibari, India, and Chilahati, Bangladesh, on the newly restored link.

The Haldibari-Chilahati train link between India and East Pakistan was also operating until 1965, when it was shut down owing to the war. At the time of Partition, this was part of the broad-gauge major line connecting Kolkata and Siliguri. On this route, the two sides expect at least 20 freight trains to cross the border each month.

Trains continued to run between the two countries after the Partition because they were once part of a single, seamless railway network under British authority. As a result, the infrastructure to connect the two sides via railways was substantially there.

Policymakers on both sides saw this as an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties by allowing products and passengers to traverse borders. Between India and Bangladesh, five rail routes have been restarted thus far. Petrapole (India)-Benapole (Bangladesh), Gede (India)-Darshana (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India)-Rohanpur (Bangladesh), Radhikapur (India)-Birol (Bangladesh), and the Haldibari-Chilahati connection are among them.

According to the media reports, stone chips, ballasts, grains, and other items are commonly transported to Bangladesh. CONCOR, a railway PSU, has begun container shipping with private clients’ Fast Moving Consumer Goods. Typically, the goal is to develop a speedier and more cost-effective freight link by weaning them off of the sea route. The Eastern Railway of India made it easier to import de-oiled soya cakes from Bangladesh last year.

Around 1.2 million tonnes of the cargo were transported via train in October of last year, rather than the customary route between the Nhava Sheva port and the Land Customs Stations, Petrapole Port.

“India would never go back on its word in this endeavor,” stated the Indian rail minister recently, assuring Bangladesh of full assistance in improving the latter’s rail system. It is true that India can help Bangladesh enhance its railway infrastructure, particularly in the conversion of the entire train network to broad gauze. He called the Mitali Express “another another milestone” in the strengthening of India-Bangladesh ties.

According to the media reports, the 17 railway projects in Bangladesh that India is funding are the largest component of India’s three separate lines of credit given since 2011, accounting for 25% of the total soft loans.

Dhaka and New Delhi have agreed to work out the details of India utilising rail transit through Bangladesh after receiving a proposal from Indian Railways (IR).

Indian trains will pass through Bangladesh between Sealdah and Haldibari in West Bengal, as part of the proposal. Trains will enter Bangladesh via the Gede-Darshana (Chuadanga) border and exit via the Chilahati (Nilphamari)-Haldibari border to reach Siliguri in this instance.

At the moment, India has access to Bangladesh’s road network. The proposed route will be the first rail transit infrastructure linking the two countries in more than half a century if both governments approve it.

There were eight railway interchanges between India and Pakistan before the 1947 division. Only five of them are currently operational: Benapole-Petropole, Darshana-Gede, Rohanpur-Singabadh, Biral-Radhikarpur, and Chilahati-Haldibari.

 According to the media reports, in April this year, the IR presented the plan to Bangladesh Railway (BR). The infrastructure of the route from Gede-Darshana-Ishwardi-Abdullpur-Parbatipur-Chilahati-Haldibari.

The IR delegation also aimed to enhance the number of trains departing from India and passing through various places in order to facilitate freight transfer from one carrier to another.

Apart from freight trains, India and Bangladesh have been operating two passenger trains for numerous years. Now, third train has been added in this list. The Gede-Darshana junction is currently used by the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata. Between Khulna and Kolkata, the Bandhan Express runs. After a 55-year absence, rail communication between the two countries via the Chilahati-Haldibari route resumed in December 2020. Today, the Mitali Express, a third passenger train, resumes service.

The IR now has the opportunity to reestablish the ancient Siliguri-Sealdah route via Bangladesh, thanks to the resumption of train service on the Chilahati-Haldibari route.

According to the media reports, the proposed transit facility will save nearly three hours of journey time. At the moment, Indian trains must travel 573 kilometers from Sealdah in Kolkata to reach Siliguri. If the new route can be used, the distance will be reduced to merely 200 kilometers. Trains from Siliguri passed through Haldibari and entered Chilahati in the former East Pakistan en route to Kolkata before 1965. This line was permanently closed after the Indo-Pak conflict in 1965.But the Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger and freight train services will provide benefits for both Bangladesh and India.

Transit of IR trains through Bangladesh may be a win-win situation for BR, IR, and the people and trade of the two nations. But there must have communication between the Northeast and Bangladesh, and the Akhaura-Agartala railway link must be resumed for both freight train and passenger tarin as soon as possible which can mark yet another significant milestone for the two countries. The increased connectivity between the Northeast and Bangladesh is intended to boost trade between the two countries.

This will strengthen not just people-to-people ties, but also trade and tourism between the two countries, particularly in the North East. In the future, it might be a link in an ambitious Asian Railway network that opens up Asean countries for trade while also serving as a success route

Because Dhaka and Kolkata are already connected by rail, there is a possibility of connecting this network to Kolkata. This was the road from Kolkata to Siliguri before 1965, but it was closed after the 1965 war. Once the route is open, the distance between Kolkata and Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri will be cut in half. People can benefit from that. Thus, the Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger train services is a milestone in the strengthening of bilateral ties.

Dr. Shakuntala Bhabani is a Kolkata-based educator ( Assistant Professor) and Southasian affairs researcher in the 'Political Science department at a Kolkata Honors College which is affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her expertise areas include foreign relations in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

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South Asia

Varisha Tariq – Representing women in politics

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Varisha Tariq is a writer and politician interested in the intersectionality of gender, class and global politics with culture. She is an Alumna of Ashoka University, and founder of Helping Hands NGO, Lucknow. She has been published in an anthropological book ‘People called Lucknow’ and in news outlets like Vogue, Stylist Magazine, Fodor, CH-VOID, LiveWire, Your Story, Feminism In India and Hindustan Times. You can find all her published work here and her most recent article in Vogue here.

Why did you choose to contest for elections in India?  
Growing up as a Muslim woman I had become intricately familiar with how politics impacts marginalised women’s rights. The lack of women in politics certainly played a huge role in how the policies in the country were shaped. I had always been a feminist who has been interested in bringing large-scale change and post my undergraduate studies at Ashoka, I realise the potential Indian Politics hold. Not just that but the understanding that it’s all about the courage to enter these fields. To quote Emma Watson, “if not me, who? if not now, when?”

Why did you choose Congress as the party you want to support? 

My reason for choosing congress was based on the party’s current policy, leadership and an analysis of its relevance geographically and their long-term vision. The party re-designed its vision to a feminist structure with women empowerment as a key point in its manifesto. It promised to have a minimum of forty per cent women in leadership positions. In Uttar Pradesh, Congress has been strong opposition to the right-wing ideological party, BJP. Moreover, the party leadership is committed to restructuring the party from a long-term perspective and I appreciated the dedication. These were my reason for choosing to support congress. 

What are some campaigns you ran for your party? 

All my campaigns were in alignment with #LadkiHounLadSaktiHoun campaign. I ran a digital campaign to raise awareness about the electoral process in order to encourage others to apply. I tried to break down the process of applying for MLA in Uttar Pradesh as this knowledge would make politics more accessible to people who have doubts or reservations about the political system. The campaigns were planned keeping Covid in mind so they had physical restrictions. 

Why did you choose feminism as a centric theme for your campaigns? 

Having experienced patriarchal and structural defects that work against the Indian woman, and having worked in the social sector, I realised the biggest change that needs to come in India is in the field of policy making. Even if we have strong laws that can help prevent oppression against women, we don’t have a strong policy system that can properly support it. Politicians are key in creating and promoting healthy policies. Strong policies regardig women can only come into affect if we have more feminist politicians. Even apart from that, I have always dreamt of creating feminist social impact and I believe that this campaign has been a start of a lifelong commitment to this cause. 

Do you see yourself trying for elections again despite the outcome this time? 

That is a yes without any doubt. Politics is one profession where you must commit to a long-term plan. For the same reason, this is never rushed. You keep coming back to politics as and when you grow. When I entered I knew that this would be something I would carry with me lifelong and the efforts have to be consistent. So, in short, yes, I will definitely keep trying till it works out. 

What has your social work in the past included? 

I worked as a Resident Assistant in the final year of my college, a student ambassador for Ashoka University for two years, a member of Centre for Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University. All these commitments drew out a leader in me, a leader who is passionate about serving her community. In 2019, I established Helping Hands NGO where I led a team of six individuals. The objective was to make welfare schemes accessible for the marginalized. Over the span of four months, I connected to more than forty-five thousand female students and two thousand families. During the deadly second wave of Covid, I used my NGO to increase awareness of medical resources available in Lucknow. I worked with Ashoka University and Barefoot International at the time when India was, quite literally, gasping for breath. Today I am working to create sustainable creative scholarships for marginalised young girls who want to grow up and pursue unconventional career paths.

What are your future plans?

After dabbling in the creative sector, development sector, politics and business I have realised that the one thing that has remained common in whatever I do is my feminist understanding of the world. In order to learn and understand more about the feminst leadership and perspective I have decide to pursue a masters in Gender and Law from SOAS Univeristy of London. Post that I would want to come back to India and pursue politics. Hopefully my deeper understanding of Gender and Law from South-Asian perspective would allow me to create meaningful and sustainble impact in politics in the years to come. 

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The India-Pakistan Sub-Conventional War: Democracy and Peace in South Asia -Book Review

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Sanjeev Kumar H.M., The India-Pakistan Sub-Conventional War: Democracy and Peace in South Asia, New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd, 2022, pp. 207, ₹1,095 (Hard Cover). ISBN: 978-93-5479-420-9.

The India-Pakistan relations have involved a manifestation of the multifaceted nature of conflict since their independence and partition. The legacy of colonialism, psychology of fractured identities and a deep sense of nationalism have been the leading trends defining their relations. From geopolitical conflicts over Kashmir issue and cross-border terrorism, their geostrategic ties with other countries to the third party involvement of US and China, India and Pakistan have seen multiple level of tensions.

To understand these multifaceted dynamics of India-Pakistan relations, the book under review involves an adequate analysis of their unique relations that is beyond the understanding of any western theorization. The book criticises the theory of democratic peace thesis and reports its failure in the context of India-Pakistan relationship as two democracies facing multiple level of conflicts. The author, Sanjeev Kumar HM, criticize the liberal peace thesis for considering only the conventional definition of warfare, and suggests to move beyond or consider the sub conventional form of conflict through diving into the empirical case scenarios of India-Pakistan relations. It examines the modes by which the crisis-prone processes of democratization in South Asia have contested the central thesis of liberal theory of international relations, which claims a natural link between democracy and war. In other words, the book opposes the epistemic foundations of democratic peace hypothesis by deconstructing its central arguments in the geostrategic context of the South Asian regional security architecture. It explains the South Asian region as a postcolonial territorial formation, which has been plagued by internal conflicts driven by social-economic inequities and embedded complexities.

Unlike the chronological explanations of India-Pakistan relations, the book aims to revise the theoretical rigors around them. The ontology, epistemology, spatial-temporal aspect of every theory is different, thus cannot be generalized. The democratic peace these is suitable for those societies engaged in interdependent community, for instance- European Union. The author has analyzed the transferability of democracy and peace from domestic to regional and then to the global level, which varies as per the history of a country or region. Unlike Western Society, the South Asian region has multiple aspect of analysis- Nationalism, Post-colonial conditionality, and delayed modernity. The failure of modernity in South Asia itself makes it not qualified to be analyzed as per the liberal peace thesis concept.

The deepening of democracy goes through stages like- decay, consolidation and maturity. Pakistan as a deep state, manages between authoritarianism and democratization since the beginning. With increasing emphasizes on Islamic state goals and military statecraft, Pakistan continued to face legitimation crisis and shrinking of public sphere, being a terror manufacturing state facilitating under military control thus has no connection to the liberal peace theses. While despite all the neo-liberal reforms, India has failed to create an inclusive society and over-bureaucratization of development that reflects how India doesn’t fit in liberal peace theses. In liberal peace theses, there is a presupposed rationalism required between two parties to maintain peace that is mostly missing between India-Pakistan.

He has argued how liberal peace theses fails to take following factors into consideration (thus fails to anlyze the South Asian region)- 1) Regime types, as a democracy can be procedural or consolidated or both based on the stage of democracy deepening it could have achieved; 2) Different nature of State, as while India focused on maintaining status quo, Pakistan continued to emphasize on escalation and reaching threshold; 3) State behavior, as the nature of peace and war gets determined by the behavior of states. The most important aspect of the book is the fact that author has attempted to redefine the concept of war as different from the conventional concept of war given by democratic peace theses. He argues that India-Pakistan war are not only conventional in nature, but also have remained sub-conventional that costed more casualties to both sides. The sub-conventional wars have been a result of both countries’ failure in nuclear deterrence.

The book concludes that the democracies in South Asia have gone through sub-conventional war consistently, most particularly between India-Pakistan making their equations as unsuitable to be analyzed by the democratic peace theses, despite being democracies. Their sub-conventional war involves multifaceted aspect of conflicts that involves- a) geopolitical factors due to contest and hostilities over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, majorly seen as contest between the Westphalian and the primordialist conception of state; b) Ideological contestation between secularism and Islamic nationhood in the context of Jammu and Kashmir most particularly. c) The over acquisition of nuclear weapons by both countries reflects their contested terrain of power politics.

Weakness or Limits of the book:

The book is theoretically loaded with less empirical explanations, which requires a less advanced IR scholar or student to do two or more readings to understand the complex terminologies used in the book. It has given a fair explanation how liberal peace thesis has no application in the South Asian region, but has used only the case study of India-Pakistan relations. If the central argument opposes the generalization of democratic peace thesis in analyzing the relations between any democracies, then the counter-argument of the book should have used more examples before generalization the non-application of peace thesis in South Asia. The absence of enough empirical examples in comparison to theoretical arguments can limit the readership of the book.

How it is good for the IR students?

As mastery on theoretical analysis is a loosing trend among IR and foreign policy scholars. This book will lead the reader in the direction of conceptual clarity of not only democratic peace thesis and its critic neo-kantian cosmopolitan, but also the whole IR theoretical base. How every theory of IR views the anarchical nature of world order and suggest solutions, but not all solutions fit into the South Asian region. This means the analysis should consider the spatial and temporal aspects of a situation or case study as well. Sometimes a theory fits, sometimes doesn’t but following a particular spatio-temporal analysis derived majorly from Euro-American experience limits the scope of analyzing a regional of different spatial-temporal dimension like South Asia, which is full of its very unique kind of controversies and disputes around the issues of river water sharing, transborder migration, cross-border terrorism, diverse ethnic nationalities, and so on. 

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Politics of Pakistan: A Riot or an Opportunity

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On 14th August, 1947 Pakistan appeared on the world map as the largest independent Muslim state of that time. Sixty-five million people out of Ninety-five million population were Muslims. Despite of the shared religion of its majority, Pakistan is still struggling to build a national identity. Earlier, linguistic and cultural diversity were a hurdle but, in the Common Era political imbalance, rivalry and groupings left Pakistan with nothing but social, political and economic crisis with no future of stability.

Division of Sub-continent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan was a kick start to the largest demographic movement in history. Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali Jinnah died when Pakistan was less than a year old. The politics of Pakistan has not been less than a roller coaster ride. Till date the State has been ruled by 27 different Prime Ministers where some of them ruled twice and even thrice. Adding to that, the state has been under dictatorship four times since its independence. This political chaos has badly affected the economy of Pakistan. Not that Pakistan is a barren landlocked country with no reservoirs or no beneficial source to strengthen the economy, but, the political riot has played a vital role in paralyzing the social and economic bodies. Pakistan’s politicians have obediently followed the tradition of blame game since independence. Political representatives have always considered it necessary to blame the opponents for unstable environment in rather than being united against the state issues. The truth is that none of the political party could ever succeed in fulfilling the objectives of their five-year plan.

Due to sudden change of government, corruption, fragile institutions, the country’s economy suffered harsh weather. In 1980’s the economic growth was an impressive 6.3% which had a sharp decline during 1990’s and dropped to 4.9%. By the end of dictatorship the growth decelerated to 1.7% in 2008 and political instability accelerated to -2.4%. During the regime of PPP, the Nation succeeded in nothing but increase in economic instability, rise in corruption, inflation, and unemployment. PPP has set Karachi as a portrait of their inefficiency which the city witnesses every year during monsoon season. In 2013, the biggest political parties of Pakistan, PMLN and PTI fought the elections and undesirable results ended in a 126 days long dharna in the Capital of Pakistan with the inclusion of rallies, aggressive speeches and corruption cases against the opponents to hold them responsible and throw them out. The dramatic political unrest forced the country to lose hundreds of millions, foreign trust, foreign investment as well as paralyzing the Capital of the state. Nawaz Sharif was proven guilty and sent to jail, PMLN succeeded in making the institutions fool and Nawaz Sharif flew to the UK for medical treatment. In 2018, the ineligibility of Nawaz Sharif, Panama leaks and support of the number of people of the nation gave Imran Khan a chance to win the majority vote in National assembly. Forced to habit, the opposition instead of efficiently working with the government for the welfare of state, jointly formed PDM to demolish PTI’s government. Protests, long march, boycotts became the fate of Pakistan and which couldn’t affect the government much but, to lead to vote of no confidence in April, 2022 which resulted in Imran Khan’s removal. PTI blames PDM for joining hands with US in their regime change strategy. Even during PTI’s government, the instable economy was in the destiny of Pakistan. Currently, Shahbaz Sharif is the Prime Minister of the State and the economic conditions are nowhere near to a betterment; a total chaos.

The fake promises of every government has left the nation with nothing but empty bank accounts, economic collapse, inflation, extreme foreign debt, intolerance and extremism among its own people. The prime reason to every government’s failure is more or less their self- priorities. It was and is never about the betterment of state and its people but the authority, rivalry and seat. Every government without any discrimination focused on plans which would temporarily benefit the Nation during their tenure but, later due to huge foreign debt and IMF instructions, the country suffers inflation and hurdles in development of the country. Moreover, every new government finds the work of the former useless and terminate the projects, plans and policies initiated by them. This restricts the foreign investors from huge investments as more political instability leads to more economic deceleration.

Another huge drawback is that every government demands the state’s institutions to work their way, for example; the security departments’ ultimate duty is to protect the state from internal and external threats but what they do nowadays is to arrest the opponent leaders, raid their houses, protect red zone and blindly work under government’s thumb.

The biggest threat to Pakistan is its own poisonous politics. The political parties do not find their victory in providing the Nation with excellence and betterment but, the lust of power and hatred has forced the public to witness a psychotic political behavior. Election campaigns, days of protests in Islamabad, societal unrest and cyber-attacks have become a trend which has divided the Nation into groups.

Pakistan is on the verge of losing everything. IMF and other states have either denied or are delaying in providing aid to the country and the major reason is the political unrest but, a bitter reality is that politics cannot be ignored as it plays a prime role in connecting Pakistan on national and international levels. Political stability shall be the ultimate goal as it would help in formation of beneficial policies and would allow the institutions to work in a normal way which would only make Pakistan a healthy developed state. This 75th year and the years coming ahead can be good for Pakistan if elections are truly conducted on their time and the losing parties instead of creating a chaos, aids the ruling party in running the affairs of Pakistan smoothly.

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