Connecting Regions of Asia.

Below The Bangladesh-India Romance

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Late on the night of August 14, 1975, hours before Indians woke to mark their first, ironic Independence Day under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, three columns of the 1st. Bengal Lancers wound their way out of Dhaka’s main cantonment, towards the half-built second airport on the city’s outskirts.

No-one paid much attention, including the troops: night-time training manoeuvres like these were routine. Then, his soldiers lined up along the disused runway, Major Syed Faruque Rahman delivered a speech: the hour of “national salvation”, he declaimed, had finally come.

Inside hours, Bangladesh’s founding patriarch, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and forty members, had been executed. Thousands more would die in the coup d’etat, which plunged Bangladesh into decades of darkness.

This week’s virtual summit between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established between the two countries, concluded in a roseate haze. The two leaders concluded seven major agreements, on issues ranging from a new rail link, cargo transit and fighting Covid19—sweeping aside simmering tensions over the Citizenship Amendment Act and killings on their borders.

For many in New Delhi’s strategic community, the summit is evidence of the durable legacy of 1971, when India’s military came to the aid of Sheikh Hasina’s father, and helped liberate Bangladesh. There’s mounting reason, though, to also remember the grim events of 1975—and reflect on the crisis that could lie ahead.

EVER since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009, her nation’s relationship with India have entered what more than one commentator has called a “Golden Era”: Trade ties have blossomed, counter-terrorism cooperation is at unprecedented levels and contentious territorial problems resolved.  Few imagined, in 2001, when the Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifles engaged in savage skirmishes along the border, that the two countries’ relationship could become as robust as it has.

Yet, signs of strain are everywhere. Sheikh Hasina’s invitation to Modi to attend Sheikh Mujib’s centennial celebrations in March sparked off large-scale protests, with Islamists and Left-wing students—long engaged in violent confrontation with each other—uniting to oppose the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka.

Embarrassment was avoided after the Bangladesh government announced it was scaling down the centennial celebrations because of COVID-19, allowing Modi’s visit to be called off—but the message was lost on no-one. In public, Bangladesh let it be known it was less than happy with New Delhi’s policies, cancelling several minister-level visits, and planting stories in the local press that Sheikh Hasina had declined to meet the Indian ambassador.The ostensible reason for the anti-Modi protests in Dhaka was the CAA: the Delhi riots of February, along with Home Minister Amit Shah’s description of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” who he vowed to “throw them into the Bay of Bengal, stoked nationalist rage across Bangladesh.

Experts, though, have noted that this anti-Modi nationalism emerged from political circumstances inside Bangladesh itself. Facing sustained assault from Islamists and the Right-leaning political opposition, Sheikh Hasina’s government took an increasingly authoritarian turn following the 2014 elections. Extrajudicial executions and the use of violence against political opponents became an increasingly entrenched feature of the political landscape. The political opposition has been annihilated; the 2018 elections were widely described as farcical.

“In the absence of a robust opposition party which can take on the government”, scholar Ali Riaz has noted in a superb analysis, “issue-based social movements have become the means to vent resentment against the government. The demonstrations against Modi’s visit were in part fuelled by this domestic political environment”.

The increasingly close relationship with India has thus become a stick for Sheikh Hasina’s critics to use against her. A water-sharing treaty on the Teesta agreed on in 2011 is yet to be signed, the victim of resistance from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee; India, though, is now allowed to draw on the waters of Feni. Killings of civilians on the Bangaldesh-India border, though lower than in the period before 2010, continue apace.  New Delhi claims it’s only targeting cross-border smugglers; investigation of the killing of 15-year-old Phulbari Khatun by India’s own National Human Rights Commission, though, showed that isn’t always the case.

For critics of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister is giving up too much without getting anything back: though Dhaka has permitted transshipment of Indian goods through Bangladeshi ports, for example, New Delhi supported Myanmar through the Rohingya crisis, for fear of alienating a regime whose support is key to peace in the North-East.

FOLLOWING the 1975 coup, Beijing quietly exulted at the rise of General Zia-ur-Rahman’s military regime: “Hundreds of thousands”, the official New China News Agency claimed, had swarmed Dhaka’s streets, giving the military an “enthusiastic welcome”. The United States, too, had reason to be pleased: The prospect that the Soviet Union might use to Bangladesh to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean had long worried Washington. Indeed, there have been claims the coup plotters had approached the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Dhaka, Philip Cherry, in late-1974.

The coup of 1975, though, wasn’t just the work of power-crazed Major-rank officers in the military, or geopolitical machination: Sheikh Mujib’s growing authoritarianism, and his inability to meet the public expectations unleashed in the course of Bangladesh’s independence movement.

Like in 1975, Beijing has reason to seek New Delhi’s marginalisation in Bangladesh. Winning over India’s neighbours is a key element of its plans to assert its superpower status across South Asia. In 2016, China and Bangladesh signed 27 memoranda of understanding on infrastructure investments, worth some $24 billion. In addition, Chinese and Bangladeshi companies independently announced 13 joint ventures, valued at $13.6 billion.

Things haven’t quite gone according to plan: only five of the 2016 projects, analyst Adam Pitman has recorded, were online by 2019. One, the $1.6 billion $1.6 Dhaka-Sylhet highway, was scrapped, and the contractor, China Harbour and Engineering Company, blacklisted for corruption. The country’s power regulator, moreover, recommended a cap on new power plants, 15 of which were to be built with Chinese equity. In all, only some $981 million of the promised $24 billion had been dispersed.

Long hailed by international financial institutions for prudent borrowing,  and clear-eyed policies which have pulled millions out of poverty, Bangladesh is unlikely to walk into a debt-trap laid by Beijing.It’s also clear, though, that Sheikh Hasina’s government sees virtue in geopolitical hedging. From 2008 and 2018, Bangladesh purchased an estimated $1.93 billion of weapons from China, or almost 72 percent of all its arms imports. The purchases included two 1970s-vintage Type 35B submarines—ageing platforms that give Bangladesh no real military benefits, but will allow Chinese military personnel long-term access to naval facilities in that country.

The Hasina-Modi virtual summit has demonstrated that New Delhi is alive to the dangers of greater Chinese involvement in Bangladesh, and committed to pushing back. It’s hard to miss the sense, though, that the Indian government isn’t acting fast enough on the issues undermining Sheikh Hasina, like border killings and the water disputes. Perhaps more important, by allowing the relationship to become mired in the domestic politics around the CAA, India has handed an own-goal to its enemies in Bangladesh.

Larger dangers could also lie ahead. The authoritarian state that has evolved under Sheikh Hasina is unlikely to endure indefinitely; political upheaval almost certainly lies ahead. New Delhi could find itself on the wrong side of popular anger against its regime, or to be faced with a prime minister using anti-India sentiment to build mass legitimacy.New Delhi’s best move would be to acknowledge, and address, the ugly strains in the Bangladesh-India relationship before they fracture ties painstakingly built over a decade. The stakes for an India increasingly besieged by China’s ambition are huge—and, in Dhaka, the clock is ticking.

Courtesy – Moneycontrol

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