Why is Dhaka, a long-time ally of New Delhi, slowly gravitating towards China and also revisiting its fraught relationship with its foe Pakistan?
On August 18, India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, rushed to Dhaka for an unscheduled meeting with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, surprising regional observers.
It was “an informal visit” without any “fixed agenda”, reported Bangladesh’s press, in which India gave out-of-box proposals to its eastern neighbour.
When did a top Indian official last rush to Dhaka on an informal visit without an agenda and what triggered such a meeting between India and Bangladesh?
The unease surrounding the New Delhi-Dhaka ties came to the fore when Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen's statement last month, ruffled the feathers of Indian diplomats and policymakers.
The economist-turned-diplomat said in separate forums that India should not let construction of the Ram Temple “fracture” India-Bangladesh ties, while also concluding that the Delhi-Dhaka relationship is “rock-solid” and made of “blood.”
He almost simultaneously indicated that the Beijing-Dhaka economic bonding will continue and added – in context to Pakistan – that “there is no permanent enemy or friend in diplomacy.”
Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan in 1971 following a war that witnessed many million deaths.
Momen’s comments appeared at a time when hostility between China and India is scaling up. It also gained significance as Pakistan, which traditionally challenges India in Kashmir in the northern front, is trying to woo traditional Indian ally Bangladesh in the eastern front.
Prime Minister Imran Khan called his counterpart in Bangladesh, while his High Commissioner in Dhaka praised major Bengali Muslim leaders – born in undivided Bengal Presidency – for their role in the “glorious history of Pakistan’s struggle.”
Under a week, the Indian Foreign Secretary made an unscheduled trip to Dhaka.
Bangladesh’s slow drift
The relationship between India and Bangladesh was all hunky-dory over the last decade.
“The achievements of last 10 years – from implementation of land boundary agreement, connectivity projects, inland water protocol, maritime boundary settlement to facilitation of visa which has enhanced number of visitors many time more – indicate that the relationship has only grown,” said Veena Sikri, India’s High Commissioner in Bangladesh a decade ago.
In 2017, however, Dhaka was aghast when India maintained complete silence about the Rohingya influx from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
New Delhi feared that Myanmar and China’s relationship would further consolidate should it rebuke the former. Significantly, Prime Minister Hasina raised the issue of Rohingya repatriation in her August 18 meeting with Indian officials led by Foreign Minister Shringla.
The other critical factor was the sharing of river water. Bangladesh repeatedly sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters, flowing through east Indian states, but to no avail. According to media reports, China is willing to pay a loan of nearly one billion dollars to maintain levels in the river during drought season. China’s approach to resolve the issue – if it can – will severely damage India as water is a political issue in Bangladesh being a riverine country.
Domestic politics clashing with foreign policy
The third, and perhaps most critical factor for Bangladesh’s internal politics, is implementation of a register, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and passage of a law, Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to identify illegal citizens and provide citizenship to legal ones respectively. Prime Minister Hasina clearly stated that Bangladesh “could not understand” why India passed CAA and “it was not necessary.”
Sikri said that the legislation was required to address “the problems created in the aftermath of 1947 and 1971,” the respective years of independence for two nations.
“Stateless people living here as refugees for decades,” said Sikri.
Bangladeshi officials said that India’s internal legislations are however not a problem for Dhaka, raising two objections.
“Top BJP officials used the most derogatory language against Bangladesh while pushing for CAA forgetting that it is India’s only friend in the region,” said Touhid Hossain, a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.
In 2019, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah referred to illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators as “termites”, while BJP’s West Bengal President, Dilip Ghosh, continues to say that “10 million illegal Bangladeshis will be sent back.” NRC has identified nearly two million people in the east Indian state of Assam allegedly without proper papers.
“What will we do if India officially declares that these people have actually come from Bangladesh, like Myanmar, and used it as a negotiating chip? BJP leaders are already voicing such opinions,” said Hossain.
Dr Smruti S Pattanaik, a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar–Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, who has followed Bangladesh for many years, underscored another issue.
It was not wise to bracket Bangladesh with Pakistan in the CAA, she said.
“India could have said that it would provide citizenship to persecuted minorities from Pakistan. But when Bangladesh is equated with Pakistan, Bangladesh will always react,” she added.
BJP’s 2014 election manifesto noted that there is “a need” in foreign policy “to integrate our soft power avenues into our external interchange particularly, harnessing and focusing on the spiritual, cultural and philosophical dimensions of it.”
Many believe that India is facing the risk of confusing BJP’s “spiritual” agenda with the government’s foreign policy, especially with Muslim neighbours.
China and Bangladesh relationship
China engaged with Bangladesh on multiple fronts, especially economics, providing massive loans while promising more. For Indian observers, it is late to ask why Bangladesh is accepting loans from China.
“We cannot match China on this front. Rather we should try to find out how we may benefit from Chinese engagement in Bangladesh. For one, Chinese loan to construct the Padma bridge may cut down travelling time between Kolkata and Dhaka,” said Pattnaik.
For Hossain, the “Chinese are not Bangladesh’s enemies” and if they are providing something “at a lower rate we will accept.”
Bangladesh has now handed over construction of the airport terminal in the eastern city of Sylhet to China for quoting “lowest rates', said Momen.
Bangladesh triggered a bigger concern for India by handing over a submarine base construction project in Bay of Bengal, adjacent to India.
India, however, has intervened to stop Chinese involvement in Sonadia deep-sea port in the south.
But ordinary Bangladeshis are happy with one major step taken by Shringla as High Commissioner only a couple of years ago. He managed to implement a faster and hassle-free processing of visas for Bangladeshis to visit India, which was a major roadblock in the relationship. In 2019, more than 1.5 million Bangladeshis visited the country. India also lifted restrictions for Bangladeshi tourists to visit disputed Kashmir or India's sensitive north-eastern states.
Yet, Bangladeshis have expressed their anger and disappointment over the recent spike in border killings, which indicates a drop in quality of relationship.
Despite relations having been marked by several rough patches, Dhaka will not move away from New Delhi, says Ali Riaz, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University.
“Bangladesh has two options. To radically re-align with China leaving India or hedging – that is – to balance between both. To my opinion, Dhaka is close to hedging than re-alignment,” said Mr Riaz.
Many observers are of the opinion that a large section of affluent Bangladeshis – who are not against India – are upset as Delhi backed the ruling Awami League in two elections (2014, 2018) which were “fraudulent.”
“India’s role in Bangladesh helped Awami League but anti-India sentiment grew,” Prof Riaz said. On the other hand, Sikri said that China is exerting “not just state-level pressure on Bangladesh but pressure involving non-state [actors] as well.”
“However, Sheikh Hasina has a tremendous legacy…her and her father’s legacy. I do not think she will sacrifice it and give-in to pressure from China or Pakistan,” she said.
There however is no statement from China or Bangladesh on the allegation.
Hossain argued India needs to help Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, rather than trying to isolate her for her balancing acts.
“India needs to fuel her so she can counter her critics.” he said.
India seems to think so too as it sent its Foreign Secretary to address the festering issues.