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Sheikh Hasina best bet in Dhaka Bharat Shakti 10 Sep 2022
Addressing the media after her formal reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Sheikh Hasina, on her four-day visit to India stated, ‘India is our friend. Whenever I come to India, it’s a pleasure for me, especially because we always recall the contribution India has made during our liberation war. We have a friendly relationship; we are cooperating with each other.’ For Sheikh Hasina, individually, India holds a special place. After the assassination of her father, the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, she was provided shelter in Delhi by the then PM, Indira Gandhi. Her family lived on Pandara road under an assumed identity.
Her current visit is aimed at enhancing Indo-Bangladesh ties. This is possibly her last visit before Bangladesh moves into election mode. Elections are scheduled in 2023 and for India, her continuation is its best bet. Post her meeting with the PM, there were seven agreements signed, focussed on bilateral cooperation in multiple arenas. Both leaders jointly inaugurated the Maitri Super Thermal Power project in Rampur in Bangladesh built under India’s concessional financing scheme. India is currently the largest market for Bangladesh products.
The two nations will begin discussions for the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which would benefit Bangladesh and enhance trade. An agreement was inked for water sharing of the Kushyara river which flows into Bangladesh from Assam’s Silchar district. India had provided a USD 500 Million for defence procurements, for which Bangladesh placed its requirements.
Under the credit scheme, Bangladesh would procure Bridge Laying Tanks, Bailey bridges and mine protected vehicles, initially. Bangladesh also provided its wish list for further defence equipment which includes heavy recovery vehicles, armoured engineer reconnaissance vehicles, a floating dock and logistics ship amongst others. The Indian intention is to reduce Bangladesh’s dependency on China, from where it makes maximum defence procurements.
A major irritant which remains between the two nations is the sharing of the Teesta river water, stalled largely by West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamta Banerjee. Resolving the issue before elections next year would give a major boost to Sheikh Hasina’s re-election campaign. The Teesta water sharing subject has been raised in every visit by a Bangladesh PM.
Also on discussion was opening the Khulna-Darshan line and the Prabatpur-Kaunia track. The two leaders also inaugurated the Rupsha rail bridge, all of which are key parts of the Khulna-Mongla Port broad gauge rail project. These would link India’s Northeast via Bangladesh, providing an alternative to the Siliguri corridor. They would also open the ports of Monga and Chittagong for exports from India’s north-eastern states.
Some time back there were stumbling blocks in the relationship when India announced its National Register of Citizens and Citizen Amendment Act. Bangladesh cancelled visits of ministers and Sheikh Hasina even commented that these were unnecessary. To assuage fears, the then Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla, who had been the Indian Ambassador to Bangladesh, visited it twice. In the overall context, Indo-Bangla ties have been a success story.
Both India and China have been wary of increased footprints of the other in Bangladesh. Such was the Chinese concern that its ambassador to Dacca, Li Jimming, warned Bangladesh against joining the QUAD. Interacting with members of the Diplomatic Correspondents Association, after China gifted Bangladesh 500,000 COVID vaccines, he mentioned that by joining this club (QUAD plus), China-Bangladesh ties could be impacted. The Chinese ambassador was responded to by Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen, who termed his comments as ‘aggressive’ and ‘very unfortunate.’
If Bangladesh joins QUAD plus, Chinese hopes of bringing South Asia under its control would dissipate. China considers Bangladesh a major partner in its Belt Road Initiative. Many Chinese companies are involved in projects in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is currently investigating corruption and tax fraud by Chinese companies on its soil. For India, increased Chinese footprint implies greater influence of Pakistan.
Thus far, Bangladesh has balanced its ties with India, US, Japan and China, mainly seeking the best from all powers in its development. While discussing China-Bangladesh relations, prior to her visit, Sheikh Hasina stated, ‘Our foreign policy is very clear — friendship to all, malice to none. If there’s a problem, it’s between China and India. I don’t want to put my nose there.’ PM Modi hinted at the influence of China on Bangladesh when he called for both countries to stall attempts by those attempting to undermine and damage the mutual trust between the two nations.
PM Modi, in his conversation with Sheikh Hasina, suggested enhanced cooperation in battling terrorism and radicalization. Increased radicalization within Bangladesh society is impacting its Hindu minorities as also enhancing security threats for India. Sheikh Hasina assured her intent of protecting Bangladesh’s minority population. Radicalization is driving Bangladeshi population towards hatred for India. Spilling over from Bangladesh into India’s neighbouring state leads to polarization of Indian society, hence a security concern for India. Pro-Pak elements are attempting to accuse moderate Bangladeshi’s including Sheikh Hasina’s party as anti-Islam, adding to worries in India.
It was these elements which led anti-India protests post the Nupur Sharma incident as also during the visit of PM Modi to the country last year in March. Their long-term intent is to convert Bangladesh into an Islamic state. Unless the two nations cooperate the best that can be done by Bangladesh alone is control the situation, not eradicate it. Simultaneously, Bangladesh has acted against anti-India insurgent groups on its soil, allaying some of India’s concerns.
The other aspect impacting Indo-Bangla is movement of its population into India. The BSF responds by firing on smugglers as also those seeking to cross the border resulting in casualties. This has irked Bangladesh. Though these incidents have reduced, they cannot be stopped as in many parts the border remains porous.
The Rohingya refugee issue is another thorn between the two nations. Bangladesh currently hosts around 1.1 Million of them. India does provide funds to Bangladesh for their care, however, hesitates to do more though it holds some leverage over Myanmar. This compels Bangladesh to bank on China. India is also seeking to push its own Rohingya’s back into Bangladesh, the route through which they migrated, irking it. Sheikh Hasina stated that she hopes India would accept some Rohingya’s currently housed by them, which India resists.
Security concerns of both nations were discussed by the Prime Ministers and have been included under the heading of ‘cooperative matrix of engagement.’ Hopefully they will witness an improvement. With Sheikh Hasina in power, Indo-Bangladesh relations have grown. However Bangladesh’s two major concerns worry India. These include increased Chinese debt as also growing radicalization. Currently, Sheikh Hasina has kept Islamists at bay, as also managed Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-China relations. Presently, she remains India’s best bet in Dacca.