SHEIKH Hasina has a bilateral meeting with her Indian counterpart at every available opportunity in India or abroad since she assumed office in January 2009. Thus, she met Narendra Modi in Santkiketan in May 2018 when she inaugurated the Bangladesh Bhavana at Biswa Bharati and received an honorary doctorate. There was, however, no such meeting between the two leaders when Hasina visited Kolkata for a day on November 23 to watch the second day’s play of the Bangladesh-India second Test match despite speculations to the contrary.
Hasina and Modi had a summit in New Delhi in early October. Their summit ended with a 53-points joint statement. The outcome of the summit was disappointing for Bangladesh. India again failed to deliver the Teesta deal. Instead, Bangladesh agreed to provide water for India from the River Feni on humanitarian considerations because India’s request for the water was for drinking purposes of a town in Tipperah.
The summit was silent on the national register of citizens, or NRC, that was a major disappointment for Bangladesh. New Delhi stated before the Modi-Hasina summit that it had prepared a list of two million ‘illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh’ in Assam under the register of citizens and that a million of them who are Muslims would be pushed into Bangladesh unilaterally. New Delhi also hinted that many million more ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ were in other Indian provinces, especially in West Bengal, and that they, too, would be pushed back into Bangladesh. The foreign minister of Bangladesh stated earlier that Modi had assured Hasina that the NRC issue would be discussed at their summit.
The joint statement of the Hasina-Modi summit suggests that Bangladesh-India relations moved into troubled waters because most issues included in the statement favoured India. The memorandum of understanding on maritime surveillance for instance ‘will enable India to set up a coastal surveillance radar system’ in Bangladesh ‘as part of efforts to harness bilateral defense cooperation’ that would not only favour India but would be against the interests of Bangladesh. The memorandum, if implemented, would expose Bangladesh’s security to India in a manner dangerous for the country.
The joint statement also called on Bangladesh to use the lines of credit offered by India worth more than $8 billion quickly. The lines of credit were meant for infrastructure building in Bangladesh intended primarily to connect the mainland India to the Seven Sisters, India’s north-east, by railway and road. The lines of credit were offered in stages by the previous Congress government and the present BJP government. One that was offered this April worth $500 million was given to purchase of arms from India, a highly sensitive and unpopular matter in Bangladesh.
The protocol aspects of Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in October also emphasised that all was not well in the state of Bangladesh-India relations and that these relations turned a bend. Hasina’s bilateral visits to India in 2010 and 2017 were both given the status of a state visit. She was thus received by prime minister Manmohan Singh at the airport in 2010 and by Narendra Modi in 2017. The two visits were accompanied by the pomp and grandeur associated with a state visit such as the 21-gun salute and the guard of honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Hasina’s October visit was treated as an official one instead. Therefore, in place of Narendra Modi, she was received on arrival at the New Delhi airport by a junior minister without the 21-gun salute and the guard of honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the other pomp and grandeur of a state visit. New Delhi’s decision to deny her a state visit was its own for which it gave no reason. The feeling in Bangladesh, across the political divide, was that New Delhi deliberately denied the Bangladesh prime minister a state visit. To strategic analysts, all of the above suggested that India was unhappy with Bangladesh for reasons that it did not specify.
New Delhi’s handling of Sheikh Hasina’s October visit left Dhaka worried. It, therefore, availed the Test match in Kolkata and Hasina’s well-known love for cricket for some cricket diplomacy to, first, test her standing in India and to, second, find the way Bangladesh-India relations were evolving after her summit with Narendra Modi and to, finally, flag for Bangladesh that she was pushing hard for the Teesta deal and dealing with the new irritants in bilateral relations such as the NRC issue. She believed that a visit to Kolkata and a meeting with Modi would allow her to push the Teesta deal with Mamata Banarjee available for consultation, keeping in mind that New Delhi repeatedly informed Dhaka in the past that she was the major stumbling block in resolving the issue.
Bangladesh’s attempt at cricket diplomacy in Kolkata was stillborn because New Delhi did not respond underlining that the mandarins at the foreign ministry and the high commission failed to negotiate the visit with New Delhi although the task before them was difficult. New Delhi was not happy with a number of developments in Bangladesh leading to the last elections and following it. One major development that made New Delhi unhappy was Dhaka’s decision to leave out a good number of ministers who were not only prominent in the party but also well known for their closeness to India. New Delhi did not have any prior inkling that these ministers would be dropped that was something that had not happened since the Awami League came to power in 2009.
New Delhi also found to its dismay and concern how the AL-led government conducted the December 2018 elections albeit after it had been over. It encouraged Dhaka to hold the elections in a free and fair manner with the participation of all the political parties. It stayed away from any interference in Bangladesh’s national elections unlike in 2014 when it played a significant role in the Awami League’s return at a time when the political situation for the Awami League was extremely difficult. The Awami League ignored Indian suggestions. Instead, the party turned to China that extended support wholeheartedly and according to the grapevines, assisted it financially that helped the Awami League a great deal to win the elections handsomely although by largely undemocratic means.
New Delhi was further dismayed when it found out the extent to which Dhaka moved towards China following Hasina’s state visit to Beijing in July 1–5. New Delhi remained unconcerned in the past with the way the AL-led government conducted its relations with China as long as the relations were economic and commercial in nature. New Delhi found out from the joint statement of Hasina’s visit to China that Bangladesh-China relations had moved into strategic areas that questioned the main reason why India had entered Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971 which was to free itself from any security concerns on its eastern borders.
In retrospect though, it was the Modi -led BJP government that was responsible for Dhaka’s move towards Beijing because it was not willing to help the Awami League in the 2018 elections when it needed such assistance desperately and much more than the assistance the Congress-led government gave in 2014. Once New Delhi discovered that Dhaka moved towards Beijing in strategic areas that the memorandum of understanding on maritime surveillance, for instance, flagged unequivocally its inadvertent role in pushing the Awami League towards China notwithstanding, it had to do its best to disengage Dhaka from Beijing to protect its own security interests.
New Delhi is carrying out that disengagement not by negotiations with Bangladesh but by holding the upper hand and asking Dhaka what it wanted. So far, Dhaka has obliged. The Delhi summit and Hasina’s Kolkata visit, where New Delhi did not send anyone to attend to the Bangladesh prime minister that was humiliating, were clear indications of a new trend of Bangladesh-India relations where Bangladesh would be hard pressed to protect its interests. New Delhi has too many cards up its sleeves for Dhaka to pursue an independent foreign policy where India’s strategic interests were at stake.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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