Realities of Bangladesh-India relations
In an interview published by The Daily Star on October 27, Dr Ahsan Mansur, while discussing the recent IMF revelation that Bangladesh is set to surpass India in terms of per capita GDP, said something very interesting. He said, "in the recent Indian political narrative", one highly influential political leader and the current home minister and BJP head, labelled Bangladeshis as "termites and alleged that poor Bangladeshis were invading India by migrating en masse." We suspect he is not alone in holding this view and propagating it. The IMF disclosure debunks the myth of Bangladesh always being the poor, underperforming, help-needing, threat-posing neighbour and should make him, and others who may harbour similar views, reassess their positions.
India's poor economic performance of late undoubtedly calls for serious introspection within the Indian society, including the way it thinks about its neighbours. The best way forward would be to come out of their own myths about Bangladesh.
The overriding myth that generates many others is that of Bangladesh not being a dependable neighbour, that we are an ungrateful lot and have forgotten the role India played in our birth, and that we need constant watching lest we go astray. This myth of undependability makes India look with suspicion every time we take a step that does not meet with its own narrative as to what Bangladesh should do. The issue at hand concerns our relations with China. Every time it accepts Chinese funds or aid, Bangladesh is looked upon with suspicion by India. Or counterintuitively, such relationships with China is seen as not being a good neighbour to India. But politicians and the media in India should recognise that Bangladesh, because of India's historical role in its Liberation War of 1971, always considers India its greatest friend—and that has been made explicitly clear under the current administration.
Some Indian pundits do recognise this. According to journalist Shekhar Gupta, "Bangladesh is India's most friendly neighbour". However, due to much of the Indian mainstream media's failure to fully recognise and appreciate the importance of its relations with Bangladesh, it is India that has pursued policies—such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and National Register of Citizens—that risks alienating its "most important neighbour".
According to Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, Bangladesh has "assiduously met India's demands of providing free transit to Indian goods"—without even asking India to cover for the increased cost of maintenance for Bangladesh, arising from granting India the facility; it has allowed India "the use of Bangladesh's ports, setting up a coastal surveillance system radar in the country", permitted "withdrawal of water from the Feni river;" as well as played an important role in supporting India's counter-insurgency efforts in the northeast.
A lot of these facilities might have seemed over the top, had Bangladesh provided any of them, under the conditions that it did, to any other country. However, in India's case, it didn't seem much of a problem because Bangladesh sees itself as having a special relationship with India.
On the other hand, many "legitimate claims against India by Bangladesh have been brushed aside [by India]." Among these is the most obvious—India's failure to finalise the Teesta River water sharing deal with Bangladesh. But that isn't the only one. India has recently passed an amendment to its citizenship laws which made it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan) to acquire Indian citizenship—which has garnered some controversy. That, along with its registration programme in the north-eastern state of Assam, which some fear could spark an exodus of Muslims in India into Bangladesh, prompted a number of questions and concerns in Bangladesh. Its delay in granting Bangladeshi goods duty free access to the Indian market and the sudden imposition of import restrictions on Bangladeshi jute, despite protests against it from Indian businessmen, have been disappointing.
India's reasoning, in all these cases, was that it was looking after its own interest. But then, why can't Bangladesh accept Chinese funds for projects that serve Bangladesh's interests? Why must Indian political elites—while propagating how special India's relationship with Bangladesh is—question Bangladesh's loyalty and friendship with India at the same time?
Even when it came to Chinese involvement in the development of a deep-seaport in Bangladesh, Bangladesh took India's concerns into consideration, and went ahead with Japanese assistance, instead of China's. But India still showed reservations or gave objections to other instances of Bangladesh-China cooperation, even though such cooperation posed no direct threats to India's security.
China and India are Bangladesh's biggest trading partners, with annual trade deficits of USD 12 billion and USD 8 billion, respectively—Bangladesh exports around USD 1 billion to each country. Bangladesh, therefore, would most certainly like to have good relations with both—and perhaps going a step further, hope for good relations between China-India. But the reality, which Bangladesh cannot help, is that there are legitimate tensions between the two Asian giants. However, as Lailufar Yasmin, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, explains: "Bangladesh is not leaning towards any country. Bangladesh is India's largest trade partner in South Asia while China is equally influencing Bangladesh and Indian economies."
Bangladesh cannot escape the geographical reality that it is almost completely surrounded by India with a 4,096 kilometre shared border. As such, cordial ties with India is critical for Bangladesh's economic development and national security. At the same time, it is in Bangladesh's interest to also reach out to its Chinese neighbour—or any other country that is willing to help for that matter—for developmental assistance and economic support. And that is all it has been doing. In some cases, what happened was that China offered to help, where India did not—or could not, for whatever reason.
To take one example, it was reported in August that Bangladesh had reached out to China for funding worth USD 6.4 billion for nine infrastructure projects. What dominated media reporting in India was the inclusion of one project in particular—to better manage the Teesta's water within Bangladesh's own territory. India for years has failed to deliver on its promise to settle the Teesta dispute with Bangladesh, mainly, as is understood, because of domestic reasons. So what was Bangladesh to do? Not seek alternative ways to minimise the resulting problems?
While one could argue that this was a case of China playing realpolitik, Bangladesh was doing nothing of that sort. And as far as Bangladesh and China are concerned, it isn't like the two countries always see eye to eye. For example, in June 2019, Bangladesh asked China for support in what Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen termed "the safe and dignified return of Rohingya Muslims to their own land in Myanmar." Many commentators, however, believe that is unlikely to happen due to China's strategic interest in Myanmar—Myanmar is the only country that provides China with direct access via land to the Indian Ocean.
India, however, has no such interests. Yet it has refused to take Bangladesh's side—despite Bangladesh being on the right side from a humanitarian perspective. There seems to be no logical explanation for India's reluctance to support Bangladesh on an issue that has gotten as far as the International Court of Justice.
Thus, if the Bangladesh-India relationship (which is good as it is) is to reach the next level, it is India that has to take more of an initiative. Instead of making provocative remarks about its neighbour, India should talk to Bangladesh, and try to figure out mutually beneficial pathways that can help both countries to carve out a better and more prosperous future for their people. At the end of the day, the two countries share many similar challenges—which means mutual cooperation is in both their interests. But the ball, quite clearly, is in India's court.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal