THE Indian Union’s state minister for home affairs Kissan Reddy has recently said that a half of Bangladesh would migrate to India if Indian citizenship was offered to them. The statement which Reddy made in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act of India created a sensation in Bangladesh because it was very objectionable and insulting that targeted Bangladesh unfairly. The statement jolted many in Bangladesh from their complacency that Indo-Bangladesh relations were on the right and positive track.
Those jolted were complacent because they believed that Indo-Bangladesh- relations while the Awami League was in power could be anything other than close and friendly. After all, an AL-led government has always done for Delhi what it wanted without questions in gratitude for the huge role it had played in the Bangladesh war of liberation that the Awami League had led. The opposition BNP also believes in such a view together with most other Bangladeshis.
They all, nevertheless, fail to keep in perspective a fundamental foreign policy tenet that a country has no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. India did not enter into the Bangladesh war of liberation just to save the people of Bangladesh from the genocide of the Pakistan army although that was one of the factors why it intervened. Indians intervened mainly because it was a heaven-sent opportunity to them to break their nemesis Pakistan in half and secure their eastern borders from future security concerns.
New Delhi from the beginning decided to place all its eggs in the Awami League basket in conducting bilateral relations. The Congress started the policy that all other Indian governments followed. Therefore, when the Awami League came to power in 2009 while the Congress was in power, Indo-Bangladesh relations witnessed a period of great activity. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina went into denial over serious political risks to give India full security guarantee and land transit to connect the mainland India with the fragile but strategically important and virtually landlocked north-east to bring about a paradigm shift in Indo-Bangladesh relations.
New Delhi promised to match Sheikh Hasina’s initiatives but failed to deliver, for instance, on the Teesta deal. The AL government did not push because New Delhi helped it come to power in the 2014 elections by standing firmly behind it when there was international pressure for fresh elections. Thereafter, Dhaka-Delhi relations faced hiccups after the Congress had lost power to the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi. The Awami League was apprehensive that the BJP would not support it as the Congress had done particularly on the pressure for new elections and, therefore, turned to China. Sheikh Hasina went to Beijing skipping an invitation to the inauguration of the new Indian prime minister.
New Delhi persuaded the AL government to return to the Indian camp through the visits of the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi to Dhaka but Indo-Bangladesh relations were not the same. The warmth waned considerably, flagged by the significant drop of exchange of high-level visits compared with the period the Congress had been in power. Importantly, the BJP distanced itself from the Awami League on an issue that was of more critical importance to it than in 2014, namely the national elections of Bangladesh. The BJP unambiguously communicated through Sushma Swaraj on her visit to Dhaka in November 2017 that New Delhi would like the Awami League to hold the elections with the participation of all the parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The Awami League was unhappy at New Delhi that perhaps felt that it would win the elections anyway because it could not afford to lose and would return to it thereafter. That did not happen entirely the way New Delhi thought it would. When the elections were over, New Delhi found that the Awami League and its allies had won 293 of the 300 seats but with the backing of China that moved into the strategic space it had unwittingly vacated. Sheikh Hasina dropped 27 ministers thought to have their India leaning from the new cabinet. It was surprising that a few in Bangladesh observed the distance that had developed in Indo-Bangladesh relations and continued to believe that Indo-Bangladesh relations were hunky-dory.
They were also in denial about Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China in July 2019 at a time when the BJP won a huge mandate in the April-May 2019 elections. The natural thing to happen if relations were indeed hunky-dory was for the two capitals to rejoice and not for Sheikh Hasina to visit China and cause misgivings in New Delhi. The visit and its outcome exposed further the fact that Dhaka moved significantly towards China and played the ‘China card’ deliberately because New Delhi had not helped the Awami League in the December 2018 elections.
New Delhi was thus responsible for pushing Dhaka towards China by a U-turn between the 2014 and 2108 elections. That notwithstanding, India could not allow China fill the strategic vacuum it had unwittingly vacated because that would go against the reasons it entered into the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 and sacrificed 14,000 of its men in uniform. New Delhi decided to regain its lost space not through discussions but by examples and messages that were anything but friendly to the AL-led government.
The first of the messages and examples was apparent during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in October 2019. She was denied a state visit, unlike her 2010 and 2017 visits. Thus, she was not received by the Indian prime minister upon arrival. The frills and fanfares of a state visit were gone. The outcome of the visit underlined New Delhi’s mood. The Teesta deal was denied. New Delhi cleared many pending issues like the standardisation of operating procedures in Chattogram and Mangla ports for its exports and imports. And in the name of maritime surveillance, Dhaka granted New Delhi the right to establish a good number of radars inside Bangladesh’s territorial waters that was an intrusion into the country’s security and sovereignty.
The developments suggested that ominous changes in Indo-Bangladesh relations were round the corner that Bangladesh was on the cusp of becoming the bait for the BJP’s huge Hindu fundamentalist base together with its own 200 million Muslims to pay for the ‘sins’ of their ancestors and their thousand years’ rule over India. It suggested that New Delhi would no longer be encouraged to pursue its all eggs-in-one-basket policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh or favouring the Awami League as its party of choice to conduct relations because that would give it only half of the Muslims of the country to use as bait for energising Hindutva, the new mantra for the BJP. The fact that the Awami League decided to turn to China in the past elections and played the China card vis-à-vis India was one reason for the anger of the Hindu fundamentalist leadership of India against Bangladesh.
The 150 million Muslims of Bangladesh have also been lumped as one to become the bait for the same reason. That, in turn, would make it unnecessary for the BJP-led government to play favourites with the political parties in Bangladesh because targeting the entire Muslim population of Bangladesh would be more useful for it to energise its base rather than backing the Awami League and dividing the target in half. The Awami League’s decision to use the China card for not supporting it in the 2018 elections as the Congress had done in 2014 further encouraged the BJP to target Bangladesh with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
The BJP has embraced the Hindutva mantra as the driving force of its politics to build the Hindu rashtra based on the Hindu mythology that has turned India from a net secular state to a net Hindu fundamentalist state. The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi insisted that Indo-Bangladesh relations were excellent but on the ground, the reality was different where it was obvious that New Delhi was using the whole of Bangladesh’s Muslims to energise its base rather than backing the Awami League or a half of the Muslims of the country. That explains the anti-Bangladesh contents of the CAA and the rising anti-Bangladesh rhetoric in India particularly in the BJP leadership as they create an anti-Muslim frenzy among India’s humongous Hindu fundamentalist mass.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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