The recent ‘off-the-record’ comment by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about “25% of Bangladeshis being anti-India” and influenced by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during his meeting with the media last week has dented otherwise cordial relations between India and Bangladesh.
What was shocking was the damage control exercise by the authorities which removed that portion of the PM’s comment with the caveat that the text that appeared on the Prime Minister’s Office website was “preliminary”. This reflects the lack of sensitivity of our authorities while dealing with our neighbours. There is a need for us to show more sensitivity while dealing with Bangladesh, a country that, despite strong opposition to the move, has gone out of its way to improve its relationship with India.
India-Bangladesh ties have fluctuated in the past. The relationship touched rock bottom during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) rule between 2001-06. But this changed after the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League came to power in 2009. It has, from the beginning, taken a keen interest in improving relationship with India. Soon after the parliamentary elections of 2008 in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Hasina declared that she wouldn’t allow any group inimical to India’s interests to operate in her country.
Keeping the promise, Hasina’s government took action against insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), arresting some of their top leaders. She also needs to be complimented for her action against the radical Islamic militancy that flourished in Bangladesh during the BNP’s rule. These extremist groups played a major role in fostering terror in India.
Bangladesh shares close socio-cultural and geographical ties with India and looks to India for inspiration, motivation and support in these areas. While this feature of the relationship has helped the two countries find grounds for cooperation, it also has been a disadvantage for bilateral relations. There is a Big Brother syndrome that plays in the minds of some sections in Bangladesh. Such a feeling, however, is understandable for a country that has to live close to a nation as large in terms of geography, economy and influence like India. The people of Bangladesh are thankful when there is a simple word of appreciation from India. They equally feel let down if there is word of criticism from their western neighbour.
The India-Bangladesh relationship has also become a complex play of internal politics within Bangladesh, where the politics has become divided along the lines of pro- and anti- India sentiments. The Jamaat-e-Islami, an influential ally of the main opposition party BNP, is open in its anti-India rhetoric. The Awami League has been criticised by the opposition for being pro-India. So, looking at things from the prism of Bangladeshi politics, Hasina has taken a big risk to go out of her way and take on the religious fundamentalists in her country. Better support from India is welcome and needed.
Religion does play an important role in the lives of Bangladeshis. But there is a great dislike among the people towards religious extremism. The Jamaat-e-Islami’s defeat in the 2008 elections, when it was reduced to only two seats from the 18, is a case in point.
As India’s influence grows in the global arena, it will be necessary to have stability and peace in South Asia. For this, Dhaka could be New Delhi’s major partner and play a pivotal role by becoming a major point of connectivity for North-east India and South-east Asian countries thereby strengthening India’s ‘Look East’ policy. This is a window of opportunity that we can’t afford to lose by making unnecessary comments that can harm the relationship.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal