India offers vaccine bait as Dhaka ‘drifts’ towards China

India reportedly reminded Bangladesh about the two nations’ historical cordial relations and the importance New Delhi accords to its eastern neighbour

India and Bangladesh reportedly stressed on intensifying their “exchanges and sharing of information” in the area of “anti-radicalization and counter terrorism”. Representational image: PTI

Bangladesh will get top priority in getting the COVID-19 vaccine that India is developing, said Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when he called on her with a “special message” on Tuesday (August 18) evening.

Shringla’s special message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi came amid visible signs of China’s increasing presence in infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, considered “strategic and sensitive” by India.

During the two-day visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary, the two countries discussed “security-related issues of mutual interests,” sources said.

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The visit assumes significance as it comes close on the heels of Bangladesh reaching out to China for construction of two infrastructure projects amid concerns in India over Beijing’s increasing presence in Bangladesh.

In April this year, China outmaneuvered India to secure a $250-million contract for construction of a new terminal at MAG Osmani International Airport in Sylhet, close to India’s sensitive border with Bangladesh in North-East. The Sylhet Division of Bangladesh shares its border with three Indian states – Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.

“From what I have heard, the Chinese are technically qualified and have the lowest rates. India’s offer was too much and as a result, they could not make it,” Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen was quoted as saying by the Dhaka Tribune after the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh signed an agreement with Beijing Urban Construction Group for the $250-million contract.

Further ruffling India’s feathers, Bangladesh last month sought a $983.27-million loan from China to implement a Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project. The Teesta river water sharing dispute is a thorn in India-Bangladesh bilateral ties.

Every time there are bilateral talks between the two countries, the Teesta river dispute makes headlines in Bangladesh.

A deal on sharing Teesta waters has been pending for the last eight years primarily due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s strong opposition.

Apart from flood control and irrigation, the project will also help maintain water levels in the river during dry seasons. Bangladesh claims the water flow downstream reduces in winter leading to a water crisis for two months on its side.

Bangladesh’s overture to China for funding the project is viewed as a snub to India with whom its relations have strained in the recent past, though publically both Dhaka and New Delhi deny any such deterioration.

“Along with the Teesta dispute, India’s push for Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens to target the so-called Bangladeshi illegal migrants allegedly residing in India and border killing by India’s Border Security Force are three emotive issues in Bangladesh vis-a-vis India,” said Gazi Nasiruddin Ahmed, joint editor of Dhaka-based Bengali daily Desh Rupantor.

The rise of Hindu radicalism in India is a major boost for Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh, much to the concern of a liberal political party such as the Awami League, Ahmed added.

The number of terrorist incidents in Bangladesh though has declined considerably in the last three years, the threat of radicalization has increased, according to a research report by the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), released in November last year.

The report pointed out that the Dawahilallah Forum — an extremist propaganda tool of proscribed terror group Ansarullah Bangla Team — has increased its member base from 550 to 3,000 during the period.

About 56% of the terror suspects were university graduates, the research found out.

Ahmed said it’s believed that Bangladesh raised these contentious issues with India as the two sides discussed matters related to security concerns.

Both the countries reportedly stressed on intensifying their “exchanges and sharing of information” in the area of “anti-radicalization and counter terrorism.”

On its part, India reportedly reminded Bangladesh about the two nations’ historical cordial relations and the importance New Delhi accords to its eastern neighbour.

During the discussions, Shringla informed Hasina that testing for three vaccines was on and that India would be launching mass production once the scientific community gives the go-ahead.

“When the vaccine is produced, it goes without saying that our closest neighbours, friends, partners and other countries will be part of that,” Shringla was quoted by Dhaka-based Daily Star as telling the Bangladesh media after meeting his Bangladeshi counterpart, Masud Bin Momen.

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