Celebrating a unique 50-year relationship: India and Bangladesh are development partners with worrying challenges

The foremost geostrategic challenge for India vis-à-vis Bangladesh is to counter the machinations of the China-Pakistan axis, writes Amb Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty (retd) for South Asia Monitor 

Bangladesh Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi

December 16 is celebrated as “Victory Day” or “Bijoy Dibosh” in Bangladesh and India. The date has gone down in history as the day when 93,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers surrendered to the Indian military and Bangladeshi guerrilla forces at the historic Ramna Park in central Dhaka, bringing to an end a momentous nine-month war. Bangladesh was liberated from the clutches of the military rulers in Islamabad who had unleashed one of the worst genocides in living memory in March 1971 on their fellow citizens in then East Pakistan. 

Over three million were killed and over 200,000 women were raped and dishonoured. Bengali Muslims got over the euphoria of achieving their Islamic homeland soon after 1947. The absurdity of the two geographical units of West and East Pakistan, separated by over 2,000 km of Indian territory, was noted by many commentators and the possibility of the eastern wing seceding remained a point of debate. Bengali Muslims soon realized that though they were a majority in Pakistan, they were treated as inferior by Pakistan's founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah and his political accomplices.  

Karachi became the first capital of Pakistan instead of Dhaka. This initial disappointment was compounded by the political folly of Jinnah who chose Urdu as the national language. Bengali was not given any recognition. Urdu was an alien language for the Bengalis. When Jinnah announced this in Dhaka on his first and only visit in 1948, he was booed by students. Jinnah died later in the same year but had set in motion political currents that soon became the “language movement”. 

Pakistan's subjugation

The ineptness of the Pakistani military-bureaucratic establishment and power-hungry unscrupulous politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, blinded by their arrogance, hubris and hatred of their Bengali Muslim fellow citizens, also speeded up the process of alienation. They opted for brute force to subjugate the Bengalis who they regarded as inferior, culturally different, not fully Muslims because of their strong attachment to Bengali culture and a non-martial race, incapable of taking on the martial Punjabi and Pathan Muslims in Pakistan’s military.   

Bengali Muslims were poorly represented in the civil services and the military and none were appointed to high positions. Institutionalized discrimination against Bengali Muslims had become the norm. What began as a struggle for autonomy, fair and just treatment, transformed into a full-fledged War of Liberation from West Pakistani bondage. Pakistan’s “two-nation” ideology was shattered, but this led to progressive Islamization of all institutions and the exponential growth of extremist and terrorist organizations. 

With the help of the Soviet Union, India successfully deterred and thwarted Pakistan’s supporters, led by the US and China, during the 1971 War. China had developed a strategic nexus with Pakistan and the US was using Pakistan as a conduit to normalize ties with China to confront the Soviet Union. The 1971 India-Soviet Treaty of Friendship helped India navigate the geopolitics of that time. China did not recognize Bangladesh, till after the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's founder, and most of his family. The emergence of Bangladesh contributed to a reduction in the overall strategic threat in the eastern theatre. 

Important neighbour

For over a decade now, bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India have been on a positive trajectory under the leadership of Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. Two major irritants, the Maritime Boundary dispute and the Land Boundary demarcation, were achieved in 2014-15. Modi visited Dhaka to attend the Independence Day celebrations on March 26, 2020.  

Bangladesh will remain an important neighbour for India for geopolitical, historical and cultural reasons. Bangladesh is India’s largest trading with an annual turnover of around $10 billion. Investments are or the order of $3 billion. India’s financial aid programme for Bangladesh has grown to over $ 8 billion. Connectivity has expanded.  

Pre-partition trans-border railway nodes are being reconnected, pipelines supplying hydrocarbons, transhipment of goods via Chittagong to Agartala and cyber connectivity extension from the undersea cable gateway at Cox’s Bazaar to Agartala, building conventional and nuclear power plants, supplying power via connected electricity grids and greater people-to-people movement makes Bangladesh India’s major development partner in the subcontinent.  

The impressive growth of Bangladesh’s economy has put the country on the cusp of graduating from its LDC (Least Developed Countries) status. This will impact Bangladesh’s exports and trading ties with India since duty-free privileges will end for Bangladeshi goods. Hence a new paradigm of a CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) will have to be put in place bilaterally. Bangladesh will continue to remain a pivot for India’s “Look East Policy”, and trans-regional and sub-regional groupings like BIMSTEC and BBIN. 

Challenges to ties

Challenges remain in the domain of river water sharing, migration issues, border management and communal violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. The smuggling mafia in both countries create situations that provoke shootings at the border. A multipronged approach is required, and not a blame game. The root cause of smuggling has to be tackled. Defending India’s borders requires certain deterrence capabilities which cannot be abandoned.  

The foremost geostrategic challenge for India is to counter the machinations of the China-Pakistan axis. While it is normal for India’s neighbours to seek ways of balancing by drawing in China, there are limits based on India’s security concerns. Bangladesh’s overwhelming dependence on Chinese military hardware complicates bilateral ties and India’s offer of a $500 million line of credit for defence purchases are yet to fructify.  

On the socio-religious front, the rise of extremist Islamist organizations in Bangladesh is a worrying development. The recent communal violence against Hindus during the last Durga Puja festival, on the blatantly manufactured pretext of blasphemy, was a renewed reminder of the evil designs of the Islamists who wanted to send a message to India. If not controlled, this can damage bilateral ties. 

(The author is a former Secretary, India's Ministry of External Affairs and a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh. He is a founder Director of DeepStrat and a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

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