Mere bonhomie won’t do if India wants militancy-hit Bangladesh on its side

With Pakistan, Turkey and China becoming diplomatically active in Bangladesh, it is time for India to devise its own long term policy structure and time-bound initiatives to save its Look East programme, ensure seamless regional economic development and strengthen the secular forces

Hasina Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina

The Indian government has allowed an element of complacency to compromise its strategic outreach towards Bangladesh lately. Judging by the ferocious intensity of the recent widespread anti-India protests in Chittagong, Comilla and elsewhere, which led to 10 deaths and loss of property, an imminent reset of India’s bilateral ties with its eastern neighbour is in order. Not the least because it is next to Bhutan, but because Bangladesh happens to be the only country in South Asia which can be counted as Delhi’s proven ally.

About five years ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had addressed a Dhaka University convocation in Hindi, his popularity ratings had soared high even among the snooty westernised Dhaka intelligentsia. So what has turned the anti-Indian political strain, an ever-present trickle in Bangladesh’s polity, into a mighty torrent?

As Modi visited Bangladesh on a celebratory occasion some days ago, his official trip as a special guest of honour was comprehensively wrecked by much controversy and violence.

What happened was nothing short of a major diplomatic embarrassment for both the visiting Prime Minister and his host country. The incidents led to a plenty of comments, mostly hostile to India, from social media pundits as well as common people.


Related news: India should keep Bangladesh close for fruition of Act East vision

Why was the Indian ruling establishment caught totally unaware of the shifting, increasingly hostile, public mood in Bangladesh? In hindsight, it seems both the countries could have done better to cancel/postpone Modi’s visit if only to save themselves the blushes. He had been invited to attend a series of functions to celebrate the birth centenary of Bangladesh’s founding father, the late Mujibur Rahman. The fact that this year Bangladesh also observes the 50th year of its independence was an added sweetener.

The ugly incidents left a bad taste in the mouth. Even worse, the damage they have caused may have a more lasting impact. Hindu temples were desecrated, Hindu-owned properties attacked, as the mayhem launched by the extremist Hefazat-e-Islami (HI) group continued for three days and more. Trains and government offices in several provinces were damaged and set ablaze. The armed mobs, which protested against the allegedly “anti-Muslim past of the Indian Prime Minister” — an obvious reference to the 2002 Gujarat riots — were clearly carrying out a planned action programme, the scale of which caught the Bangladesh police by surprise.

The violent demonstrations unmistakably signalled the abiding strength of anti-Indian/anti-Hindu sentiments still prevailing in Bangladesh, 50 years after it declared itself as a free sovereign, secular country in 1971. Indian foreign policy architects need to work harder to ensure better relations with regional neighbours, by going well beyond the bonhomie between the ruling governments of the moment.

During the recent months, Pakistan had resumed its diplomatic presence/activities in its former eastern province, after a considerable gap. There was little bilateral diplomatic activity for over a decade between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan had recognised Bangladesh only in 1974, after coming under pressure from other Islamic countries. With Imran Khan taking over as prime minister, serious efforts were underway to break the deadlock. Khan set the ball rolling by making a phone call to his Bangladeshi counterpart last year. This was followed by the arrival of a new Pakistan ambassador to Bangladesh.

Significantly, Turkey had also upgraded its diplomatic presence in Bangladesh. Ankara pressed Dhaka to buy more Turkish goods and offered to set up joint ventures, significantly in the defence production sector in Bangladesh. There was a proposal to set up statues of Turkish and Bangladeshi leaders in Dhaka and Ankara. Curiously, the proposal met with no opposition from Bangladesh’s Islamic hardliners backed by the Hefazat. They had earlier protested against the installation of statues (including one of Mujibur Rahman himself!) on the ground that such practices were ‘un-Islamic’. Ditto for decorative murals to be put up in universities in Bangladesh.

For Delhi, these signs were a warning that the ‘times were indeed changing’ in its East. The sudden diplomatic overdrive by two countries with their known record of hostility towards India was bound to result in some kind of revival of latent anti-India feelings.

Turkey had pressed Bangladesh to abandon official trials of Islamic hardline war criminals who had been supporting Pakistan up to 1971 and carried out an anti-Hindu genocide. It had sponsored and supported hostile anti-India resolutions in international gatherings on the present situation in Kashmir, opposing India’s abolition of the article 370. President Erdogan is clearly no friend of India judging from his statements on regional issues.

With Pakistan pressing for Turkey to be included in international parleys to chalk out the future of Afghanistan, Indian policymakers are naturally concerned that the situation may turn worse for Delhi. There could be a revival of a fresh anti-Indian Islamic militancy, as Pakistan, Turkey the Taliban and the Haqqani factions consolidate their position/dominance in Afghanistan following the departure of the US troops from the area.

No matter when it resumed its presence/ activities in Bangladesh, Pakistan was always assured of an old abiding support base among the supporters of the banned Jamat-e-Islami (JI) outfit there, known for its pro-Pak orientation right up to 1971 and thereafter. The JI never concealed either its anti- Indian or anti-Hindu stand. Following its banning, its supporters joined forces to provide the organizational muscle and numbers for the new Islamic outfit, the HI.

The ruling Awami League (AL), itself contending with its domestic factors of anti-incumbency and facing charges of corruption and nepotism, had cracked down hard on the JI and its close political ally, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Mrs Khaleda Zia. But while this had strengthened the secular forces in Bangladesh and won Indian approval, it had left most Islamic hardliners, many of them pro-Pakistanis or militant Sunnis, fuming and restive.

Reports from Dhaka suggest that it was no surprise to find such elements gathering more strength and courage, motivated by the return of an active Pakistan and the assertion of Turkey as the strong new players in the Bangladesh diplomatic scene.

There can be no misgivings about the strongly secular stand taken by the ruling AL and its leader and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But it also cannot be denied that such a stance puts Bangladesh at cross purposes with major Islamic countries worldwide. Worse, the considerable if dormant support base of the banned JI and similar bodies is a major happy hunting ground for militant Islamist propagandists from the IS and other organisations. Even earlier, from Bangladesh, hundreds of volunteers had gone for training in arms in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, living in terror camps set up by Pakistan (ISI) Taliban and other agencies.

Islamic militancy is a fact of life in Bangladesh. The HI group, began its work sedately enough in 2013, by maintaining good relations with the ruling League. It opposed the brutal atrocities committed by Islamic hardliner during 1970-71, which ensured a measure of political indulgence for them from the ruling AL and its leader. Quite apart from playing to the tune of international Islamic organisations, the accommodation shown initially by the AL to the HI group was intended to sideline and eliminate for good the influence and clout of the old JI and the BNP.

Electorally, also this could translate into a major electoral dividend for the ruling AL which has always been seen as a pro-India and by extension, a pro-Hindu party vis-à-vis the challenge posed by the BNP.

Such was the bonhomie between the HI and the Al that the ruling AL did not mind the HI’s objection to putting up Rahman’s statue or its objection to display of art murals in Dhaka University. Under pressure internationally and facing  criticism of the AL’s alleged suppression of ‘democratic opposition,’ Sheikh  Hasina had no choice but to go along with the HI, not the least to keep the Islamic militants under some kind of control.

The situation is not unlike what was seen in India during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. She had supported the extremist activities of Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in an effort to decimate the Akali Dal. Extremist groups usually begin implementing their own political agenda once they are assured of some kind of sanctuary/functional autonomy within the political system.

The recent massive outbreak of anti-Modi violence indicates that the limits of the artificial bonhomie between the AL and the HI have been reached. The new HI leader is Azizul Haque, known to be a hardliner. He obviously feels that now the HI can call the shots more boldly.

Some Indian media analysts suggest that Pakistan had been financing the HI for some time, citing sources in Bangladesh. It is no secret that members of the HI played a major role in the recent outbreak of violence. Similar help material or otherwise from Turkey cannot be ruled out either in view of the traditional Turkish diplomatic support for political demands raised by the BNP or Jamat in the past and its known softness towards pro-Pak war criminals.

Should the GOI have anticipated trouble? Yes. India’s own record of dealing with Bangladesh has been less than effective. Whereas the AL has allowed major transit rights by rail, road and inland waterways to India, it has not received a definite response to its longstanding legally justified demand for a share of the International Teesta river waters in north Bengal. Bangladesh unilaterally sanctioned on its own additional supplies from the river Feni for the Indian state of Tripura recently, in view of the help given by Tripura to lakhs of Bangladeshi refugees escaping from the Pakistan crackdown in the early seventies.

The government of India’s failure to discipline Mamata Banerjee over her sabotaging the proposed Teesta river accord rankles deep among Bangladesh observers and people, no matter whether they support the BNP or the AL. “It seems our elected prime minister as a leader of a sovereign country of 156 million people, is a lesser figure in terms of political importance than the chief minister of West Bengal, a considerably smaller Indian state (out of 29 others!), for India!” has been a common refrain among not only the Bangladeshi intelligentsia but among the common people as well.

Bangladesh’s move to involve the Chinese in a proposed $300 million project in the downstream of Teesta River is a sharp reminder to India that its legit demands should have been addressed by the bigger country. If hundreds of Chinese technicians and planners work on the scheme in northern Bangladesh close to Indian border, as is bound to happen, imagine the long security threat that this would pose, affecting the prospects of political stability and economy in the troubled NE region.

Related news: It’s crucial for India to revive ties with Bangladesh

With Pakistan, Turkey and to a lesser extent China becoming more active in Bangladesh diplomatically and otherwise, it is certainly time for India to devise its own long-term policy structure and time-bound initiatives  to (a) save its own Look East programme, (b) ensure seamless regional economic development and (c) effectively strengthen the secular forces, to name only three major objectives, for starters.

(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)