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Domestic Politics of Bangladesh and India - Bangladesh Relations

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  • December 20, 2013
    Fellows' Seminar

    This paper primarily made an attempt to discuss the effect of domestic politics of Bangladesh on India-Bangladesh Relations. It delved into some of the historical processes that resulted in the formation of community-consciousness among the Bengali Muslims whose interests were often at variance with not only the Hindus but also members of their own religion living elsewhere in the country. It was also noted that the Bengal Renaissance further strengthened the community consciousness of Muslims because they perceived it as an upper caste Hindu phenomenon.

    The author noted that for a brief period, immediately after liberation of Bangladesh, India-friendly policies were pursued. India and Bangladesh signed a twenty-five year Treaty of Peace and friendship in 1972 and even decided to sort out border disputes under Indira- Mujib Accord. But this bonhomie proved to be short-lived and after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, Bangladesh politics moved on a completely different path. It was alleged that India was selectively aiding groups close to the Awami League serving its political interests. From 1975 to 1990 Bangladesh was first ruled by Gen Ziaur Rahman and subsequently by Gen Ershad. The latter declared Islam as state religion of Bangladesh. With this step Ershad hoped to get greater support of the Islamist forces like Jamaat. But actually this angered Jamaat, as he had only declared Islam as state religion, but did not declare Bangladesh to be an Islamic state.

    The role of army was elaborately dealt in this paper and the author points out that the army played an important role in the politics of Bangladesh. It is also noted how the Bangladesh Army has had closer links with Pakistan and China, despite the fact that the country was liberated with India’s help and China had refused to recognise Bangladesh in initial years. It was also observed by the author that in recent times the nature of Bangladeshi external trade had changed. The country which was perennially facing trade deficit has managed to considerably narrow it down. Moreover, it is the only country in the south Asian region which has consistently shown progressive GDP growth, which is impressive by Bangladesh’s standards. As a result of which the businessman have started playing an active role Bangladeshi politics in recent years. The paper also notes the issue of trade imbalance of Bangladesh with important trading partners like China, which has replaced India as the largest trading partner. It is interesting to note that both India and China have similar kind of export basket and Chinese exports are now seen replacing Indian exports.

    The paper referred to an anti-India section which found problems about everything India doid. In comparison, China has been able to create considerable goodwill by constructing six friendship bridges and a conference centre earlier named as Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre. But when India gave $1billion credit line to Bangladesh for infrastructural development there was great difficulty in finalising the projects. India-Bangladesh agreed to construct a power plant at Rampal. But the anti-India lobby has created an impression that this project is not in Bangladeshi interests. They say that this project would damage the environment of Bangladesh as it is close to Sunderbans. However, what is to be remembered is that Sunderban is a shared heritage of India and Bangladesh.

    The author also took into account the fact that the domestic politics was also affecting connectivity in the region. The Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor, which has been in the back burner due to India’s concerns figured in the joint statement when Chinese Prime Minister visited India. Bangladesh wants China to develop its Chittagong port and build even a deep sea port at Sonadia. Moreover, BCIM wants to link Kolkata with Kunming through Bangladesh and Myanmar. It was also noted that Bangladesh analysts some of whom are hostile to India often try to remind us that if Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides with India, then India’s northeast is also Bangladesh locked. They want to use it as leverage. They think that if they keep northeast this way then it is not only in the strategic but also economic interests of Bangladesh.

    That author argued that it had not been easy for any government in Bangladesh to follow India-friendly policies. In fact, he noted that if you wanted to ruin your political career in Bangladesh politics then get yourself branded as pro-India. The chorus against India becomes shriller the moment Sheikh Hasina comes to power.

    In Bangladesh, parties are defined on the basis on their approach towards India. BNP tries to establish its nationalist credentials by being anti-India. Jamaat in any case is anti-India and it espouses Islamic rule in Bangladesh. These two parties have painted Awami League as being pro-India, while in reality the party at best could be described as being India-friendly. The author makes an inference that on the eve of January 2014 elections, India was not an issue. This does not mean that India no longer remained important for parties in Bangladesh. Actually there were two other issues of the caretaker government and the perception of Islam under threat which were far more important than India.

    After Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, it has often been alleged that India has not sufficiently reciprocated her friendly and cooperative gesture, by not signing the land boundary agreement (LBA) and Teesta Water Sharing agreement, two big ticket issues which have bedevilled the bilateral relation for a long time. It has also been argued that a greater response from Indian side would have helped Hasina in the January 2014 elections. But the author notes in the paper that such a view is rather simplistic. The solution of major issues between India and Bangladesh is desirable in their own right, but this may not necessarily translate into electoral goodwill for Hasina. Even if India were to make major concessions and get these issues resolved the hostile section in Bangladesh would never fail to give it a different colour and tell how India has swindled Bangladesh and Hasina has sold-off the country. The author quotes the example of Sri Lanka, where India gave away the Kachatiwu Island, but India-Sri Lanka relations at present are far from being friendly.

    The author closed by noting that the democracy in Bangladesh is at the crossroads. The secular, progressive and pro-liberation forces are pitted against pro-Pakistan Islamist elements. The deligitimization of anti-Liberation forces can change the flavour of domestic politics in Bangladesh, because it might be easier for India then to get acceptability of both the major political parties.

    External Discussants

    One of the external discussants, K. Srinivasan, cautioned the author that after only 2007 they have been talking of 1971 as a Liberation War. He continued by adding that on anti-terrorism front, the amount of progress which has been made is commendable even if the issues of water and land boundary agreements remain unresolved. He was also sceptical of the fact that Awami League is India-friendly because it accounts for most irritants to India.

    The other discussant, Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, suggested that it was very essential to first understand the internal politics of Bangladesh, and in this regard, the author needed to go back and understand the formation of Awami League and BNP. She further corrected the author that BNP was a centre-right party, not an anti-India group. Though, BNP leaders are closer to the Jamaat, they could not be held as “anti-India”, rather such observations might irk them. She also considered it important to factor in the perspective of Bangladesh Army in internal politics. She also added that the Awami League government also made use of the China factor very effectively. As because China does not share any direct land boundary with Bangladesh, like India— which gives rise to fear and scepticism in the minds of common people of Bangladesh— China is regarded as a friendly country. She further noted that it was natural for Bangladeshis to conduct their foreign policy to serve their national interests, which might not always fulfil India’s expectations. She also counter-argued that India was not a major factor in the internal politics of Bangladesh, and issues like price rise, inflation, caretaker government usually assumed centre-stage in domestic politics.

    Internal Discussants

    Gulbin Sulatana raised four issues. She first asked the author to find out why political parties in Bangladesh regard India and not any other country as a factor in domestic politics and why the business community in Bangladesh preferred to do trade with China ignoring India, despite having a huge trade deficit with China. She also expressed her doubts about the author’s claims that de-legitimization of anti-liberation forces could change the anti-India mindset of the people in Bangladesh. Lastly, she urged the author to throw more light on the anti-India section within the Awami League.

    Anshuman Behera suggested the author to include more historical portions in his paper and look at the peasant movement incited by Haji Shariatullah more critically. He suggested the author to study Bengali renaissance and the role of Brahmo Samaj in it. Moreover, he argued that the author should ideally include an analysis of Bangladeshi politics during 1947-71 and examine how Bengali nationalism and anti-Indian sentiment shaped up during this period. He also considered it important for the author to discuss other anti-Indian organizations in Bangladesh like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the neo-radicals which played a great role in fuelling anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh.

    Lastly, he said that all neighbouring countries do have a devoted anti-India constituency and the author needed to provide recommendations as to what should India do in order to erase that sentiment and improve its relations with the neighbours.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta noted that it doesn’t matters what Bangladesh thinks about India, rather it should be noted that how India should deal with its neighbours. Indian scholars must analyse how countries like China, Turkey and Brazil deal with their neighbours. He also suggested that no matter how much anti-Indianism was there in our neighbours, we must deal with it in a pragmatic manner. If polarisation and anti-Indianism is there, we must accept it. We have learned enough lessons from history that tit-for-tat policy is not going to be in India’s interests. He suggested that there should be more telephone calls and visits between the leaderships of the two countries. The Chair, Amb. R. Rajgopalan, commented that India had a distinct advantage vis-à-vis China in Bangladesh because of the long border it shared with Bangladesh, which India must take full advantage of and use to good effect.

    Report prepared by Abhimanyu Singh, Research Intern, IDSA.

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