DHAKA and Delhi have not said anything officially so far about why the Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka in a special aircraft to call on Sheikh Hasina except that he carried Narendra Modi’s message for the Bangladesh prime minister. Yet, there was no excitement at Dhaka’s PMO. Instead, the Indian foreign secretary was kept waiting for hours to call on Hasina. He was neither received nor seen off at the airport. And the message he carried simply disappeared.
Instead, the two sides gave different versions of the visit on the media. The Indian media said that Delhi had sent Shringla in pursuit of furthering their excellent relations. The Bangladesh media quoted foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen’s statement after his meeting with his counterpart following the latter’s call on Hasina that the visit was a normal bilateral one and that he had discussed with him India’s offer of its COVID 19 vaccine and transshipment of Indian goods through Bangladesh to the Seven Sisters. There was no reason to believe either version, with the pandemic raging in the two countries.
The way Delhi handled the visit suggested that it did not want the real reason for the visit to be known which was Bangladesh’s drift towards China. Delhi was afraid that if the visit was discussed in a transparent manner, it would expose that Bangladesh’s drift towards China had placed its strategic interest in danger and also that it was responsible for the drift. Delhi asked Dhaka to hold its 2018 elections on its own with the participation of the BNP and not to expect its assistance. Delhi was convinced that the Awami League would win the elections by whatever means needed and return to its fold because it would have no alternative.
That did not happen. Instead, Hasina dropped pro-Indian heavyweights from her new cabinet perhaps to express her anger at Delhi. Delhi downgraded her visit to India in October 2019 from state to official. Many other instances of distancing occurred on both sides. Meanwhile, Chinese investments in Bangladesh rose, now more than $30 billion and increasing. The volume has not been the worse part for Delhi. The investments went in strategic projects that included the submarine base near Cox’s Bazar and the contract to build the second terminal in Sylhet international airport, located close to India’s fragile Seven Sisters, that Delhi wanted for itself. Indian media warned Bangladesh that China was leading the country to the ‘debt trap’ as it had done with Sri Lanka, unable to do much else.
The Indian high commissioner Riva Ganguli who arrived in Dhaka in March 2019 watched Dhaka distancing from Delhi and drifting towards Beijing that she, no doubt, conveyed to New Delhi. Her request to meet Hasina to bring Delhi’s concern over these developments to her attention was kept pending for many months at the PMO. That was the first wake-up call for Delhi that Dhaka was not coming back to its fold that it had arrogantly believed.
Delhi, nevertheless, remained in denial of the drift. The Indian media, however, reported on the drift in recent times. It identified the BJP’s anti-Muslim, anti-Bangladesh agenda embedded in Hindutva, the National Registration Act and the Citizenship Amendment Act under which Bangladeshis were called ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’, as major reasons for the growth of a bipartisan anti-Indian feeling in Bangladesh. The Indian media also reported on Delhi’s failure to treat Dhaka fairly over a host of bilateral issues such as the Teesta water-sharing deal and border killing after accepting from Bangladesh major concessions on security and land transit, as additional reasons for the growing anti-Indian feeling in Bangladesh.
The alarm bell rang very loud when Delhi learnt leading to Shringla’s visit that Dhaka and Beijing were close to signing a $927.72 million contract on the Teesta River that Delhi could no longer ignore. The deal would be signed in December that would allow China a significant physical presence in one of the most geopolitically strategic areas in Bangladesh-India relations, close to the 14-mile strip that separates Bangladesh from Nepal called the Siliguri corridor or the ‘chicken neck’, mainland India’s only link with its strategically important but otherwise fragile Seven Sisters. Nepal’s recent distancing from India and China’s growing presence in the country only added to Delhi’s worries about the project.
The project when completed would resolve the water needs of the five districts of Rangpur division that had been pushed to the cusp of desertification. The Dhaka-Beijing Teesta project would also save Bangladesh from massive flooding from the overflow of the Teesta in the rainy season and reverse the flow to flood large tracts in West Bengal instead. Therefore, the project would not just mean that China found foothold in an extremely important area from the point of view of Indian strategic interest but much worse. These reasons led Delhi to send Shringla to Dhaka and keep the visit and its outcome a secret.
A few former Indian high commissioners to Bangladesh were interviewed for a local Bangla daily newspaer to back the reports on the Indian media about the visit. They said that Bangladesh-India relations were under no strain and that the BNP and Jamaat were spreading the rumours about problems in the relations and anti-Indian feelings in Bangladesh because they were communal. These diplomats cried ‘wolf’ over Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh leading to its national elections in 2014. They strongly urged Delhi to do whatever was necessary to help the Awami League to win to keep the BNP-Jamaat out.
They are now crying ‘wolf’ again using the same BNP-Jamat bogey unaware that the BNP-Jamaat today have very little ability to come between Delhi and Dhaka, a fact well known to everyone in Bangladesh. These former diplomats need a reality check because a lot of water has passed under the bridge on both sides of which they are either unaware or in denial. They should focus on India’s transformation, meantime, from a secular to a net Hindu fundamentalist state. Bangladesh neither in 2014 nor now is anywhere near the blatant religious fundamentalism prevailing in India under the state-sponsored Hindutva ideology based on Hindu mythology.
The situation regarding Dhaka distancing from Delhi and drifting towards Beijing is still fluid. A few trends are, nevertheless, emerging that Shringla’s visit has brought to the surface. First, there is bipartisan disappointment and frustration in Bangladesh vis-à-vis India which is unusual with the Awami League in office. Second, the BNP-Jamaat has had little to do in this regard. Third, these feelings have arisen from Delhi’s domestic anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh agendas and its failure to deliver the Teesta deal, stop border killing, et cetera after receiving major concessions from Bangladesh. Fourth, there is bipartisan support for Bangladesh’s drift towards China that India’s relations with Bangladesh has never enjoyed. Fifth, Hasina has acknowledged the drift but has apparently suggested that it would not be at India’s expense. Finally, Bangladesh needs Chinese credit to build its post-pandemic economy that Delhi is not in a position to provide.
It is yet early to say where Bangladesh’s drift towards China would lead in the context of Bangladesh-India relations. A lot would depend on Delhi that would need to do some soul-searching on issues that have disappointed Bangladesh. Unfortunately, those issues are also indispensable for Delhi’s Hindutva agenda that have pervaded all aspects of India’s governance, from domestic to foreign and strategic affairs. Therefore, Delhi’s ability to stop Bangladesh’s China drift and its ability to encourage it to return to its fold is limited. As for Bangladesh, with China firmly behind it and in no hurry to leave and Dhaka in no hurry either to ask it to leave, Bangladesh-India relations would now have to wait for New Delhi to make the next move.
Postscript: Shringla’s visit has put to litmus test the long held belief in Bangladesh that in Bangladesh-India relations, the Awami League has no alternative but Delhi.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador and writes from the United States.