The India-Bangladesh bond is dominated by domestic compulsions
When Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India last April, 22 pacts were signed including those on defence, electricity and civil nuclear energy, but a foot was firmly put down against a treaty to share the waters of Teesta river.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee opposed the deal, as she did in 2011, fearful of the implications for irrigation in her state and the Panchayat elections due this year.
Such domestic compulsions—both in India and Bangladesh—always played a role in bilateral ties. While New Delhi is proud to have helped create Bangladesh, many politicians there looked at India with suspicion. The 25-year Indo-Bangla Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace was for long a bone of contention in national politics before it expired, with critics accusing successive governments of surrendering to India the interests and sovereignty of Bangladesh.
Pro- or anti-India stance of Bangladeshi leaders became an issue in its electoral politics, as it will in the polls due in late 2018.
The political history of Bangladesh is one of often bloody rivalry between two families, with interregnums of military regimes. In February, under the watch of the Awami League (AL) government of Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her arch rival Khaleda Zia, the widow of former president Ziaur Rahman, was jailed over a years-old corruption case. Thousands of leaders and activists of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are in jail, mainly over the pre-election protests of 2013 and anti-government violence of 2015. Several leaders of BNP’s ally Jamaat-e-Islami were sentenced to death in recent years over their roles in the 1971 Liberation war against Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, living in exile in London, was named as BNP chief and will lead the party in the elections. Despite its flirtation with Islamists, several quarters in India want BNP to fight the elections, and not repeat the mistake of boycotting it in 2014. This is the context from which the current state of India-Bangladesh ties should be assessed.
According to Smruti S Pattanaik, research fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, relations are at the best phase, with cooperation at the institutional level.
From across the border, ambassador Farooq Sobhan, former foreign secretary and president of Dhaka-based Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, agreed that there was significant progress during the past nine years of the Hasina government, particularly in the fields of security, energy, physical connectivity, trade and joint ventures.
But Sukh Deo Muni, former ambassador and South Asian affairs expert, pointed out that Bangladesh still has concerns about Teesta water sharing treaty.
The China factor
The host of pacts inked during Hasina’s April visit included a new line of concessional credit of $4.5 billion for implementation of projects in Bangladesh. But more significant was India’s announcement of a $500 million line of credit for military hardware purchases, seen as an attempt to wean away Bangladesh from depending on China for its defence needs.
Beijing is strengthening its strategic, defence, economic and trade cooperation with Dhaka. Among other defence hardware, Bangladesh also received its first ever submarines from China. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016, the two sides signed 27 pacts worth up to $25 billion. Is India too late to wake up to the growing China-Bangladesh bonhomie?
“China is emerging as a major factor in the whole of India’s neighbourhood and Bangladesh is no exception. Bangladesh should also not be expected to follow India’s line blindly in relation to China. They have old and beneficial aspects of engagement with China,” Muni pointed out.
Some Bangladeshi politicians are dismissive of friendship with China, a friend of the enemy, Pakistan. But that didn’t stop Bangladesh from approving the proposal by a Chinese consortium to buy 25% stake in the Dhaka Stock Exchange, rejecting a bid by India’s National Stock Exchange.
“India would always find it difficult to match the Chinese financial moves because of deep Chinese pockets,” Muni said.
But ambassador Sobhan views it as a commercial and business transaction and said the better of the two offers should be accepted. “We do not see our relationship with India or China as mutually exclusive or competitive,” the former diplomat said.
Pattanaik does not see the Chinese influence as a major challenge as India-Bangladesh relations are “historical, bound by socio-cultural affinity.”
Assam citizenship row
Perhaps she is right: ties that bind India and Bangladesh may be deeper than what money can buy. There’s culture, the common Bangla language and then there is geography. That’s where things get complicated.
Much of India-Bangladesh border remains porous, leading to influx of Bangladeshis seeking a living in India’s towns and cities. Often, they become targets of India’s internal politics, particularly in its northeastern states. The latest controversy in this regard is the National Register of Citizens being prepared in Assam. Dhaka is wary of a possible exodus of Bangladeshis from Assam on the grounds that they are illegal immigrants
“The way identity drive is being carried out in Assam is not a very useful one in relation to Bangladesh,” Muni said.
“It came as something of a surprise when we read the recent statements about developments in Assam made by some senior personalities in India,” said Sobhan, cautioning that the subject needs to be handled with great sensitivity and care as it may unnecessarily complicate relations.
Noting that the issue of illegal immigration is not new, Pattanaik said civil society in Bangladesh has reacted sharply on the issue but the government has shown maturity.
Dhaka is sensitive to the possible flow of Bangladeshis from India over the Assam citizenship drive, even as it struggles to cope with tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution from Myanmar. On that issue too, India’s approach has been less than stellar.
“Bangladesh has been very upset on the way India initially responded to the Rohingya issue,” said Muni, though later assistance in meeting the burden assuaged some of these feelings. He thinks the Dhaka regime understands India’s dilemma. “They are proceeding bilaterally on this issue with Myanmar but with their fingers crossed. Myanmar’s response has not been very reassuring. Any moderating role on India’s part would surely be reassuring for Bangladesh.”
While Pattanaik thinks New Delhi could have responded better, she argued that India cannot annoy Myanmar and imperil its security. “It is an irritant but India cannot choose between two friends.”
There was an expectation that India “would condemn the ethnic cleansing that has taken place in Myanmar and indeed is still taking place,” according to Sobhan. Public opinion in Bangladesh believed India should have exerted pressure on Myanmar “to stop the persecution of the Rohingyas,” he said.
Sameer Patil, director, Centre for International Security at Gateway House, Mumbai, argues that a proactive stance by India could have come only at the cost of its relationships with Bangladesh or Myanmar.
“There has not been enough appreciation of India’s stance on the issue because we had to craft a fine balance between our humanitarian, security, and geopolitical priorities,” he said.
What has been less publicised, he noted, is India’s massive assistance to Bangladesh as part of Operation Insaniyat to deal with the surging number of refugees.
The Terrorism Battle
While there is fear of radicalisation of the Rohingyas by terror groups, the Hasina government seems to have curbed terrorism to a large extent.
Since the July 2016 Dhaka cafe attack, security forces have done an excellent job in cracking down on the local terrorist groups by flushing out their hideouts, monitoring the radical social media propaganda and augmenting their own capabilities, Patil said.
But experts are still cautious about the future.
“While Dhaka’s security situation has improved, militants have focused on carrying out smaller attacks on a regular basis in Bangladesh’s other districts,” Patil said.
Patil pointed out that it is evident that the local political exigencies are leading the ruling AL party to slowly cosy up to the local Islamist groups, including the notorious Hefazat-e-Islam, which is in turn bolstering the radical elements.
AL is possibly doing this as a way to counter anti-incumbency, and the blowback from Islamist-dominated sections of society for the crackdowns and hangings that marked her tenure.
This means the polls later this year will present India with difficult choices.
India is worried about the possibility of AL slipping down in the elections, Muni said, adding that it is in India’s interest to ensure that AL remains in power.
“But this must be done as discreetly as possible. Regime change in Maldives and Nepal have heightened India’s concerns and it is better if this is avoided in other countries like Bangladesh.”
Any overt and undue efforts in promoting a specific regime may be counterproductive in the long run, he cautioned.
Pattanaik felt that India should not get involved in what she calls “Bangladesh’s legendary political rivalry.”
Sobhan is also wary of any such intervention in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. “The elections in Bangladesh is a purely domestic matter and it is not advisable for India to take sides,” he said.
According to him, the Indo-Bangladesh relations need to be handled with great care and sensitivity, as public opinion and perception are of immense importance.
“People on both sides of the border need to understand and appreciate how this relationship is working to the benefit and advantage of both countries. Of crucial importance is the need for mutual respect and mutual trust.”
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