S Jaishankar, Sheikh Hasina
The Opposition party in Bangladesh feels that Modi-led Indian government is ignoring the 'democratic backsliding' in Bangladesh and actively side Sheikh Hasina to stay in power for its own self-interest. File pic of Sheikh Hasina with India's minister of foreign affairs S Jaishankar

Explainer: What's behind 'India Out' protests in Bangladesh?

After Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in Bangladesh this January, Bangladeshi social media influencers have launched an ‘India Out’ campaign. Who is fuelling it and what does this mean for India?

In January this year, an anti-India wave in Maldives was triggered by social media trolls which snowballed into a major diplomatic row.

Now, India seems to be facing trouble from one more neighbour -- Bangladesh. Ever since Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power for the fourth consecuitve term this January, after yet another one-sided election, a group of Bangladesh Nationalist Party-leaning social influencers launched an ‘India Out’ campaign in Bangladesh.

What’s fuelling this anti-India wave in Bangladesh and what does it signify for both countries?

What is fuelling this ‘India Out’ campaign?
The BNP, the main Opposition party in Bangladesh, boycotted the January 7 elections in their country, alleging that the elections under the Awami League government will not be free and air.
They are angry with the Modi-led Indian government for ignoring the 'democratic backsliding' in Bangladesh and for actively siding with Sheikh Hasina to stay in power for its own self-interest. The United States, too, has mounted pressure on the Awami League government, expressing concern over the downslide of democracy.
India is widely believed to have prevailed on the US to soften its stand in the Bangladesh elections. Though the BNP often accused New Delhi of meddling in Bangladesh’s affairs, India’s strong support to the Hasina government, when it was facing US pressure, further bolstered the anti-India feelings among the BNP leaders and supporters, prompting the India out campaign, said political experts.
This toxic 'India Out' campaign, however, is limited to a group of Bangladeshi influencers and political activists, who resent India's Big Brother attitude, which is undermining Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations.
The campaign has gained traction after the senior joint secretary general of the BNP, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, joined it, setting fire to a Kashmiri shawl in front of the party headquarters in Dhaka. They feel India supported Sheikh Hasina's re-election and ignored Awami League’s manipulation of the elections because it wanted the status quo to continue to protect its own economic and security interests.
There is a general perception in Bangladesh that India controls the political landcape in Bangladesh. In his book, “1971-2021: Bangladesh-Bharat Shomporker Ponchash Bochor,” Bangladesh’s former foreign secretary Touhid Hossain pointed out that “India’s consent is a prerequisite for appointments to key positions within Bangladesh.” And that the Indian Embassy influences key decision-making processes in the civilian and military bureaucracies.
How is 'India Out' campaign being manifested?
Pinaki Bhattacharya, an exiled Bangladeshi physician and influential social media activist living in Paris, who participated in this “India out” campaign in mid-January, urged his millions of followers not to buy Indian products in Bangladesh and abroad to protest against “India’s relentless meddling in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs”.
Who is behind the boycott India goods campaign?
The ‘India Out’ movement is driven by millions of BNP supporters. Slogans such as 'India is not a friend of Bangladesh' and 'India is destroying Bangladesh' have emerged, with online activists attempting to incite anti-India sentiment through social media platforms.
According to media reports, the orchestrator of the ‘India Out’ movement is Tarique Rahman, a convicted terrorist and acting chairman of the BNP, who operates from London. Rahman allegedly instructed party members to replicate the anti-India movement observed in the Maldives. The cyber wing of the BNP has begun spreading hatred through social media.
Many of the Bangladeshi diaspora in other countries are also believed to be behind the “boycott India products” campaign.
What has been Sheikh Hasina’s reaction?
Sheikh Hasina mocked the BNP for calling for a boycott and questioned them about the Indian sarees their wives wear. She asked them why they were not taking the sarees from their wives and setting them on fire. Similarly, she gave the example of the widespread use of Indian spices in Bangladeshi kitchens.
“Garam masala, garlic, onions, ginger – all spices that come from India should not be seen in the BNP leaders’ homes,” she said.
After Sheikh Hasina’s 'Indian sarees' remark, a BNP leader, however, said the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina were the “biggest Indian products” and urged people to boycott the party and its leader.
The potential impact of such a boycott?
India shares a 4,100-km-long border with Bangladesh. Bilateral trade between the countries exceeded $15 billion (€13.71 billion) in 2021-22.
India is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. The relationship between both countries is marked by interdependence, as Bangladesh depends on India for essential imports, including raw materials, machinery, and agricultural goods. At the same time, India gains from Bangladesh’s exports of its garments, textiles, and medicines.
The two economies are tied up together; 20 per cent of cotton for Bangladesh’s garment industry comes from India. Bangladesh heavily relies on India for essential items such as food, fuel, fertilizer, and industrial raw materials, and neither can domestically produce these imports. However, if this boycott of Indian goods gains traction, Bangladesh can then well turn to China to import goods.
The 'India Out' campaign also has potential implications for Bangladesh’s corporate sector, particularly in software and service-based businesses, and in the hiring of Indian skilled workers and experts.
The ‘India Out’ movement, driven by millions of BNP supporters, may pose a serious security threat, said one analyst. According to one report, the BNP's historical alignment with anti-India ideologies and its potential to mobilize supporters warrant immediate attention from key policymakers in Dhaka and New Delhi.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s ‘India Out’ movement is not merely a new development. It is deeply rooted in the historical narrative of the party’s foundation and its subsequent alignment with anti-India sentiments. As the BNP seeks to replicate the Maldives’ approach, key policymakers must not underestimate the potential consequences, said news report.
This movement, driven by historical animosity and ideological underpinnings, can scale up tensions in the region and jeopardise diplomatic relations and get Bangladesh closer to China.
How important is Bangladesh for India?
Bangladesh is in a geographic position to provide India’s landlocked Northeast with access to the sea. Hasina has offered India the usage of Bangladesh’s Mongla and Chattogram ports for cargo movement and the development of Assam and Tripura.
Furthermore, as India’s immediate eastern neighbour and a land bridge to Southeast Asia, Bangladesh is critical for India’s Act East and Neighbourhood First policies.
Furthermore, last Sunday, India exported first consignment of onions to Bangladesh to help control its growing price ahead of Eid. For this, New Delhi relaxed its export ban on onions to ship 1,650 metric tonnes of onions to the neighbouring country. India will export 50,000 MT of onions in the coming days.
India’s response to campaign
India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said India is not concerned about the 'India out' campaigns. “There are two realities we must recognise. China is also a neighbouring country and in many ways will, as part of competitive politics, influence these countries (Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh),” he said at Mumbai event in January. And also said that neighbours need each other.
How effective has this India Out campaign been?
Many experts dismiss this anti-india campaign as being a 'small' one and that just a minority in Bangladesh are anti-India.
The foreign minister of Bangladesh, Hasan Mahmud said, "There are a number of protests happening in Bangladesh almost every day as it is a “free society” and people have the right to protest. He said many such protests take place such as “anti-US, anti-China, anti-India.” Dismissing the India Out campaign, he pointed out that the important aspect about the bilateral ties is growing trade between India and Bangladesh.
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