Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives in New Delhi, October 3, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
The irony is not to be missed. In a season when Bangladeshis celebrate their victory over Pakistan, achieved with Indian moral and material support in their War of Liberation in 1971, they find themselves at the receiving end of what is perceived to be New Delhi’s suddenly hostile attitude towards their country. The recent adoption by the Indian Parliament of the amended citizenship law has raised questions in Dhaka about the intentions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with regard to the future of bilateral ties, despite all the putative camaraderie underscoring relations between the two countries since Narendra Modi took charge of India in 2014.
Bangladesh’s grievance and unspoken bitterness on the part of its government functionaries is shared by citizens on a wide scale. It is simply this—that Delhi has inexplicably and unwisely chosen to bracket Bangladesh with Pakistan and Afghanistan in the formulation of its Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Of course, in Bangladesh itself, there is awareness of the vulnerability which the Hindu community has been subjected to in recent years. But any suggestion that Hindus are a people persecuted by the state in Bangladesh is dismissed by the government and large sections of the population. Besides, leading political and intellectual figures in Dhaka have been at pains to remind people that for all its political shortcomings, Bangladesh remains a secular state in the constitutional sense of the meaning. Therefore, the suggestion by the ruling classes in Delhi that Bangladesh is a communal entity, along the lines of Pakistan, has come as a bit of a shock to Bangladesh’s people.
The dilemma for Bangladesh should be obvious. Relations between Dhaka and Delhi have historically been stable and friendly with the Awami League being in office. When the party was elected to power in June 1996, Sheikh Hasina’s government went out on a limb to clamp a ban on any political or armed activity against the Indian authorities by Indian insurgents operating from Bangladesh
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The extent to which the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam have made scratches on the solid edifice—for so long—of Indo-Bangladesh friendship cannot be overlooked. The Bangladesh authorities have already let it be known that they will not accept people pushed out of Assam on allegations of their being Bangladeshis illegally staying in the north-eastern Indian state. And now that the CAA has made it clear that only followers of minority faiths from Bangladesh, as also Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be welcome to seek Indian citizenship, the basis of Dhaka-Delhi ties has been rocked not a little. There are, of course, the anodyne statements coming from various ministers in Dhaka on the CAA and NRC being India’s internal issues. Dhaka is not keen to rock the boat of its traditional links with Delhi, but there is, too, the broad hint of how disturbed the Bangladesh government feels over the recent moves by the BJP Government. The foreign and home ministers of Bangladesh have both thought it pragmatic to call off their official visits to India. Though the authorities in Dhaka have offered polite explanations on the cancellations of the visits, the message has been loud and clear: Bangladesh is unhappy over recent developments in India.
The unhappiness has been building up for quite a while and recent incidents have only been adding to Bangladesh’s discomfiture at India’s almost cavalier attitude to its sensitivities. Only weeks ago, the Dhaka media went vocal, if not ballistic, over the low-key reception accorded to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her visits to Delhi and Kolkata. On both occasions, the absence of a cabinet minister during the arrival of the Bangladesh leader raised eyebrows and comments in Dhaka. Add to that the perception that the Bangladesh government has been bending over backward to maintain, and indeed expand, existing links between Dhaka and Delhi. To that end, runs the complaint in the Bangladesh capital, Sheikh Hasina agreed during her last visit to Delhi to have India withdraw water from the River Feni for the state of Tripura without Delhi making any reciprocal gesture on such outstanding issues as the sharing of the waters of the River Teesta. Analysts in Dhaka would have liked a quid pro quo through a linking of the Teesta question with the Indian need for water from the Feni.
There is little doubt that on a personal scale, Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have had good interactions in the last five years. The Bangladesh government was certainly thrilled when the Indian leader, soon after he assumed power, promised to have the Teesta issue resolved within the terms of office of his and Sheikh Hasina’s governments. That has not happened, with the natural result that people in Bangladesh have almost convinced themselves that the Teesta will go on being quite a prickly issue between the two nations. And now that the CAA has been formally adopted by the Indian Parliament, Bangladeshis are miffed that their country is being projected as a communal state, that indeed there is a growing anti-Bangladesh sentiment in places like Assam. No one in Bangladesh has forgotten Home Minister Amit Shah’s characterisation of people illegally entering India from Bangladesh as termites. Add to that the vicious comments made on certain Indian TV channels by rabid pro-BJP anchors, one of whom, only days ago, chose to term the entry of so-called Bangladeshis into India as akin to an influx of mosquitoes. The reference to termites and mosquitoes in relation to Bangladeshis has been regarded as an insult and a sign of propaganda against Bangladesh being whipped up in influential quarters in India.
For all its unhappiness vis-à-vis its ties with India, the Bangladesh government has scrupulously maintained the position that cooperation between Dhaka and Delhi in a diversity of areas outweighs any possibility of a public demonstration of discord between the two countries. On the issue of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, the Bangladesh authorities took the view that it was an internal Indian affair
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The degree to which Bangladesh is beginning to feel exasperated at the subtle decline in relations with India could not have been better expressed by Syed Muazzam Ali, the outgoing Bangladesh High Commissioner in Delhi. He went on record with his remarks, made in Delhi, that Bangladeshis would rather swim their way to Italy than enter India in an illegal manner. His comments have not been protested by Delhi. Neither has his own government sought to distance itself from them, a hint that there are many in Dhaka who may have silently cheered their diplomat for speaking his mind. However, while the government has refrained from commenting officially on the ramifications it foresees building up around the CAA and NRC issues, the political opposition in Dhaka has publicly condemned the moves by the Modi Government.
The dilemma for Bangladesh should be obvious. Relations between Dhaka and Delhi have historically been stable and friendly with the Awami League being in office. When the party was elected to power in June 1996, Sheikh Hasina’s government went out on a limb to clamp a ban on any political or armed activity against the Indian authorities by Indian insurgents operating from Bangladesh. At the same time, the government concluded a deal on a sharing of Ganges waters with the Indian Government of then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. In the years since early 2009, when the Awami League returned to power following eight years in the wilderness, Indo-Bangladesh ties have been on an even keel both with the Congress and the BJP wielding authority in Delhi—until now.
Bangladeshis are upset—who can blame them?—that on the issue of the Rohingyas, the support they expected from India, in fact, the pressure they thought Delhi would exert on Myanmar on the need for a resolution of the crisis, simply did not materialise. And with China and Russia, too, adopting a position similar to India’s, Bangladesh has been deeply disappointed by the reluctance of its friends to come to its aid.
For all its unhappiness vis-à-vis its ties with India, the Bangladesh government has scrupulously maintained the position that cooperation between Dhaka and Delhi in a diversity of areas outweighs any possibility of a public demonstration of discord between the two countries. On the issue of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, the Bangladesh authorities took the view that it was an internal Indian affair. The sentiment acquired a formal status when the Indian foreign minister visited Dhaka to acquaint Bangladesh government leaders with the reasons behind the decision on Article 370.
The degree to which Bangladesh is beginning to feel exasperated at the subtle decline in relations with India could not have been better expressed by Syed Muazzam Ali, the outgoing Bangladesh High Commissioner in Delhi. He went on record with his remarks, made in Delhi, that Bangladeshis would rather swim their way to Italy than enter India in an illegal manner. His comments have not been protested by Delhi
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In light of the adoption of the CAA by the Indian Parliament, there are patent worries that assail Bangladesh. In the first place, the Indian authorities have unwittingly pushed Dhaka into a difficult situation by bracketing it with Pakistan and thereby persuading itself that Bangladesh is a communal state when in historical and constitutional terms it is a secular republic. In the second, increasingly wide swathes of Bangladeshi society are now beginning to see India regressing into a state based on Hindutva, in clear repudiation of its original secular character. Finally, insensitivities toward Bangladesh in Delhi—on river-water sharing, on alleged infiltration by Bangladeshis, on holding up an image of Bangladesh’s majority Muslims persecuting the country’s minority Hindus—can only cheer elements that have long sought to drive a wedge between Delhi and Dhaka.