India’s biggest challenge when dealing with its immediate neighbours is, first and foremost, the sense of its sheer size that dwarfs the combined size of all the others. This huge size, in combination with the fact that India is the only country that has contiguous borders with all its neighbours—except Afghanistan (which has a somewhat dubious advantage of separation from the Indian landmass by intervening Pakistan)—adds to the psychological complexity in all when viewing their respective relationships with India, as indeed it explains, not a little, India’s own behavioural pattern in its relations with the neighbours it towers over! Viewed through this prism, size matters, for better or for worse.
Having described generically the dynamics that very likely drives or defines the different sets of relationships that each of India’s neighbours perhaps harbours towards the South Asian behemoth, I will focus here more on the relationship between Bangladesh and India than on the others.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Bangladesh’s struggle for its independence from Pakistan in 1971 would have been far more prolonged, painful and bloody, or perhaps even rendered impossible, without India’s support to it politically, economically, militarily and diplomatically, not to mention the whole-hearted support of the Indian people. Yet barely three and a half years after that defining moment, this relationship, haloed by the blood of martyrs co-mingling in the soil as they fought a common enemy, turned not only sour but became increasingly protean, with more downs than ups in the period between 1975 and 2008. Why?
Many in Bangladesh find Indian official attitude patronising, hectoring, insensitive and largely, if not entirely, self-serving. The propensity to shift goalposts to suit their own convenience is a repetitive theme. There were honourable exceptions to this behavioural pattern, notably during the years of initial bonhomie in the early post-Liberation years (1972-75), during the respective stewardships of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu in Bangladesh and Mrs Indira Gandhi in India; during the pre-midterm period of the Deve Gowda-Inder Gujral government in India and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s first term in office in Bangladesh, when the signing of the landmark 30-year Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (1996) and the treaty on ending cross-border insurgency (1997) were signed; and notably, in more recent times, during the UPA-2 government led by Dr Manmohan Singh in India with Sheikh Hasina as prime minister in Bangladesh, both displaying extraordinary vision and boldness. These were the periods when remarkable events happened.
It was following the elections in Bangladesh in December 2008 that a significant turn-around took place. Winning a massive landslide victory that also gave her a massive mandate, Sheikh Hasina demonstrated a visionary leadership matched equally by great boldness and political courage, embarking on pro-active engagement with the INC-led UPA government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh, also regarded in great esteem and respect by most Bangladeshis. Within the short span of two years, she addressed India’s security concerns palpably to India’s satisfaction; successfully concluded the Protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement that had been entered into by her illustrious father in 1974; resolved the maritime boundary dispute by willingly referring it to arbitration by the ITLOS under the UNCLOS; got sweeping (and practically one-way) trade concessions from India; and signed the historic Framework Agreement for Cooperation and Development in September 2011 with her Indian counterpart, which enabled Bangladesh, together with India, to launch the dynamic initiative for commencing meaningful discussions with Bhutan and Nepal for sub-regional cooperation that was to become known as BBIN.
India and Bangladesh agreed upon the first post-Partition cross border trade in power and energy cooperation, with India supplying 250mW of power to Bangladesh (this power trade has since grown exponentially) and allowing India transit of Over Dimensional Cargo of power plant equipment across IWT protocol route from Haldia to Agartala. Having broken the ice, Bangladesh persuaded India at the highest level to agree to embark on a joint-venture hydro-power generation in Bhutan for importing-wheeling into Bangladesh using Indian grid. India also agreed to discuss rivers on a regional, holistic basin-wide management basis rather than piecemeal sharing of individual rivers. This was a major shift in Indian position since 1947, enabling Bangladesh, India and Nepal to discuss the Ganges basin; and Bangladesh, Bhutan and India could similarly optimise management of available waters in the lower Brahmaputra.
West Bengal’s persistent intransigence on the Teesta issue and the Indian Centre’s continuing adversarial relations with the recalcitrant state since then has served as impetus to growing disenchantment with India in Bangladesh. This was accentuated steadily after the BJP-led NDA Alliance came to power in 2014 with overwhelming (and subsequently, in 2019, sweeping near-total) majority. The first near-casualty was the ratification of the LBA and its protocol, with the BJP government first insisting on only partial ratification (without Assam, a key component of the carefully crafted package deal). The next jolt came when India abruptly shifted the goalposts on cross-border power deals in the region, by insisting on strict bilateral arrangements between all interested regional parties. India would purchase power from Bhutan and sell the same to Bangladesh, under the infamous Guidelines for Cross-Border Power Trade promulgated in December 2016. Effectively, this killed any chance of any sub-regional power trade or energy investment taking place, reviving India’s hegemonic reputation robustly.
This served to fuel further distrust among Bangladeshis about Indian reliability and deepened suspicions that the narrative (and initiatives and works thereunder) of sub-regional connectivity were essentially an Indian ploy to get Bangladesh to accede to long-standing Indian demands for transit and transshipment across Bangladesh to India’s landlocked north-eastern states and to enable the operationalisation of Mr Modi’s robust “Act East” policy.
With these body blows to the newly established bonhomie were then added, as grist to the mill, Indian policies and actions on three significant issues that have regional fallouts. First was India’s equivocal position on Myanmar’s genocidal actions on its Rohingya nationals in Rakhine state in August 2017 which resulted in a mass outflow of nearly 1 million refugees into Bangladesh. The Myanmarese regime screamed “Islamist terrorism” when Mr Modi was visiting that country to which his government’s response was Pavlovian, as viewed by most Bangladeshis. The subsequent actions by India on the NRC in Assam have only served to deepen anxiety and distrust about real intentions behind what India has repeatedly asserted as being an internal matter of India. Many Bangladeshis are convinced that this is an anti-Muslim drive by India’s present regime espousing Hindutva, and India is now increasingly viewed as jettisoning all pretensions to secularism and unabashedly embracing the redefining of the Indian state as a Hindu majoritarian Rashtra (mirroring, ironically, Pakistan’s Muslim majoritarian Islamic Republic).
Why anti-Muslim? Because the BJP leaders in pre-poll campaign speeches and subsequently after assuming power had asserted that all Hindus from anywhere, particularly from the neighbouring states, would be granted Indian citizenship if they so sought it in India. This was reinforced by the cow-slaughter ban and numerous reports of vigilante actions by Hindu revivalists across several states in India. The recent actions in Kashmir (revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution) have served to feed this anxiety and added much grist to the mill, pushing fears into the realm of deep-seated conviction. The present NDA Alliance’s credibility is, therefore, increasingly being tested by its own acts of commission and omission, when compared to the soft, inclusive and conciliatory approach to neighbours of its predecessors in power, the UPI Alliance.
The shift in emphasis on various issues has also had its fallout on the various regional cooperation measures, processes and institutions like SAARC, BBIN and BIMSTEC. Since 2014, it is clear to many observers that India is now least interested in having anything to do at all with SAARC, considered dead for all purposes. India has demonstrated less than enthusiasm to pursuing the BBIN agenda, focusing its energy and efforts on getting connectivity on road, rail and waters between India and Bangladesh foremost, while letting sub-regionalism proceed at its own pace, if it will or can. India is clearly now viewed as having shifted focus and concentrating energies entirely to activating BIMSTEC.
However, one should not lose sight of two issues here. In the 7-member BIMSTEC, the 4-member BBIN countries comprise the majority. To my simple-minded view, BBIN’s inability to demonstrate palpable success in any truly regional cooperative/collaborative venture would serve as a dampener on enthusiasm being generated among the remaining three members about the continuing viability of the BIMSTEC venture. Secondly, two BIMSTEC members, Bangladesh and Myanmar, constitute the western and eastern spans of the bridge that they form to link the South Asian region with the Southeast Asian region and beyond further east. As I see it, both these spans are now on fire where they meet, and the flames are growing stronger by the day due to continuing and persisting intransigence of the Myanmarese regime to amicably resolve the refugee crisis that it unleashed on Bangladesh. Unless these flames are doused quickly, the bridge will collapse and BIMSTEC too may become another patient in the regional ICU.
Tariq Karim is a retired diplomat and was Bangladesh’s immediate past High Commissioner to India (2009-2014) and Deputy High Commissioner to India in New Delhi (1984-1988), and Additional Foreign Secretary for South Asia and SAARC at the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry in 1995-97. He is currently Senior Fellow at Independent University, Bangladesh.
A slightly edited version of this article was published in the Deccan Herald on November 24, 2019.