By Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik*
India and Bangladesh share a very close relationship. India played an important role in Bangladesh’s liberation, and hosted 10 million refugees who escaped Pakistani brutality and took refuge in India. The relationship is based on strong people-to-people links and a close socio-cultural bond. This is reflected in India’s issuance of the largest number of visas to Bangladesh. Further, India remains the number one tourist destination for Bangladesh. Over the past 10 years or more, the two countries have witnessed visits by heads of state, chiefs of armed forces, and senior ministers. The bilateral relationship has thus largely been institutionalised.
It is in this context that Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Bangladesh assumes significance. The FS was the first foreign visitor received by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since the lockdown began in Bangladesh. They discussed a two-year road map for cooperation, which includes bilateral security issues, repatriation of Rohingyas, creating ‘air bubbles’ for transport, and other issues of mutual concern.
India also assured Bangladesh that the vaccine it is developing, currently under trial, would be available for its close friends in the neighbourhood. Beximco Pharma of Bangladesh has already agreed to invest with the Serum Institute of India (SII) to develop a vaccine so that it can be supplied at a cheaper rate to Bangladesh. In spite of this progress, India’s relationship with Bangladesh has been subjected to constant media scrutiny in recent times.
An Analysis of Media Coverage
The visit received unprecedented media attention. Several questions were raised regarding the reason for this ‘sudden’ visit, the number of hours the FS was kept waiting to meet the prime minister, and what was discussed in the meeting.
In any case, such speculations about India’s relations with Bangladesh and vice versa are not new. The health of the bilateral relationship was a subject of media speculation over a month prior to Shringla’s visit. A spate of speculation began especially after an opinion editorial piece written by Shyamol Dutta appeared in Bhorer Kagoj, of which he is the editor, saying that Indian high commissioner was refused a meeting with Hasina. This news was picked up by The Hindu and was subsequently quoted in Dawn, Asia Times, etc. Several op-eds published in both India and Bangladesh only fuelled further speculation, forcing the Indian High Commission to issue a clarification that the high commissioner had not sought an appointment for a meeting.
Some of these op-eds argued that India is losing its ground to China, and China’s influence on Pakistan led to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s phone call to Hasina. Giving credence to China’s increasing role in Bangladesh, a news report said that Bangladesh has sought US$ 1 billion from China for the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project. Many attributed Shringla’s visit to Dhaka on short notice, which was reported a few days later, to this news.
However, perception is shaped not by reality alone, and but is based also on imagination, apparent grievances, and regional geopolitics. The India-China border conflict in Ladakh in fact has fuelled speculation of a zero-sum game in terms of their influence in the neighbourhood. Many have read Dhaka’s lack of a statement in support of India as an automatic China win. The question is: why should Dhaka take sides when it has good relations with both countries? Moreover, the news of China’s massive investments in Bangladesh is not a new development. It was announced in 2016, when the two countries upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership. Still, some newspapers highlighted these investment to buttress their points, giving it more immediacy than is the case.
Bilateral Sticking Points
Delhi-Dhaka ties have been in some trouble since India announced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and named Bangladesh as one of the countries witnessing minority persecution, alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was perhaps a kind of jolt for the Hasina government, which had earlier put on a brave face when India carried out the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) exercise at the direction of the Supreme Court. Though Dhaka termed the NRC an internal exercise, the political narrative surrounding it was not to Dhaka’s liking. The CAA took away the veneer of pretension that everything was fine bilaterally.
Not only were several bilateral meetings postponed, but Dhaka also did not make any attempt to hide its displeasure. The two countries could have found ways to mend ties—largely an Indian responsibility—during Prime Minister Modi’s scheduled visit for the Mujib Borsho celebrations. But COVID-19’s interruption saved Dhaka from the political dilemma of striking a balance between its anger over the CAA, and hosting the Indian prime minister. Still, credit must be given to Sheikh Hasina for not allowing the relationship to suffer any set back. This visit by the FS was therefore essential to take stock of progress on India’s investments and discuss the necessary steps to address Dhaka’s concerns.
Dhaka has two major concerns. One, the return of Rohingyas to Myanmar, for which it has conveyed India’s help as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council would be required. India perhaps needs to nudge Naypyidaw to resolve the problem at the earliest as it has regional security implications. Two, the firing incidents at the border that have resulted in the death of Bangladeshi nationals. While cattle smuggling is the main reason for firing, which is acknowledged by both India and Bangladesh, the deaths on the border do not measure up to the ‘Shonali Adhayya’ that the two countries are trying to create. Increasing vigilance will require mutual cooperation—the responsibility for zero casualties lies with both. Therefore it is important to dispassionately look at the reasons for these firings and address them together, rather than pretending that only one side is responsible.
Indian projects, especially the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP), should stand India in good stead. However, this should be backed by good public relations to project the positive aspects of the relationship while also working on the shortcomings. India needs to work more on the optics while staying the course on the substance of the relationship.
*Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is Research Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.