PM Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photograph:( AFP )
Apparently, it’s quite unnatural for Bangladesh and India not to be close allies, especially with India's involvement in Bangladesh's War of Independence of 1971. And then, of course, there are the unique cultural similarities and geographical realities with regards to common Ganges-Bramhaputra plain that runs through both the countries. Despite the overt Hasina-Modi bonhomie, the political reality is, however, very different. Bangladesh's relations with India can best be described as a loose friendship with hidden mutual mistrust and suspicion.
The lack of trust between the two countries comes forth more in the context of Bangladesh-Myanmar tussle on persecution and expulsion of Rohingyas from Arakan.
The tensed Bangladesh –India relationship stems from a variety of issues, such as ‘equitable sharing of all common river water, terrorist camps and migration.
The prime deficiency of India’s South Asia policy has been its obsession with Pakistan. Only recently a separate desk has been introduced for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal in the Ministry of External Affairs at the South Block of Raisina Hills in New Delhi. Pakistan became important for its nuisance value while India failed to see the constructive value of the rest, especially Bangladesh which is already the 31st largest economy in the world with more than 6 per cent average economic growth in the last couple of decades. Courtesy the economic growth, the western world has come to view Bangladesh as one of the ‘Next Eleven’. Bangladesh has come to develop relations with the west, Japan, Middle-East and China and derived great economic benefits out of those relations.
The tensed Bangladesh –India relationship stems from a variety of issues, such as ‘equitable sharing of all common river water, terrorist camps and migration. Since 1996 gradual progress has been achieved by Bangladesh and India to address some of these issues. Bangladesh has destroyed the dens the Indian rebels made along Bangladesh -
India borders and proactively searched and sealed all channels of logistics and arms supply to these rebels. Bangladeshi intelligence agencies are also blocking ISI or its proxies’ probable operations against India from Bangladeshi soil.
Geo-politically, in South Asia and beyond, there are several areas where an alliance between the India and Bangladesh could have brought good mutual dividend and uphold some great IR principles. One such area is Pakistan’s export of terrorism and Islamic radicalism. Both India and Bangladesh are affected by that.
Myanmar on the other hand hardly has any principled position. It is buying good numbers of multi-role fighter aircraft from Pakistan, the regional hub of Islamic terrorism, giving a boost to Pakistani military industry and technology. These are made through the collaboration between Pakistan and China, Myanmar’s closest ally and India’s geo-strategic nemesis. In this context, it’s difficult to make sense as to why India is siding with Myanmar in its dissension with Bangladesh on an acute humanitarian crisis like Rohingya.
It’s difficult to make sense as to why India is siding with Myanmar in its dissension with Bangladesh on an acute humanitarian crisis like Rohingya.
Apart from the principle and propriety angle, India hardly gains anything from Myanmar. India can’t match the kind of investment China made in Myanmar.
A further irony is, lacs of Indians were expelled from Myanmar like the Rohingyas in the fifties and sixties. The remaining ones and later migrant Indian in Myanmar are still abused in that country with racial slur 'Kala’. The Myanmar Indians falls in the same absurd 1982 citizenship law as Rohingyas. Myanmar is always likely to be on China's side despite India’s disgraceful pampering.
On the other hand, India has much to lose not by standing by Bangladesh’s side at the time of its need both in comparative and absolute terms. Bangladesh might again lean more towards the Islamic bondage rather than the subcontinental one. If Islamic solidarity is revived on this issue, India’s massive stake in the Middle East might even be harmed for its direct or indirect support in Rohingya genocide and expulsion.
It seems some of PM Modi’s strategic advisors have gone bonkers with anti-Muslim preoccupation and very weak Rohingya terrorism stories. Because of them, soon India might find herself on the wrong side of geopolitics and history. Bangladesh did a balancing act between concerns of India and interest of China by postponing China’s proposal for a Sri Lanka and Pakistan like the development of a deep sea port in Sonadia of Chittagong. Now, it’s a payback time for India and an opportunity for it to befriend Bangladesh for the long term by strongly being by the latter’s side in this crisis.
If India is strongly by the side of Bangladesh now, much of the remaining Indo-Bangla mistrust in the relationship will be gone, and Bangladeshi people, as well as the political forces, will appreciate the value of India’s friendship immensely. It will bring a defining shift in Bangladesh-India relation for a very long term. The question is whether PM Modi is ready for an in-depth strategic re-assessment and would his policy strategists allow him to do that?