Bangladesh-India ties are not a zero-sum game
It all began with an op-ed that Shyamal Dutta, the editor of the Bhorer Kagoj, wrote on the front page of the Dhaka-based newspaper. The blistering intro narrated the genocidal events that took place in what was East Pakistan in 1971 in the hands of the Pakistani military. It went on to remind readers that successive Pakistani leaders failed to apologise for those atrocities committed by their predecessors.
The article would have been just fine as a lesson on history. Instead, Shyamal Dutta invoked all these painful memories because Pakistan's current leader, Imran Khan—who he mistakenly called the nephew of General AAK Niazi, the man responsible for the carnage in 1971—spoke to Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for about 15 minutes.
A mere phone call, the article suggested, represents a major shift in tone vis-a-vis Bangladesh's stalled relations with Pakistan—that too, at the expense of Dhaka's historical relations with India.
The call was initiated by the Pakistani side, and it would have been discourteous of Bangladesh if it declined a call from a foreign head of government. "After all," Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Momen has said, "we live in the same world."
Thorny matters such as the Kashmir issue were raised by the Pakistani premier, to which the Bangladeshi prime minister reiterated the country's position that it was India's internal matter—an act publicly appreciated by India's high-level officials. In fact, Bangladesh did not take cognisance of the standing of Pakistan regarding these issues, as evident by the statement put out by Bangladesh which only mentioned discussions related to Covid-19.
For all its explosive claims, Shyamal Dutta's article did not garner much attention at the initial stage and it would have perhaps remained so only if it had not been for The Hindu, the influential Indian newspaper which picked up the story with grave urgency.
The Hindu avoided Dutta's emotional remembrance of atrocities committed in the war and instead focused solely on some of the piece's most incendiary claims, such as priority towards Chinese projects in Bangladesh and disregard for Indian ones. The title of the report was equally suggestive: "Bangladesh's PM Sheikh Hasina did not meet the Indian envoy, despite requests."
That a foreign envoy did not have a meeting with a country's prime minister in four months is not earth-shattering news anyway. But, against the backdrop of the phone call between Sheikh Hasina and Imran Khan, suddenly it became a big deal.
There was only one problem, though. The source of the news was not Shyamal Dutta himself. In the original Bangla article, he referred to "the Indian media" when he claimed Riva Ganguli Das, the outgoing Indian high commissioner to Dhaka, was reportedly not given access to PM Sheikh Hasina in the last four months despite multiple requests.
Even then, The Hindu did not only omit Dutta's attribution to "the Indian media" but also failed to take into account a key factor: the Covid-19 pandemic. The outbreak has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world and completely altered the way people talk, meet and communicate with each other. Yet, the paper failed to consider the possibility that the outbreak might have been a key factor in why the meeting did not materialise.
What's more, the report left out the fact that PM Sheikh Hasina has not met any other foreign envoys since the outbreak began four to five months ago. In fact, in a subsequent report, The Hindu itself cited "diplomatic sources in Dhaka" who said any planned meetings could not take place due to the threat of coronavirus.
To put the final nail in the coffin, a highly placed source in the High Commission of India in Dhaka disputed the very premise of the story: the high commissioner did not even seek any appointment with PM Sheikh Hasina in the last four months whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the story was picked up by other regional outlets including Dawn and Asia Times. It will go down as an international example of uncritical reporting influenced by preconceived bias, not to mention the poor attribution practices.
Not just this particular aspect of the story; the entire notion that Bangladesh is shifting away from India, bit by bit, is grossly exaggerated. In fact, contrary to the narrative, the last four months saw some key progress in bilateral relations between the two countries. On July 21, the first Indian commercial vessels reached Chattogram port, from where goods were quickly transported to the north-eastern part of India. The transit, which saves huge amounts of money and time, has fulfilled a key and longstanding Indian demand, despite the expensive political prices involved for Dhaka.
In recent months, two countries reached commercial deals such as the acquisition of Beximco LPG, one of Bangladesh's largest liquid petroleum gas provider, by India's state-owned Indian Oil Corporation. During the pandemic, India has also shown several instances of goodwill gestures to Bangladesh.
Most importantly, the two countries share a relationship that is not based on a zero-sum game. By the same token, Bangladesh's relations with India should not be measured by its relations with other countries and vice versa. In fact, the ties are so powerful that even the realpolitik issues—which would have been the thorniest had it been between countries with normal ties—have been peacefully resolved by the two countries.
For two nations sharing the longest boundary in the world, Bangladesh and India have resolved land boundary issues dating back a very long time. Even sensitive maritime boundary issues have been resolved in an amicable and exemplary manner. These achievements should be celebrated as a victory of peaceful diplomacy in a world beset by a myriad of land and maritime disputes, not least the South China Sea crisis.
There is no denying that Bangladesh has appreciated Chinese investment proposals, including in major infrastructure projects. But PM Sheikh Hasina's government has made it very clear that it intends to strike a delicate balance when it comes to its relations between China and India. It is in line with the policy that the country continues to maintain its relations with two major Asian powers.
Although Indian policymakers understand Bangladesh's positions, certain members of the Indian media are more than eager to paint a picture of fraying proximity between the two neighbours. Especially in the wake of the Galwan standoff, some media outlets are trying to cash in on the increased sensitivity among the local population regarding anything remotely related to China. Let us also remember how Ananda Bazar, the prominent Indian Bangla daily, disparagingly described Bangladesh taking Chinese "charity" in a story, which was later retracted due to intense public pressure coming from social media.
Amid the hostile treatment from certain sections of the Indian media, the leadership of both countries have opted for continuous harmony. On July 27, at a virtual meeting, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Momen termed the bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh as "rock solid." His Indian counterpart, J S Jaishankar, was equally effusive, "very few countries in the world share such close fraternal ties as ours." If anything, this affirmation should quell the confusion spiced up by the click-hungry media.
Mohammad A Arafat is a professor of management at the Canadian University Bangladesh and chairperson of Suchinta Foundation.