New Indian envoy starts with promises

by M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, Oct 16,2020


NEW Delhi has sent a diplomat of extraordinary merit going by Indian media reports to succeed Riva Ganguly. The new high commissioner Vikram Dooraswamy entered the Indian Foreign Service in 1992. His last assignment was as an additional secretary in the ministry of external affairs. He has been praised as a ‘wolf diplomat’, positively aggressive, unlike his predecessor who has been described as a ‘soft power exponent, better at home with the “gayikas” (singers) and the nayikas (actors).’ The comparison is significant in the context of current Bangladesh-India relations.

Vikram Dooraswamy will have his work in Bangladesh cut out, his brilliance notwithstanding. Rahul Gandhi hinted at it in one of his recent tweeter feeds. He tweeted on September 24: ‘Mr Modi has destroyed the web of relationship that the Congress nurtured and built over several decades. Living in a neighborhood with no friends is dangerous.’ Rahul Gandhi’s tweet came following reports in Indian and international media that India’s domestic agenda based on Hindutva, the National Registration Act, the Citizenship Amendment Act and insults hurled on Bangladesh by the BJP leaders had led to the distancing between Dhaka and Delhi and that China had stepped between the two countries.

The distancing has been unusual and significant. There is an Awami League government in office in Bangladesh and the BJP has been pursuing Congress’s ‘all eggs in one basket’ policy, meaning that the Awami League is Delhi’s party of choice. Current Dhaka-Delhi relations should, therefore, have been hand in glove and not each distancing from the other. Delhi, thus, did its best to give the impression that all was well in Bangladesh-India relations, leading to the visit of foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Dhaka in August 18–19 carrying Narendra Modi’s message for Sheikh Hasina. Delhi also suggested through its excellent contacts with Indian mainstream media that the foreign secretary’s visit enhanced the excellent relations between the two countries.

Delhi’s attempt to pass present-day Dhaka-Delhi relations as excellent has since fallen apart. Rahul Gandhi tagged a report of The Economist with his tweeter feed that exposed that Dhaka had drifted from Delhi and shifted towards Beijing. The Economist report gave many reasons to substantiate the shift and drift. The Report identified the BJP’s anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh policies such as Hindutva, the NRA, and the CAA together with Amit Shah’s insults calling Bangladeshis ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’ who should be thrown into the sea as the reasons that polarised Bangladesh’s overwhelmingly Muslim majority against India to cause Dhaka’s drift from Delhi and shift towards Beijing. Many reports have since appeared in Bangladesh, India and international media that have established that all is really ‘not well in the state of Denmark’, ie, in the state of Bangladesh-India relations.

The new Indian high commissioner has arrived in Bangladesh at a time when there is also considerable anger against India across Bangladesh’s political divide in addition to the distancing of relations and the ‘China factor’, a predicament that none of his 16 predecessors faced. And to make things difficult for him right at the start of his tenure, none of the issues that have come between Dhaka and Delhi will go any time as long as the BJP remains in power because they are all part of the BJP’s Hindutva-based strategy to create the Hindu Rashtra in the Hindu mythology.

So far, the ideology based strategy has paid the BJP handsomely, nationally bringing it to power twice in 2014 and 2019; in 2019 by almost a landslide. The BJP won more seats in 2019 in Assam and West Bengal by using the Hindutva strategy against Bangladesh, insulting its people because, first, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country and, second, there are deeply embedded anti-Bangladesh sentiments in the two states. The two states will have state-level elections in 2021. Therefore, Amit Shah and BJP leaders are extremely unlikely to address the hurt sentiments of the people of Bangladesh for the insults.

Hindutva, the NRA and the CAA are changing the very character of India as a nation, from a secular democracy envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to a net Hindu state envisioned by Hindu fundamentalists like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, MS Gowalkar et cetera whose writings and thinking, some that consider Muslims as sub-human, are now the guiding light and spirit of the BJP. Whether India changes from a secular state to a Hindutva-based one is the concern of 1.3 billion Indians for which the fight has started between the country’s fundamentalist and secular forces.

The fundamentalists led by the BJP are winning thus far. The fight is, however, far from being over. For Bangladesh, meantime, Indian domestic politics is changing the platform upon which India and Bangladesh have conducted their bilateral relations since the country became independent in 1971 with substantial help from India. That platform was based on the spirit of 1971, democracy, and secularism. The Bangladesh foreign minister Dr AKA Momen recently stated that Bangladesh-India relations were based on ‘blood’, no doubt trying to bring 1971 and what it represented into context without bringing any response from the BJP leaders.

Bangladesh and India relations are, in fact, undergoing a major transformation as a result of the BJP’s firm commitment to turning India into a Hindu Rashtra. The relations are becoming structural, between a Hindu-majority country based on the Hindutva mantra and an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority one aspiring to be secular and democratic, objectives for which millions embraced martyrdom in 1971. The BJP’s eerie silence about 1971 is, therefore, understandable. The BJP driven by Hindutva perhaps sees Bangladesh’s Muslim majority as bait to energise its Hindu fundamentalist base.

High commissioner Dooraswamy has not wasted time to get to his task. He met the Dhaka media almost immediately after his hastily arranged credentials ceremony with the president. He addressed Dhaka’s media at the India House, his official residence, stating that ‘India is committed to ensuring the fastest possible partnership with Bangladesh on all aspects of COVID-19 vaccine development.’ He committed Delhi’s zero-tolerance to border killings and on the stalled Teesta deal; he said: ‘I am afraid you will have to wait for that.’

These issues, the Teesta deal and border killings, are at the core for souring current Bangladesh-India ties. Delhi has kept Dhaka waiting since September 2011 for the Teesta deal after Dhaka made major concessions on India’s security and land transit. The border has become the killing field for innocent Bangladeshi men, women, and children in the hands of the trigger-happy Border Security Force of India. Delhi promised zero tolerance every time Dhaka raised the issue the way it did with the Teesta. And as for Delhi’s commitment to the COVID-19 vaccine, Bangladesh signed an agreement with China and considering all the facts of the Chinese vaccine versus the Indian one, most Bangladeshis are likely to prefer the Chinese vaccine.

The new and the outgoing high commissioners entered and left Bangladesh respectively by the land route to make connectivity and Delhi’s contribution towards it a major issue for strengthening ties. That was not a clever move. Bangladeshis have for long considered land transit to be their most important card to negotiate water sharing and other rights from India. Indian negotiators changed the name, called it connectivity and said that granting India connectivity/land transit would make Bangladesh fabulously rich as the connectivity hub of the region.

The Bangladesh negotiators fell for it. A decade down the road, Bangladesh is still waiting for the riches to flow from connectivity while not a drop of water has flowed from India through any new agreement of any of the commonly shared rivers. The exit and entry of the high commissioners through the land route would only remind Bangladesh of India’s failure on promises.

Meanwhile, China has become involved in Bangladesh very deeply and in many strategic projects. China and Bangladesh are discussing the nearly $1 billion Teesta project to be funded by China. The project, when completed, would free Bangladesh from depending on India for the critical dry season flow from the Teesta and reverse the rainy season dangers to West Bengal. And the project would give China a physical foothold just below the strategically critical ‘chicken neck’ that would be a nightmare for Indian strategists.

High commissioner Vikram Dooraswamy cannot do much except promise more promises unless Delhi accepts what ails its relations with Bangladesh that its domestic agenda would not permit. And Delhi has not changed its arrogant attitude that has landed Bangladesh-India relations in troubled waters in the first place.


M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador and writes from USA.

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