The BJP’s domestic politics and its Hindutva agenda is impinging on India’s warm ties with Bangladesh.
Since the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008, Delhi’s relations with its eastern neighbour soared, making Bangladesh one of India’s closest friends in the neighbourhood. Whether it was the UPA or its successor, the NDA, India-Bangladesh ties were strong. But now, the relationship is being threatened by the BJP’s domestic compulsions, while China is honing in on Dhaka.
For quite some time, the Awami League leaders as well as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refrained from any public comment. Bangladesh acted responsibly in public comments. During a visit to Bangladesh last year, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had assured Bangladesh’s Prime Minister that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam was an internal matter and that Dhaka had nothing to worry. That was before the announcement on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the subsequent CAA protests in India.
Bangladesh is getting more and more concerned with the situation in India and especially the constant harping on alleged “Bangladeshi immigrants” swamping the border areas. In fact, for a time, there was talk of the NRC being extended across the country. That idea has been dropped for now.
Thanks to the pandemic, talk of CAA and the anti CAA protests are not in focus at the moment but come elections, especially the West Bengal polls, the BJP will hammer home the point about Bangladeshi immigrants. It is not just state-level BJP leaders who are guilty of Bangladeshi bashing, since even Union Home Minister Amit Shah had referred to illegal migrants during electioneering as “termites”. There have also been threats of “throwing out illegal migrants into the Bay of Bengal”.
None of this has been missed by Bangladesh. In today’s India, where patriotic fervour is at its peak, there would be demonstrations against any country where Indian origin immigrants were insulted in this fashion. It is to Bangladesh’s credit that the government let it pass as ‘election rhetoric’. However, ordinary citizens of the country have been watching and many are furious.
The Indian government has tried to insulate its foreign policy from domestic issues. However, when a neighbour is involved, it is often hard to do so. Despite efforts to keep domestic politics out of their relations, in today’s interconnected world, it is no longer an option. Naturally, China is making use of the situation and hoping to spread its wings in India’s backyard.
Beijing is already sitting pretty in Nepal with the Communist Party government of K.P. Sharma Oli veering closer to Beijing. In fact, China, which had previously never interfered in the internal politics of other countries, is alleged to have played an important role in shoring up the Oli government.
Bangladesh, which has also signed in to China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, was given a bonanza last month. China announced tariff exemptions for 97 Bangladeshi products. This is expected to give a boost to trade and spread goodwill for China in the business community. India had earlier extended USD 10 billion concessional lines of credit to Bangladesh, the largest Delhi has given to any country.
China has also been actively coming to Dhaka’s aid in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of doctors from China had been working and advising Bangladesh on how to deal with the health crisis. China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, which was developing a COVID-19 vaccine, has tied up with one of Bangladesh’s premier research institutions to carry out the Phase-III trial on patients.
As COVID-19 patients are more in number in Bangladesh than in China, Dhaka has been roped in with the promise that if successful, Dhaka will be provided with the vaccine on a priority basis. Bangladesh has always had reasonably good ties with China, but the Sheikh Hasina government made sure that India’s sensitivities are respected. However, the Modi government’s current domestic agenda may force Dhaka to turn to Beijing in the future.
Dhaka was perturbed when India passed the CAA. According to the law, all minorities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains or Christians, but not Muslims – facing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are eligible for Indian citizenship.
Amit Shah, while introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha, spoke at length about the treatment meted out to minorities in these three countries. The Bangladeshis were angry about bracketing them with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country, but prides itself on being a secular nation.
Mujibur Rahman fought for liberation from a theocratic state, which refused to recognize the rights of its Bengali speaking citizens. Amit Shah realised his faux pas. When he spoke after that in the Rajya Sabha, he said minorities had faced discrimination in Bangladesh in the past during the military rule and not now under the Sheikh Hasina-led government.
The anti-CAA protests as well as the Delhi riots, where the majority of the dead and affected were Muslims, angered Bangladesh. Protests were held all across Bangladesh for the targetting of Muslims in India. Soon after the CAA was passed, several ministers canceled their scheduled visit to New Delhi citing various reasons.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to attend the 100th birthday celebrations of the founder of the nation Mujibur Rahman, in March. Thanks to the pandemic, the PM cancelled his trip. Instead, he addressed the meeting via video conference. Public pressure had also been growing in Bangladesh to cancel Modi’s visit. It was not just Islamic groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam and university students who were furious with India, but the Awami League supporters too, who are aghast at the turn of events.
The illegal influx has been a perennial problem in the border regions of India. Assam had an anti-foreigners agitation from 1979-1985. Dhaka has said it was willing to take back all those who could prove their Bangladeshi citizenship. However, the majority of the Bengali-speaking immigrants are poor and illiterate and have no papers to prove their antecedents.
Pakistan too is naturally taking advantage of Bangladesh’s disappointment with India. Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to Sheikh Hasina on the phone recently. Though Dhaka said the call was mainly about combating COVID-19, Pakistani press said that Khan had briefed her on the situation in Kashmir.
However, all is not lost. There is a lot of goodwill for India in Bangladesh even now. Delhi needs to do a course correction and not sacrifice ties for its domestic political agenda. Otherwise, one more South Asian neighbour will fall prey to China’s charm offensive.
(The author is a senior journalist who has worked for several national newspapers, specialising in foreign affairs)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)