A CURTAIN raiser in a well-known New Delhi based web portal before the 6th Bangladesh-India Joint Consultative Committee Meeting that has since been held virtually on September 29 due to Covid-19 had carried an interesting story worth considering in the context of Bangladesh-India relations that are in a drift and a flux. The story had stated that the Indian external affairs minister Subramanyam Jaisankhar would help prime minister Narendra Modi reset India’s ties Bangladesh during the JCC meeting by his ‘Jaisankhar moment’. The story did not explain the ‘Jaisankhar moment’. It perhaps pointed at the Indian Minister’s ‘extraordinary diplomatic skills’ by belittling his Bangladeshi counterpart.
The story was interesting for another important reason. It acknowledged that Bangladesh-India relations were facing problems and therefore needed to be reset, something that New Delhi was unwilling to accept or admit leading to the visit of Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the foreign secretary of India, to Dhaka on August 18-19 and its aftermath. New Delhi’s narrative then was that the two countries enjoyed excellent bilateral relations and that the foreign secretary’s successful visit that he had undertaken in a special aircraft, carrying a ‘special message’ from Narendra Modi for Sheikh Hasina, had enhanced bilateral relations.
The story identified Hindutva, the National Registration Act, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and Amit Shah’s ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’ insults with the threat to throw the ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’ into the Bay of Bengal, as the reasons that had polarised Bangladeshis against India for which it recommended the need to reset Bangladesh-India relations. The story nevertheless ignored the impact of these huge issues upon Bangladesh’s Muslims. It exposed an arrogance that Indians writing or talking about Bangladesh or dealing with it have shown as a habit since the country became independent through the war of liberation in 1971 in which India played a significant role.
Instead, the story placed a world of confidence in an individual to undermine the genuinely hurt sentiments of a nation. It expected that the Indian minister would successfully convince Bangladesh through his ‘Jaisankhar moment’ that Amit Shah’s insults were uttered ‘in the heat and dust of an election campaign’ and his apology thereafter ‘without saying sorry’ would allow Narendra Modi to reset India’s relations with Bangladesh without addressing the core issues that had turned Bangladesh against India.
The JCC Meeting did not see the magical ‘Jaisankhar moment’ or if it did, it was not made public. There was nevertheless a good reason to believe that the Indian minister did not use his ‘Jaisankhar moment’ intentionally because he knew that Amit Shah had insulted and threatened Bangladeshis as a BJP strategy that had helped the party win more seats in Assam and West Bengal in the 2019 Indian national election and that the BJP would use these insults again in some form or other in the assembly elections in these two states in 2021.
The Indian side instead chose the softer path in the JCC meeting to help prime minister Narendra Modi to reset India’s ties with Bangladesh that New Delhi had done in the past with considerable success. The meeting, therefore, reviewed the whole range of bilateral issues and New Delhi made promises on bilateral issues of interest to Bangladesh namely water sharing, border killing, trade, etcetera. The Indian side also used history and personal aggrandisements instead of addressing the core causes of anti-India polarisation in Bangladesh for better Bangladesh-India ties.
Thus, the Indian side agreed to bring down border killings to zero. It also called for finalisation of the interim agreement on Teesta water sharing and ‘for early conclusion of the framework of an interim agreement on sharing of waters of six other joint rivers, namely, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, and Dudhkumar.’ The Indian side further agreed to activate the long-stalled Joint Rivers Commission for the water-sharing talks. The two sides discussed trade and investment issues at length but India did not make any dramatic concessions. India offered to provide its COVID-19 vaccine under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
The Indian side committed to launching a commemorative stamp on the occasion of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on December 16. Both sides agreed that Bangladesh and India would jointly celebrate the 50th year of the establishment of their diplomatic relations in Bangladesh, India, and in select third countries. And, the two sides agreed to hold the next Summit between Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi virtually in December to ‘chalk out mega plans to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties.’
The Indian side thus avoided the issues that have polarised anti-Indian feelings in Bangladesh that have now been reported widely in the media in India, in Bangladesh and abroad; that Rahul Gandhi highlighted in a tweeter feed on September 24. The former Congress president had tagged in that tweeter feed the report that had appeared in The Economist on September 19 and suggested that Bangladesh was shifting from New Delhi and drifting towards Beijing because of the BJP’s anti-Muslim, anti-Bangladesh policies. The tweet had stated that Narendra Modi’s policies were ‘destroying the web of relationships’ that his party had created with India’s neighbours including Bangladesh that had left India friendless in South Asia that was ‘dangerous.’.
The Indian side was thus in the denial mode at the JCC Meeting to the policies and issues that polarised Bangladesh against India. The issues and policies were too important for the BJP’s domestic agenda with elections due in several key states around the corner. While focusing on domestic politics too much, the BJP led government failed to see that China meanwhile had become a major factor in Bangladesh-India relations by turning its strong economic relations with Bangladesh into strategic areas of concern to New Delhi. And the pandemic has come to China’s favour against India’s desire to reset ties with Bangladesh because Dhaka would now need additional credit to build its pandemic damaged economy with China both able and willing to assist.
The BJP, notwithstanding all the above, is still arrogant that its ‘all eggs in one basket policy’ that it inherited from the Congress would work, still believing that an AL government has no alternative but to depend on New Delhi. That BJP belief worked for the Congress because although it did not reciprocate to the AL with the huge concessions in received, it had provided to the latter huge political benefits like helping it retain power in 2014. The Congress also did not insult Bangladesh like the BJP has done to energise its Hindu fundamentalist base. And, Pranab Mukherjee was there for the Congress to keep the AL happy and Bangladesh drifting from India.
Reports in the Indian media such as the curtain-raiser for the JCC meeting that thought the ‘Jaisankhar moment’ would help Narendra Modi reset Bangladesh-India relations and others like this on India’s relations with Bangladesh are a part of the problem in Bangladesh-India relations because they are also like the BJP leadership, arrogant and misleading. These reports are written in denial of the new realities in Bangladesh-India relations; that New Delhi’s ‘all eggs in one basket policy’ has broken in the seams not because of the Awami League but because of the BJP’s domestic anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh agenda.
And these reports fail to acknowledge, perhaps the same way as the BJP leadership, that China has come between Bangladesh and India in a positive way, approved by the majority of Bangladeshis while New Delhi waited for the AL to return and meantime became unpopular in Bangladesh in a major way because of its insults, Hindutva, NRA, CAA, et al. Therefore, New Delhi must reset its relations with Dhaka like two neighbours elsewhere, on reciprocity and mutual respect. It must drop its anti-Muslim, and anti-Bangladesh policies as early as possible. And it may not be a bad idea if New Delhi dropped its ‘all eggs in one basket’ policy to establish India’s relations with Bangladesh and not with the political party of its choice, a policy that was adopted by the Congress and has been responsible from destroying Bangladesh’s nascent multi-party democracy.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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