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What should be India’s Approach to Bangladesh?


The hullabaloo over headline-grabbing ‘big ticket’ projects between countries often makes us forget that we have to deal with immediate and practical issues, which may have long-term implications for national interest. The development of bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh is a case in point. Recently, India and Bangladesh announced a number of railway connectivity plans, via Indian states like West Bengal and Tripura. The latest such deliberation is being conducted to connect Malda in Kolkata to Rajshahi in Bangladesh.

Ostensibly, these connectivity measures are being carried out to cultivate more trust between countries, have better strategic cooperation and foster people-to-people contacts. Beyond this rhetoric, it appears that India is also trying to offset Chinese influence in Bangladesh, as the latter two countries are progressing by leaps and bounds in developing their economic and strategic relationship.

Unfortunately, for India, despite giving good amount of credit to Bangladesh, easing the way in trading negotiations and supporting it internationally, we have not gained as much reciprocating goodwill from Bangladesh as one would expect. Instead, we have been subjected to unnecessary harassment over the Rohingya issue and bombarded with illegal immigrants from across the border.

For our part, we have also been at fault for not being more exacting and smart when it comes to the smaller neighbours. Certainly, under the current pattern of international relations, selfish politics of bargaining is how things work between nations – and the result is that everyone is worse-off than before. Climate change negotiations are an obvious example.

But coming back to Bangladesh, the deployment of hard measures on the Indian side should not be withheld and philanthropy must not be squandered on a country when it comes to dealing with issues like terrorism.

India needs to keep a few things in mind while interacting with Bangladesh.

The first, immediate issue is that deepening of ties between Bangladesh and India will pan out along different lines than that of strategic and economic cooperation between Bangladesh and China, which is going ahead full steam. On the connectivity front, while India already shares porous borders with Bangladesh and faces the brunt of illegal immigration, railway connectivity between sensitive destinations like Kolkata and Rajshahi will have to be well-regulated to preempt potential threats. Malda in Kolkata and Rajshahi in Bangladesh are communally-sensitive and terror-sensitive regions. We all know about Mamata Bannerjee’s politics of minority appeasement which has made West Bengal a hub of communal tensions.

A few days back, one of Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police said that most of the militants arrested across the country are from Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions. Rajshahi has been home to quite a number of busted ‘terrorist dens’.

Under such conditions, does it make sense to have connectivity between such destinations?

Neither Kolkata nor Rajshahi are known for sterling law-enforcement capacities. Across the railways, there is already a black market, in which everyone is involved. How the law enforcement agencies will scan for potential terrorists misusing these railway routes is the big question. The fear is that such glamourous headline-grabbing infrastructure projects may lead to serious domestic security problems, especially for India.

The second, long-term issue is that India needs to take a hard position to compel Bangladesh to set its house in order, so that it no longer supports radical Islam and ISI-linked politicians and stops atrocities against minorities. In fact, this is linked to the first issue, as a deteriorating condition in Bangladesh will bode ill for India, which is going on a spree of deeper connectivity measures with the country. ISI is likely to exploit these links, unless terrorism’s bases in Bangladesh are dealt with.

How can India go about it? India already has deep cooperation with Bangladesh in a number of areas, and during Sushma Swaraj’s visit some time back, also extended 8 billion USD Line of Credit – India’s third LoC – to Bangladesh. Besides, states in the Indian north-eastern region, like Assam, are already taking initiatives to foster local contacts. Thus, India has nothing to feel defensive about, and need not have, for instance, felt pushed into the corner by Bangladesh’s allegations on India’s initial stand on the Rohingya issue – which were, significantly, not levelled against China, which recently vetoed a UN resolution to put pressure on Myanmar.

India needs to get over this overall quasi-appeasement of Bangladesh and should start talking to Bangladesh about ways to reform institutional biases that result in a boost to terrorist and militant elements, by actively pressurizing Bangladesh on stopping violence against minorities – an area where these militant leaders and their civilian proxies are most visible and can be easily trapped. Bilateral relations should be guided not only by bigger power shielding and giving to the other, but also by getting hard bargains in return – which India should consider doing. The most immediate area of action should be the deteriorating condition of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh – a concern which is in line with the Indian government’s redrafted Citizenship Bill, which is motivated by the condition of persecuted religious minorities in our neighbouring countries. And the condition of minorities in Bangladesh is bad, despite the strongman image of the Hasina government as being hard on terror.

To give an example, two main leaders of the Bangladeshi Janata Party were found to be in police custody more than two weeks after they went ‘missing’ – of course, the ballooning ‘missing’ list of people in Bangladesh is an entirely different story. The party, which was alleged to have been formed by the blessing of the Indian BJP barely two months ago, wanted to work on national issues of concern to minorities. Yet its leader was arrested for conspiring to ‘topple the government’ – all because he was working on securing land rights for Hindus and wrote Facebook posts critical of the government.

This high-handedness further combines with apathy and culpability of the political establishment in Bangladesh, as seen, separately, in the case of Rangpur mayhem, since the beginning of November, where a propaganda campaign had been going on against the Hindus for a fabricated Facebook post ‘demeaning Islam’, culminating in the November 10th attack where a mob of hundreds of people attacked the Hindus of the Thakurpara village.

To India’s credit, it did seek assurance from Bangladesh that it would take action against the culprits, but it is clear that the arrests by the police were simply to show action performed. Who knows when the detainees might be let out – the bail system can be exploited by the powerful; consider how more than 200 suspected militants have been out on bail since January 2017, with 20 dreaded militants getting bail in the space of three days during Eid, by a mere court order.

It also needs to be asked how the administration failed to take note of the violent propaganda that was being perpetuated openly through loudspeakers and in madrassas, exhorting violence against the Hindus, for a whole week. The local leadership of main opposition BNP was clearly hand-in-glove with Jamaat-i-Islami in instigating the attack.

Incidents like Rangpur show that diplomatic assurances between countries may not brighten the long-term prospects for minorities in Bangladesh. Admittedly, there are good reasons why India would want Sheikh Hasina to retain power. The opposition BNP is conservative and more likely to veer towards Pakistan and the radical groups like Hefajat-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami, while a political vacuum may always create ripe ground for another ‘caretaker’ military government as seen during 2007, which would again raise concerns about sabotage project of the radicals, making things much worse.

Not that these scenarios will pan out during next year’s general election in Bangladesh. Hasina government has carefully weeded out dissidents like the Chief Justice and has been ruthless on BNP, with even Khaleda Zia and her son getting embroiled in court cases. Political violence – like we see in Kerala here – also pans out between Awami League and BNP members.

But such volatile politics, institutions where lines between shadowy security agencies and militants are indiscernible and rising militancy, creates a vulnerable situation for India as it deepens its physical connectivity with Bangladesh. India needs a stable Bangladesh, for which popular support for militancy needs to go. But, as analysis of cases show, many times, most of the support for militancy comes because of the backing of security forces themselves i.e. the government itself is culpable. It is a well-known fact that radical groups like Jamaat-i-Islami have their people sitting in top places like the judiciary and the Election Commission. The mal-functioning of the judiciary is a proof of that. Its many verdicts and soft stance on terrorism is mind-boggling, but quite common – more so than that of the government.

These are the deep-rooted worms that seek to wipe out the Bengali heritage of Bangladesh and make its society and political system closer to Pakistan’s brand of radical Islam. Were this to happen, India would lose an important ally. We cannot afford another rabid country like Pakistan in our backyard. For that it is important that India goes beyond appeasing Bangladesh with big-ticket projects and credit and gets down to actual work.

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