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Bangladesh-India relations: The wolf has lost its teeth and claws

SAM 2020-09-20 071728

Once the Big Brother dominating the South Asian scene, India is gradually becoming an outlier in the region. Its hubristic belief in its self-proclaimed superpower status is fast thinning in the edges. With its neighbors steadily, one by one, standing up to its long-standing dominance, India is realizing that dictating terms can no longer deliver results.

The question is why? What has changed the equations in the region? Is it simply China’s overt presence, going beyond economic interactions and entering the geopolitical sphere that is nudging India from its perceived pinnacle of regional power?

While observers of regional geopolitics admit that China’s emergence from its shell to become a more visible and powerful presence has put a dampener on India’s swagger in the South Asian neighborhood, they do see more in it. 

“India is paying the price for its own foolhardiness,” says Akram Hossain, a Bangladeshi academic specializing in South Asian politics. “It took its arrogance too far and placed too many straws on the camel’s back. No matter how weak a neighbor may be, there is a limit to the exploitation that it can take. And with the entry of China, the new ‘kid on the block’, the smaller countries find that they are no longer alone, facing the big bad wolf. And so the behemoth is losing its bluster.”

India’s closest neighbor, Bangladesh, perhaps exemplifies best the slipping ‘supremacy’ of India. India’s enmity with Pakistan is no secret and its relationship with the other neighbors have always been a balance of love and hate, sometimes love winning over hate and sometimes hate getting the upper hand. But Bangladesh, whether for historical reasons, geographical proximity, economic compulsions and other factors, has always been a tried and tested friend of India. Yes, the people are perceived as anti-India, no doubt, but governments have more than compensated for that hostility with overwhelming friendship and cordiality, sometimes bordering on subservience.

Even the most anti-Indian governments in Bangladesh have failed to drive a hard bargain with the neighbor. And when it comes to the Awami League government, India’s glee has no bounds. Here is one government that delivers the goods unconditionally, even at the expense of its own people’s interests. But the tide is turning, apparently. And India is wary.

Whether it is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political expediency, China’s covert influence or simply that the time is right, the message coming across from Dhaka is, “enough is enough”. The list of grievances is long and India’s façade of benevolence can no longer fool Bangladeshis. Distrust and doubt are palpable.

From Bangladesh’s independence till date, India has made Bangladesh feel obligated to it for lending support in its war of independence. Of course, Indian fails to admit that breaking up Pakistan to create Bangladesh served its own interests and was hardly a pure and unadulterated munificence towards Bangladesh. That is no secret, no matter how many mausoleums may be planned in Bangladesh for the fallen Indian soldiers of 1971. India still likes to refer to that as the 1971 India-Pakistan War, rather than a liberation war of the Bangladeshis.

Give and take, or take and take?

A brief review of the deals, treaties, trade and interactions over the years will make it crystal clear that India’s dealings with Bangladesh have all been one-sided, entered into solely with its own interests at heart. Things were not so easy with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power, and relations then had dropped to rock bottom. But with Awami League at the helm, it has been smooth sailing for Delhi…. till now. 

Indira-Mujib Treaty

The very first article of the historic Indira-Mujib Treaty signed on 19 March 1972, stated: “each side shall respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the other and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the other side.” Bangladesh immediately ratified the treaty in parliament. India took 42 years to do so. Even so, that was half-hearted and a mere eyewash.

India took 18 long years to open the Tin Bigha corridor leading to Bangladesh’s Dahagram-Angarpota enclaves. Then too, the 185-metercorridor was opened for just a few hours a day for the people to scurry to and frounder the hawkish watch of Indian border guards. India acted as if it had done Bangladesh a huge favor. The fact that it has taken so long to undo the injustice speaks of its smugness. 

Ganges water treaty

India saw the signing of the Ganges water treaty as another act of benevolence. An India-friendly Awami League government saw this as a feather in its cap. Whether the committed cubits of Ganges water were actually released or not, is another matter. Over two decades have passed since the treaty was signed. People have given up hope for a fair share of this river’s waters.

What about the Teesta deal? That is another tale of India’s sly manipulations and Bangladesh’s total failure to strike a deal in the interests of its people. India had committed in no uncertain terms to signing the Teesta agreement and the stage was set for it. But in the wily Indian way, both Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi used Mamata Banerjee as their scapegoat to avoid signing the deal. The West Bengal Chief Minister has always professed to be a friend of Bangladesh, but she used the Teesta card to win kudos in her own state and also please the Centre. It was a win-win for the Manmohan-Modi-Mamata trio and a lose-lose for Bangladesh. Bangladesh seems resigned to its fate about Teesta waters.

Trade and tariff

It is perhaps only natural for the trade balance between Bangladesh and India to go hugely in favor of India, given its size and its economy. But here too, it has blithely brushed aside Bangladesh’s interests.  

It may have offered credit lines to Bangladesh, but on difficult terms. It may have offered duty-free access to certain goods from Bangladesh, but then non-tariff barriers twist Bangladesh’s arm.

Rohingya crisis   

Bangladesh at present is burdened with the Rohingya refugees. While providing shelter to over a million Rohingyas driven out by the Myanmar military, Bangladesh is reeling under pressure of a burgeoning population of Rohingyas. There is growing resentment among local people in Teknaf and Ukhia were the refugees are housed, as they see their land, succor and employment going to the refugees who are willing to work for less than minimum wages. It is not as if the refugees are having a cushy life. But Bangladesh has not found its “true” friend India by its side in this crisis.

On the contrary, India has sided with Myanmar’s military and has not stood up for Bangladesh at any international forum on the Rohingya issue. Bangladesh is pleading with India to take up the issue as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. There is little likelihood that India will. In the meantime, it will play its benefactor role by throwing a few crumbs from the table as a token of its goodwill. 

This was glaringly obvious in a recent interview given by India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Riva Ganguly, to Bangladesh’s leading daily Prothom Alo. She said, “We have provided five tranches of aid to the camps in Cox’s Bazar area through the Government of Bangladesh, andare committed to do more.” 

Visa, visits and revenue 

A former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Veena Sikri, in a recent column written for the same newspaper, expressed India’s expansive generosity in allowing Bangladeshis into India: “India issues almost 16 lakh visas each year for Bangladeshi nationals to travel to India, perhaps the largest number between any two countries anywhere in the world. India is their destination of choice for business, education, medical treatment, religious pilgrimage, and tourism. Talks are now on to create an air bubble to facilitate the resumption of travel that has been interrupted by the pandemic.”

What Sikri failed to mention is the massive revenue India rakes in from Bangladeshi visitors. Whether it is for medical treatment, education or even shopping, the dollars poured into India’s coffers from Bangladeshi pockets are staggering. No wonder a New Market shopkeeper from Kolkata recently called a regular customer in Dhaka, saying, “Didi, you Bangladeshis have stopped coming and we have become paupers! Local customers don’t spend one-tenth of what you all spend!” And no wonder Sikri and her fellow Indians are impatient for a resumption of travel!

Border killings

Meanwhile, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) continues to shoot dead unarmed Bangladeshi civilians on the border. The image of young Felani, her limp body hanging from a barbed wire fence along the border, has been indelibly imprinted in the minds of Bangladeshis. She was killed by India’s BSF. Even in India, human rights activities rose up against this atrocity, shouting for justice. But still injustice prevails. 

Various human rights groups put the number of Bangladeshis killed by Indian border troops at over 1000 in the past 10 years. India declared it will bring this down to zero. But even in the first eight months of 2020, 39 Bangladeshis have been killed. The killings escalated further in recent months. But nary a word of apology from India. 

On the contrary, writes these off as “undesirable deaths” and implies that these more mostly acts of self-defence in the face of aggressive smugglers, traffickers and criminals. Is their definition of a criminal a poor farmer trying to bring back his cow that had strayed across the border?      

In concrete terms, if anyone is the benefactor in this relationship, it is Bangladesh. An Indian may baulk at this statement, but the proof is out there for all to see.

Subduing the Seven Sisters

Perhaps the biggest contribution Bangladesh has made to India, is something that India itself failed to do. And that is successfully subduing the insurgencies in the Seven Sisters, India’s troubled North Eastern states. 

When Awami League came to power in 2009, the first thing it did was rush to hand over United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leaders to India and smash they “camps” in Bangladesh. If these rebels had any form of safe haven in Bangladesh, unable to live in their own deprived and depressed remote region of their own motherland, the Awami League government put paid to that. How did India reciprocate? Top Bangladeshi terrorists operate their mafia in Bangladesh from the comfort of their Kolkata homes. And Bangladeshis haven’t forgotten India’s full support to the insurgent Shanti Bahini that has destroyed the peace in Bangladesh’s beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Transit on a plate     

Whether it was BNP, or even the Jatiya Party which had Indian proclivities, no one agreed to allow transit to India through Bangladesh’s territory to facilitate cheap and easy communication with the northeast. The security issues were immense as were the enormity of the economic impact on Bangladesh. But India’s tried and trusted friend Awami League gave it transit facilities on a platter. 

But is India grateful? Does it reciprocate? It does not even allow Bangladesh to use the mere 14 miles of its Siliguri corridor to transport goods to Nepal. What could be a more obvious example of a one-sided friendship?

Insulting and arrogant

No matter how much sugar-coated rhetoric the Indian diplomats may use, the politicians there strip bare the actual mindset of the Indian state machinery. The government’s plans and policies are in no way conducive to friendship. 

The Indian Citizenship Act and National Register of Citizens in Assam refer to Bangla speaking Indians as ‘foreigners’, and politicians there have in no uncertain terms called them ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’.They have also referred to Hindus in Bangladesh as the “persecuted” minority. They conveniently forget that while Babri Masjid was demolished and Muslims were killed in Gujarat, Bangladesh saw pujas and Hindu festivals being celebrated with unprecedented pomp and grandeur. 

The wolf has lost its fangs

The list of grievances on the Bangladesh side would fill volumes. The public are not hiding their animosity towards India for its attitude and actions. India, only recently awakening to the possibility of Bangladesh’s looking towards China in more concrete terms, may lose some of its bluster. The recent rather clumsy and hurried visit of its Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was a manifestation of that concern. 

The countries of the region no longer kowtow to India’s demands. Its claws have lost their sharpness.Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf now?