The writer is a Bangladesh-based journalist who writes on diplomacy, human rights, climate change and refugee crises
Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations have not only developed because the two are very close neighbors in terms of geographical proximity, but because there is a strong historical bond between the two South Asian neighbors. During the wars against Pakistan for independence in 1971, the main ally of Bangladesh [then-East Pakistan] was India, which hosted over 10 million Bangladeshi war refugees. At one stage of the nine-month-long deadly Liberation War, the Indian military directly took part in the battle against Pakistan.
After the long war, Pakistani military with its top commander Lieutenant General Amir “Tiger” Niazi surrendered, even before the then Indian army chief Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, in Dhaka on Dec. 16, 1971. But the Dhaka-Delhi fraternal ties have been going through critical courses for multifarious reasons and they seem to have taken a plunge to the bottom recently.
After the independence, Bangladeshi people expected that the bond with India would be strengthened with the span of time. Moreover, Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman set the country’s foreign policy as “Friendship to all and malice to none” since the very beginning of his government after returning from a Pakistani jail in 1972. The policy is still preserved in the country’s constitution.
At the very beginning of the independent Bangladesh, people were deeply shocked as Indian soldiers began a massive looting campaign throughout the country. Noted freedom fighter and one of the 11 sector commanders who led the 1971 Liberation War, Major Mohammad Abdul Jalil, popularly known as Major Jalil, has focused on this issue in his book titled “Unprotected Independence is Subordination [Arokkhita Shadhinatai Paradhinota]”.
He writes: “Trucks laden with arms, ammunition and many other valuable goods and thousands of military and civilian cars abandoned by the Pakistani forces, were taken [by the Indian army]. Even ‘private cars’ were not left. I just tried to save the private cars in the [southwestern] city of Khulna after keeping those at the city’s circuit house ground after requisition. Before that all cars from everywhere were passed through the border [India]. The office and quarter of the army cantonment in [southwestern district of] Jessore were totally looted. Even, the mirrors in the bathrooms and other fittings were not untouched from the drastic lootings. Peaceful pedestrians were also victimized. Such behavior of the so-called ally spread panic among the people. If the attitude of them turned so violent just after entering Bangladesh, what would be the situation of the country and the countrymen if they stayed here longer? What type of independence have we gained through a blood-shedding war?”
However, through the efforts of the brave leadership of the country’s founding leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Indian government had to withdraw all their soldiers from Bangladesh as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman very straightforwardly asked the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi to do so.
Monopoly over common rivers
Monopolistic control of the waters of almost all of the 54 common rivers by upstream India, ignoring the international river law, is another cause of diplomatic tussle between the two countries. Specially the Farakka Barrage on the common river Ganga [Padma in Bangladesh] built by India in 1975, has been seriously affecting the ecology and cultivation of Bangladesh’s northern regions.
The first and most popular mass demonstration in the independent Bangladesh was also held against India over this barrage. Historically known as “The Long Farakka March”, it occurred in May 1976, and was led by the country’s another historic leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani.
The demonstration was held in order to demand the demolishing of the Farakka Barrage. In remembrance of this first popular movement, Bangladesh observes “Historic Farakka Long March Day” every year on May 16.
India is also partly responsible for the ongoing floods in Bangladesh that have already killed 263 people and inundated more than two-thirds of the country. The July 5, 2020 headline of Bangladesh’s popular English daily newspaper, the New Age, was “Flooding worsens as India opens barrage gates again”.
Every year India practices the same. For example, the headline of Bangladesh’s main private news agency, United News of Bangladesh (UNB), on Sept. 30, 2019 was “Bangladesh rivers swell as India opens all Farakka gates”.
Except Dhaka and Delhi’s historic agreement on sharing the waters of the river Ganga [Padma] the both countries have failed to reach any conclusive solution on sharing the waters of the rest of the 53 common rivers. India has been controlling the waters of all these common rivers either by constructing barrages or diverting water through artificial canals.
According to analysts, the anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh is sharply rising due to such decades-long Indian stance against the interests of the riverine Bangladesh.
Much-awaited Teesta Water Sharing treaty
For more than three decades, India has been hanging a much-awaited treaty on sharing the water of a common river, the Teesta. Since Bangladesh and India reached an agreement on an ad-hoc sharing of the Teesta River during the dry season in July 1983, Dhaka has been trying to convince New Delhi to sign a permanent agreement. After the expiry of the ad-hoc sharing agreement in 1985, it was extended till the end of 1987.
There was a huge expectation that the two countries would sign an agreement during the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011. But at the last moment India decided against the initiative based on the excuse that the country’s West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was opposed it. It is still a matter of wonder to the Bangladeshi people whether the Indian central government is so powerless before its provincial government or it is a mere political game.
People again hoped that during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s India tour in April 2017, the expected Teesta Water Sharing Treaty would be signed. But under the same lame excuse, India refrained from signing the agreement. Finally, the 6th meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) between Bangladesh and India came to an end on September 29, 2020 with no progress, either.
Interestingly, during these long periods, India successfully obtained almost all of its interests from Bangladesh. Dhaka has already allowed transit and transshipment facilities for Indian goods with minimal charges while Dhaka also allowed Delhi to use its two main sea ports, Mongla and Chattogram.
Though transit to India was believed to be the “trump card” for Bangladesh to force India to sign the Teesta Water Sharing treaty, Bangladesh failed to use this card. Finally, the Bangladeshi prime minister again failed to sign this agreement with India during her last India tour on Oct. 3-4, 2019.
Bangladesh is not at all satisfied with mere verbal commitments from India and Dhaka has seemingly taken a bold diplomatic stance of late. In August this year Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh but he failed to hold any formal meeting with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. According to internal sources, after a long wait he met Hasina in a courtesy call and no state-run media of Bangladesh covered it. This was a very rare occasion since Hasina resumed power in early 2009.
Actually, Shringla’s August tour to Bangladesh was the instant result of China’s offer to Bangladesh a loan of nearly $1 billion for maintaining the water level of the Teesta during the dry season. During the visit, Shringla also tried to get a commitment from Bangladesh for importing the COVID-19 vaccine from India on priority basis but failed to get any solid commitment from Dhaka.
On the other hand, Bangladesh has been rapidly bolstering its ties with India’s archrival China for the last couple of years. Despite serious diplomatic pressure from India, Bangladesh bought two submarines from China in 2016. Bangladesh is also engaged in a coronavirus vaccine diplomacy with China more closely than India.
Besides, the newly appointed Pakistani envoy’s meeting with the Bangladeshi foreign minister on July 1 this year and the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s phone call to his Bangladeshi counterpart Hasina also worried India.
In the first eight months of this year, a total of 35 people were killed in border violence in the Indo-Bangla frontier – with 29 shot to death and five died from physical torture. In 2019, 43 people were killed, according to the local rights and legal aid body “Law and Arbitration Center [Ain O Salish Kendra]”.
India has many times promised to decrease the border killings to zero. But fires shot at unarmed Bangladeshi civilians by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) still continue unabated despite civilian deaths.
According to another rights body Odhikar, a total of 1,185 Bangladeshi civilians were killed by Indian border forces between 2000 and 2019.
The pathetic scene of the hanging dead body of Bangladeshi teenage girl Felani in 2011 is still a source of great sorrow for Bangladeshi nationals. Felani was shot dead by the Indian BSF and her dead body was hanged over the barbed wire fence for several hours.
In the joint statement following the 6th meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) between Bangladesh and India on September 29, Dhaka “highlighted that the entire nation is deeply concerned at the rise in killings of Bangladeshi nationals by Indian border forces.” Indian side also agreed that the loss of civilian lives at the border is a matter of concern and both sides urged the concerned border forces to enhance coordinated measures to bring down border incidents to zero.
In contrast, just one week later, on Oct. 8, 2020, newly-appointed Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Vikram Kumar Doraiswami in his maiden talk before the media, however, said that there was no easy solution to border killings.
Citizenship Amendment Act
The Indian Parliament passed a controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on Dec. 11, 2019, confirming Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who had entered into India on or before Dec. 31, 2014, excluding Muslims.
Calling the bill unconstitutional and an affront to Indian’s secular values, critics have blasted it as a step to marginalize Muslims in India led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At the time of framing the new law, Indian pro-government politicians categorically pointed their fingers at Bangladesh and alleged that minority people especially Hindus were being oppressed there. In Bangladesh almost 8 percent of the population are Hindu and they have been living there with peace and tranquility for hundreds of years. Even at present many Hindus are in high-ranking government posts in many sectors including the cabinet, the judiciary and the bureaucracy.
The partial law engendered deep discontent even within India. Peace-loving people irrespective of their socio-political and ethnic identities took to the streets in protest of the law. During the weeks-long protests at least 25 people were killed and hundreds injured as police operated anti-protest drives. Many protesters were also detained.
India, however, assured Bangladesh politically several times that the CAA was their internal affair and Bangladesh did not need to be worried about it. Such a partial law which has been enacted based on a misinterpretation of the minorities in Bangladesh, however, cannot be ignored by Dhaka.
– National Register of Citizens
With a view to sort out illegal migrants, India declared last year that it would publish the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in all states amid concerns that the move might be applied as an excuse to force Bangla-language Muslims to move from India to Bangladesh. The final version of the NRC in the northeastern state of Assam, for example, published in Sept. 2019, stripped 1.9 million people mostly from the Bangla-speaking Muslim community, although they were given 120 days to appeal.
But in the meantime, some hateful speeches delivered by some top Indian ruling party leaders spread panic among Bangladeshis. Pointing to Bangladesh, the country’s Home Affairs Minister and BJP President Amit Shah, in a public meeting in Kolkata in early October 2019, said: “These crores of illegal immigrants are like termites and they are eating the food that should go to our poor and they are taking our jobs. They carry out blasts in our country and so many of our people die.” In reaction to the comment of Shah, the then Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu said in an interview with the Indian NDTV that Shah’s comments were “not proper”.
In a press conference in the Indian state of Goa, BJP spokesperson Syed Shahnawaz Hussain threatened to “hunt down” each and every illegal Bangladeshi who might have moved to Goa from Assam. “We are going to hunt each and every such illegal Bangladeshi,” Hussain said.
A local BJP leader in Indian western state of Maharashtra, Sudhir Navle, said: “We have learnt that illegal Bangladeshi immigrant workers are hired as they provide cheap labor. They are given accommodation and food. They are also settled here based on bogus documents.”
So, despite Indian assurances to Bangladesh, Dhaka is worried about possible push back attempts by India. The south Asian overcrowded country of 165 million people is already under great pressure due to the more than one million Rohingya refugees.
No more subservience
Bangladesh can no longer tolerate the continuous controversial acts of India. In a rare move, Bangladeshi traders stopped the entrance of trucks laden with Indian goods in protest against the embargo on trucks carrying Bangladeshi goods in late June this year.
After a more than two-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, cross-border trade between the two South Asian neighbors resumed on June 7 this year. Since then trucks with Indian goods started coming in, but the Indian state of West Bengal barred Bangladeshi trucks, citing the pandemic risk.
Protesting the one-sided step, Bangladeshi exporters in late June this year declared a lockdown on Indian trucks. The trade, however, resumed in the first week of July after trucks carrying Bangladeshi goods were allowed in again.
In assessing the aforesaid factors, it is very clear that the South Asian neighbors have been passing through critical diplomatic courses and India is responsible for that. In this era of globalization, India must realize that without a win-win atmosphere it will never be able to earn the trust of Bangladeshi people. If India calculates that they could establish their hegemony over Bangladesh through their friendly government, it will be a very wrong perception since no government ignoring the people’s sentiment would be able to continue relations with India for long. The bolstering warmness with China and the ice with Pakistan finally melting are also signaling a change.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.