Bangladesh-India relationship has always been an issue of intense discussions and debate among academics, policy makers and activists. Both governments claim that these two countries are enjoying a very warm and unprecedented close relationship, while critics have argued that the relationship has been lopsided in favor of India. Several recent events, including two visits of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, signing of several treaties and MOUs, have brought the issue of reciprocity to the fore. Dr. Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Illinois State University, USA and Dr. Joyeeta Bhrttacharjee, Senior Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, assess the state of the relationship, the challenges and future trajectories.
1. Do you agree that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam, a state which has seen the maximum inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, is the latest irritant in otherwise cordial relations between the two countries?
AR: The question is based on several stated and unstated assumptions, but many of them are inaccurate. For example, the assumption that Assam has seen ‘the maximum inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh’ is not only flawed but also devoid of facts. Available studies on migration and the recently completed NRC have not proven this assumption; on the contrary the politically motivated and faulty processes have shown that the claim of so-called ‘illegal migration’ was a myth. The second assumption is that ‘there is a cordial relation’ between these two countries. The government to government relationship might be claimed as such, and the ruling Awami League enjoys the wholehearted support of the Indian government, but they do not reflect the serious concerns expressed by civil society and the public at large regarding the unequal relationship. Having said that, the NRC has become a major issue of concern for Bangladeshis, especially due to the statements of the BJP leaders. Most prominent among these is of Amit Shah’s description of the so-called ‘infiltrators’ as ‘termites.’ The Bangladesh government, however, has expressed confidence on the assurances provided by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in a meeting with Sheikh Hasina in New York and also during her visit to New Delhi in October 2019. The fear is that the NRC has created many stateless citizens who may migrate to Bangladesh as the legal process to appeal exhausts in coming months. The Indian government might not officially pushback these people, but the overall environment will encourage them to find refuge rather than end up in the detention centers. The NRC, presumably, is the first step towards the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which will have a significant destabilizing effect on Bangladesh.
JB: The issue of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam led to some discomfort but it cannot be considered a new irritant to the bilateral relationship. NRC is linked to illegal migration from Bangladesh to India a long-standing issue. Unfortunately, the two countries have failed to resolve the problem of illegal migration. Largely, because Bangladesh declines to accept such a claim. Indian states like Assam bordering Bangladesh experienced years of social and ethnic tensions over the issue of migration across the border and have been demanding remedial steps. Notably, NRC in Assam was undertaken following directives of the Supreme Court of India and not the government India. Officially, Bangladesh stands over the issue of National Register of Citizen (NRC) in Assam has been it is an internal issue of India. Thus, intricately meaning that the country has no role in the issue. Nevertheless, there have been concerns among the people in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has raised the issue at the highest level with India. The main concern of Bangladesh here is the influx of people from India to that country following the NRC. Given Bangladesh’s concern, India assured that no one would be deported in that country. The government of Bangladesh is relying on India’s commitment.
2. Bangladesh is banking on India to put pressure on Myanmar to take back Rohingya refugees while ensuring their safety. How far can India go to address Bangladesh concerns?
AR: It is appalling that India has not come to the aid of Bangladesh on the Rohingya refugee crisis. Instead of standing beside Bangladesh and putting pressure on Myanmar, it has chosen to protect its interests in Myanmar. Since the crisis unfolded, India has provided only miniscule ‘humanitarian’ aid for refugees while it has not extended its support to Bangladesh’s position in the international fora, for example, in the UN Human Rights Council. The developments since the crisis began clearly show that China has taken a lead in mediating the issue between these two countries. The bilateral agreement with Myanmar signed by Bangladesh in late 2017 was a result of Chinese insistence. Recently a tripartite
committee has been created as well.
JB: Rohingya refugee crisis has been a major problem of the country and has been seeking help from across the world. India being the next-door neighbour and a regional power expectation is higher. Nevertheless, the authorities understand India’s limitations also. Like Bangladesh, India shares border with Myanmar and its relations have been warm. Myanmar has contributed to improving the security situation in India’s Northeast region. The country is a major connecting bridge to Southeast Asia. Like Bangladesh, it cannot disrupt its relationship with Myanmar. The problem of the Rohingyas has been Myanmar does not recognise them to its citizens and consider them to be illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution in Myanmar. For any resolution, there is a need to generate the confidence to the Rohingya refugees that they will not face a similar situation in Myanmar. This is a major challenge.
Rohingya issue put India into a catch twenty-two situation. India is contributing to the Rohingya issue by providing relief assistance to Bangladesh for the refugee. India supports a safe, secure and sustainable return of the Rohingya’s to Rakhine state in Myanmar wherefrom they came to Bangladesh. To facilitate India in 2017 signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar for socio-economic development of the Rakhine state so that it could empower Rohingyas and prevent them from migration. Under this MoU, India constructed 250 pre-fabricated in Rakhine to facilitate the return of the refugees. However, India by dint of enjoying a warm relationship with Myanmar and Bangladesh could initiate back-channel diplomacy and try to contribute in resolution of the problem. Backchannel diplomacy often can bring major outcomes than formal channels fail.
3. Despite progress in various fields, Bangladesh and India had yet to finalize the long-awaited water share treaty over a common river, Teesta. Don’t you think it further deepens Dhaka’s frustration?
AR: The reaction of Bangladeshis about no progress on the water sharing issues of 7 rivers including Teesta during the October 2019 visit of Sheikh Hasina to India is far more than simple frustration. The issue has been lingering since 2011. The Bangladesh government’ seems to have accepted that there will be no agreement soon. This attitude, described as subservience, has received severe criticisms in the media, especially as Bangladesh has signed an MOU to let India withdraw water from the Feni river. There would have been a serious political fallout of such an unequal arrangement if an open democratic political environment prevailed. Perhaps the ruling Awami League would have put little more pressure on India to make concessions, but as any semblance of accountability of the government has practically disappeared, especially since the 2018 election, the leadership in Dhaka seems to care less.
JB: India and Bangladesh were to sign the water sharing agreement of the Teesta river agreement during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September in 2011. The agreement could not be signed after India pulled out at the last moment following West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s objection to the draft agreed for signing by the two countries. The agreement has been pending for signing until now. Delay in the signing of the agreement has become a point of disappointment for the bilateral relationship. Despite India’s repeated commitment to resolve the agreement, people in Bangladesh regularly raises it. Resolution of the Teesta agreement should be made a priority.
4. Is Bangladesh Benefiting From the China-India Rivalry? Although PM Sheikh Hasina assured that India, as the next door neighbour, need not be worried about Bangladesh’s growing engagement with China. Do you agree?
AR: The statement of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in itself, is an indication that there have been some concerns regarding the growing warmth between Bangladesh and China. Understandably, New Delhi would not like to see its ‘trusted friend’ moving in a different direction. However, the relationship between the present Bangladesh government and India is not only based on economic or defense cooperation, instead it is rooted in the political realm. Considering the dependence of AL on India’s unequivocal support for continuation in power, it is unlikely that there will be any dramatic turn in Indo-Bangladesh relationships soon. However, this is not to say that China will not continue its efforts to woo Bangladesh within its sphere of influence. The active role of China on the Rohingya crisis is a testimony to its ambition to influence Bangladesh beyond the economy.
Bangladesh-China bonhomie is largely because Bangladesh needs massive investments in infrastructure development and China can offer the funds with almost no conditions on environmental and human rights issues. Therefore, Bangladesh’s current government will continue to pursue a policy of maintaining relationships with both, albeit tilted towards India.
JB: India is a factor in Bangladesh’s relationship with China. A large section in Bangladesh sees China as a counterbalance to India, the neighbour next and a leader in South Asia. The present government in Bangladesh, however, observes that it want to maintain a friendly relationship with China and India. According to the present government in Bangladesh, the country does not want to be drawn into any form of competition and power play of these two Asian giants contrarily it argues for cooperation and collaboration. The country wants to take advantage of the economic prosperity of the two countries. Nevertheless, considering the sensitives that exist between China and India, India has reason to be wary of Bangladesh’s growing relationship with China. China is not only competing with India for economic and political influence in the region. India does have security concerns also. In the past, there have been instances of Chinese attempts to create disturbances inside India; the alleged support by China to some NE insurgent groups is a case in point.
5. India wanted to sign a long-term, comprehensive defense pact with Bangladesh. But Bangladesh was reluctant to address India’s security concerns. Was it because of it would upset China, the only country with which Bangladesh has a formal defense cooperation?
AR: The defense cooperation agreement was set aside largely because of the perception issue rather than the fear of upsetting China. The Indo-Bangladesh 25 years treaty, signed in 1972, was described by the AL detractors as a treaty inimical to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and the party had to explain it many times. AL did not want to provide fodder to its critics. There were concerns about the content of the treaty as well. However, the defense cooperation between these two countries have augmented through various MOUs signed. For example, Bangladesh received a defense line of credit worth US$ 500 million and implementation arrangements have been finalized in April 2019. An MOU has been signed during Hasina’s October 2019 visit regarding a closer Maritime Security Partnership, and Establishment of Coastal Surveillance Radar System. This cooperative relationship is likely to grow further.
JB: There has been a significant improvement in India and Bangladesh Security cooperation past few years. India and Bangladesh security relationship have been growing steadily after Awami League formed government in 2009. The improvement in the bilateral relationship has been possible only after Bangladesh addressed India’s security concern. Ahead of Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s visit to India in 2017, there were some whispers about India and Bangladesh signing a comprehensive defence cooperation agreement. Some analysts in India and Bangladesh claimed Bangladesh was reluctant to sign a comprehensive pact, as it would have upset China, country’s biggest supplier of arms to defence forces. During Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to India in 2017, India and Bangladesh signed around six MoUs including one on the framework for defence cooperation. These MoUs provided a framework for deepening cooperation among the armed forces of the two countries. India and Bangladesh defence cooperation are increasing since then.
6. How far is it correct to say that India gives more weight to fulfilling its interest in Bangladesh than addressing Bangladesh’s interests?
AR: It is not surprising that a country pursues its nationl interests first in its foreign policy. In that sense India’s actions in the global realm is not an exception. However, India’s size makes it immensely overwhelming to its South Asian neighbors. It’s not only that India’s neighbors expect a different approach to them, India always insisted that it pursues a different, more benevolent, policy towards its neighbors. The history, however, tells a different story. Its interventions in Maldives and Sri Lanka and repeated blockade on Nepal indicate a tense relationship. The Indo-Bangladesh relationship has its ebb and flow, but with the return of AL to power in 2009, the intimacy reached a new height. It was expected that this will be more reciprocal than ever before because the Bangladesh government was willing and ready to extend its all-out cooperation. In the following years Bangladesh lived up to its promises, in some instances went beyond the expectations. Narendra Modi’s pronouncement of the “Neighbourhood First” policy raised hopes of a different approach. But it turned out that Bangladesh has conceded more than what it received from India. As such, it has been always India’s interests which dictated the terms rather than Bangladesh’s need or priorities. The absence of a water sharing of the Teesta river is a case of point. But there are other examples such as the complete disregard of Bangladesh’s concerns on the river linking project.
JB: No answer.
7. India-Bangladesh relations also significantly impact the internal politics of both the countries. Do you share the view that this historic relationship has been lost to the vagaries of domestic political wrangling in both countries?
AR: In the case of Bangladesh, the ebb and flow in the Indo-Bangladesh relationship used to be determined by the domestic politics, especially the anti-Indian sentiment of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it is no longer the case. For the past decades the AL has remained in power and pursued a policy of being supportive to India, and since 2015 both major parties in Bangladesh expressed unprecedented eagerness to be in New Delhi’s good books. An historic relationship between these two countries is important but it is also necessary to understand that history is not the only determinant of the relationship. Power asymmetry, the overbearing posture of India, unresolved issues between these two countries and India’s unreserved support for the current governed which has increasingly become authoritarian impacted the relationship.
JB: No answer.
8 . The challenge before India and Bangladesh is how to make bilateral relations irrevocably friendly. What steps would you like to suggest to take the relationship to the next level?
AR: In international relations one can only hope for a friend forever. But reality is there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Geographical proximity and historical ties aside, the Indo-Bangladesh relationship can find a solid ground, perhaps forge a special bond, if the interests of both countries are attended to and mutual trust is built on the basis of equality. The current relationship, unfortunately, is not based on these premises. Therefore, despite the claim that it’s the golden era of relationship, there are matters of concern. The relationship should be built between states, rather than relying on a party. It should involve people-to-people communication and be cognizant of public perception. The way forward for a more stable and long-term friendly relationship belies understanding these challenges.
JB: No answer.
These Interviews were originally published in the Foreign Policy Research Journal, vol 39, No. 3. December. They are reprinted with permissions of the interviewees, and the Journal.