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Geopolitics Of The Bay Of Bengal And Our Imperatives

The rich land named Bengal

The people living in the land of Bengal had always had a love-hate relationship with water. It is probably the only land on earth where three major rivers (Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna) collide and end up at sea, creating a superhighway of wealth and prosperity. Abundant rainfall fills the rivers during monsoon and cuts the alluvial plain, giving it its unique shifting nature. Sub-tropical climate and alluvial soil make it one of the richest lands on earth in term of natural resources. And talking about natural resources, these are not the finite stocks of minerals, rather infinite supply of rainwater flowing through hundreds of rivers, never letting the people feel the scarcity of water that is known to people living in desert conditions. The sub-tropical location is the reason behind monsoon, which pushes the clouds against the tall mountains of the north and concentrates all the waters in the rivers that flow through this narrow patch of land. And even during the dry seasons, the melting ice in the Himalayas keeps the rivers supplied with just about enough water.

These are the signs of a rich land with rich potential to wield power. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Sultanate of Bengal had been the dominant power in the Subcontinent for more than a hundred years. During the Mughal times in the 17th century, Mir Zumla and Shaista Khan utilized the area’s riches to establish extremely strong armies and naval forces that expanded the boundaries of the land.  Bengal had supplied more than 60% of the money required to maintain Emperor Aurangzeb’s massive army. The British, right after arriving here during the 17th century, quickly realized the enormous power of this land and decided to concentrate their activities in Bengal. Apart from the whole of Bengal, only two other coastal strips (Bombay and Madras) defined British India under East India Company for 100 years between 1757 and 1857. The importance of Bengal was ingrained in the use of Calcutta as the capital of British India until 1909. The realization of Britain, which is an ideological power, that Bengal is a potential powerhouse with the presence all vital resources, led them to put plans together to never let Bengal become one again. From this thought, Calcutta was created by the British and was turned into the major industrial hub and seaport for the entire region. Areas that naturally depended on the river system for transportation and trade with the sea were actually in the confluence of the three major rivers. Those areas in Eastern Bengal were where shipbuilding was in the veins of the people. But because of the creation of Calcutta in an unnatural place, those maritime areas were bypassed and pushed into darkness. Shipbuilding was restricted in Eastern Bengal in 1788 through an order and brought under the nose of the British authority at Calcutta, where people did not build ships for their economic survival. These were the basic ideas of geopolitics on which the British decision to dismantle a future powerhouse in Bengal was based. Religious and social divisions were incited and utilized to implement this decision over a period of around 100 years. We are still bearing that legacy. 

Figure: The British order of 1788 restricting shipbuilding in Bengal practically killed the shipbuilding industry and with it, the maritime potential of the nation.

The colonial legacy

This long contextual discussion is necessary to understand the geopolitical realities of the Bay of Bengal. The division of Bengal was necessary for the British, which ultimately led to the drawing of borders that cut the three major rivers at unnatural places with political boundaries, thus eliminating the possibility of the emergence of a maritime power in future. The large unnatural country of India was created, which had little natural cohesion among its diverse population and geographical features. As such, this large, resourceful, but internally weak nation was constantly in fear of losing its integrity. The fear forced the nation to be unfairly hard in dealing with its smaller neighbouring countries.

The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 helped India’s cause, or so it seemed at that time. But over the last four decades, the basic geopolitical realities began to come back and bite the nations that border the Bay of Bengal. It is to be noted that although the rivers were cut at unnatural places by the British in 1947, it could not prevent the concentration of rainwater in one small place, which is now Bangladesh. That is the biggest limitation of political boundaries. While the unnatural port of Calcutta on the polluted and dying Hoogly River mostly fed by Farakka Barrage across the River Ganges, struggles with its regional primacy, the alluvial landmass of Bangladesh, shaped by the massive volume of rainwater that passes through, begins to shape up to be the launch-pad for a powerful nation.

Time to rise up again

Since the international court verdicts regarding sea borders of Bangladesh with Myanmar and India, a new door has opened in front of Bangladesh, which shines with riches in more than 118,813 square kilometer area of sea-space. This verdict told Bangladesh to follow the direction of three major rivers. The link between the sea resources and resources in land would be the hundreds of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. Building of barrages upstream across the border has slowed the rivers and raised the riverbeds with soil deposits. When this soil can be transferred elsewhere from the rivers, the navigability conditions that existed several centuries back can be recreated. The rich arterial system of rivers provides the push to build resources to explore the sea. People would once again see flowing water in every part of the country; water bodies that can store rainwater during the entire year. Once people’s close relationship with water is re-established, it is a matter of time before a maritime nation is up and running.

Needless to say, the emergence of a maritime nation would not be liked by other nations that currently dominate the sea-space of the world. Least encouraged by these developments would be neighbouring India, who would see a threat looming on its eastern borders. To keep Bangladesh’s national aspirations alive, it is imperative for the nation to think the way British used to think. This is not to say that Bangladesh needs to adopt the British ideology, but rather to be able to understand how such thoughts are wielded as power. It was the power of thought that allowed a few thousand British troops to rule over crores of Indians for two centuries. The three rivers with direct access to the Bay of Bengal are a weapon that needs to be used wisely. Powerful thoughts can wield this powerful weapon. This power of thought, rather than physical power, would block any hostile forces from realizing Bangladesh’s national aspirations. Therefore, thoughtless investment in the Bay of Bengal would be counterproductive and ruin the chances of the emerging nation.

New realities and new threats

When the British arrived here, Bengal was impossible to give blockade, as demonstrated by the futile British attempt against Shaista Khan in the 17th century. People used to produce everything locally. Over the British period, the situation reversed due to negative British policies and made the entire land dependant on foreign trade. After the 1947 partition, the situation of Eastern Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh got even more vulnerable due to decades of neglect. The story just got more complicated after the 1990s, when more than 90% of the country’s trade began to depend on the sea. This is not the situation of Shaista Khan when the ruler of the country could afford to see a blockading force rot in the river estuaries. That kind of a blockade scenario today would be catastrophic for the country. As such, it is even more than a survival instinct for the nation to build and develop its sea resources so that the ‘lifeline’ in the Bay of Bengal remains open at all times. It is better to be prepared than be extremely sorry.

Strengthening of naval resources is not enough to ensure the continual survivability. The country needs to build its own maritime transport, fishing, surveillance, research, exploration, and fighting resources in order to keep its dreams from drowning. Good relations with neighbours are necessary, but not at the cost of sacrificing national interests, especially if it becomes a life-and-death issue like naval blockade. Naval security has to be ensured for the maritime transports for the entire length of their travel. It is no use providing security only up to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the country if blockades need to be avoided. Sea-going ships are a must to maintain such a line of communication. Smaller but larger number of ships would be the key, rather than putting everything into one basket through using massive ships. Smaller ships would have easier access to a larger number of sea-ports, thus diversifying port-access and reducing vulnerability of blocking of port mouth. River-going lighter vessels would further reduce vulnerability of ports in narrow places.

Building up maritime forces

Peacetime design and building of civilian ships must address potential contingencies. The British Royal Navy was able to call more than 1,000 fishing trawlers to military service within short notice during World War II because the ships were designed with such contingencies in mind. The ships were used in various roles like patrol boats, anti-submarine boats, minesweepers, harbor defence boats, and even deep sea escort ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. The concept of cheap, but very effective deep-sea escorts, which were designated as corvettes, sloops, frigates and destroyer escorts, was developed from civilian designs, which crossed the Atlantic at less than 20kt maximum speed. Today’s offshore patrol vessels (OPV), some corvettes and most deep-sea coast guard vessels carry the legacy of these wartime deep-sea escort vessels. Bangladesh needs to put a very sincere effort to ensure the building of such a contingency force. The recent acquisition of Durjoy-class LPCs, Italian Navy’s Minerva-class corvettes, RN’s Castle-class and Island-class OPVs, and even River-class minesweepers were good assets to start developing such a contingency force. Ship designs like the Italian Cassiopeia-class can give us a good direction regarding small helicopter capable ships. A lot more ships of similar size would be required in order to fulfill the many gaps that would open up in the sea in case of an emergency. Strengthening of the Coast Guard with a lot more OPVs may be a move in the right direction. Local construction capability must be improved in order to build up this force. We cannot just depend on importing from other countries that may not share same strategic goals as ours.

Deep-sea escorts would not be able to fulfill their tasks unless they are screened by a strong naval strike force. Bangladesh Navy’s recent acquisition of frigates and corvettes would go a long way to set the base for such a force. But it is not even near enough if sustained operations are to be conducted. Local building of corvettes and frigates, including air-defence frigates can provide a much-needed solidity to the force. Capability to carry enough helicopters has to be given priority to each surface action group within the force. A level of air defence and anti-submarine strength needs to be incorporated within groups depending on threat scenario.

The recent move to acquire submarine is highly commendable. A force multiplier like a submarine would take the maritime security scenario for Bangladesh to a new height. But again, sustained operations would require a much higher number of submarines. Depending on economic strength of the country, such acquisitions should be given priority, because one submarine can hold off at least ten enemy surface ships, and in addition, it can do things that no surface ship is capable of doing.

Because of the huge importance of coastal landmass, islands, and large number of existing and potential ports, maritime infrastructures, shipbuilding hubs, mineral exploration area, and economic centers, it is imperative to develop a strong force for coastal defence. This force needs to be equipped with smaller vessels capable of the crossing coastal seas. Bangladesh Coast Guard can be a very important part of this defence force. Facilities to design and build high-speed aluminium boats, catamaran boats with high maneuverability, high-speed light crafts of shallow draft and composite construction, landing crafts, armed interceptor boats, etc. need to be continuously developed and improved with the incorporation of latest technology. Locally built/assembled engines for such boats and use of locally available material can give such a force further edge.

The river arterial system needs to be maintained behind the Bay of Bengal in order to turn the country into a truly maritime nation. If properly maintained, this vital system of rivers needs to be protected with a riverine force of substantial size. Each major river needs to have separate forces that should include river patrol boats, assault landing crafts, fire support ships, special force boats, minesweeper boats, logistic support vessels, and assorted army infantry units of specialized nature. Such forces would stitch the country’s landmass where rivers flow. Rather than thinking of the rivers as dividing the land, we should start thinking of them as seams that keep the country together. A simple change of thought can produce outputs that are much stronger than many a complex efforts.

Simple thoughts, big results

At the heart of the whole effort would be our thoughts about water. Our mindset needs to change in the right direction. Rather than thinking that water takes life through drowning people, we should be thinking that without water, life is impossible; and water is what we have a plenty of. Building roads is difficult and expensive; using waterways is cheap and easy. The quicker we reject the concepts inserted during the colonial times, the quicker it is for us to come out as winners. Our struggle with water should give us strength to defend our rights in the seas. The people of this land had endured many a storms with which Allah had tested the nation time and time again. But it is rain – a blessing of the Almighty – that we tend to forget, which is the key to the power of this country. Understanding the simple fact that rivers do not fill without rain can solve the diplomatic quagmire with our big and insecure neighbour, which has almost always centred around water sharing. Rain received through divine intervention, not diplomatic intervention that keeps us alive. And the simple fact that water is the cheapest form of transport should have driven our thoughts for long. Exactly what have we been thinking all these years? Or have we been thinking at all?

Ahmed Sharif is a geopolitical thinker. He has been involved with writing on strategic issues for more than 17 years. He writes for various local periodicals in addition to maintaining a blog on strategic issues. His works had been well-circulated and have become subjects of discussion and debate. He has worked on maritime affairs, geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, upcoming trends in warfare, especially in Asia and Africa, as well as regional issues centered around Bangladesh. Professionally he has been involved with the corporate world for the last 15 years. He has degrees in business studies, and his work areas overlap business and geopolitics.