Defence deals and a test for Sheikh Hasina

Mohiuddin Ahmed | Update:

A couple of months ago Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar came on a visit to Bangladesh along with a team of senior military officials, including an admiral of the Indian navy. The visit came on the heels of Bangladesh purchasing two submarines from China. Speculations were that India was none too happy with the procurement of the submarines from China.

Manohar Parrikar met with our prime minister, but we have no idea what he had to say. It is surmised that he expressed India’s displeasure at Bangladesh’s overtures with China, particular in the defence sector, when they had India as a neighbour. After all, there is not just competition between India and China, but a significant degree of hostility. India is not pleased at Bangladesh’s growing proximity with China.

As for Bangladesh, it wants to be friends with both India and China. It has been India’s friend since inception. Bangladesh’s independence is coloured with the blood of Indian soldiers. This is not something to be forgotten. At the same time, relations with China are growing stronger. China is proving to be a reliable partner in Bangladesh’s economic development. It is necessary for Bangladesh’s foreign policy to uphold its friendship with both India and China in its own national interests.

Ups and downs are nothing new in the realm of foreign relations. It takes a lot of time and efforts to make these relations, but no time at all to break them. Seeds of doubt grow into a massive tree of suspicion. Relations between Bangladesh and India have come a long way, but the going has not always been smooth.

In recent times, military relations between Bangladesh and India have been the talk of the town and the issue is supposed to be highlighted in prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s forthcoming visit to India. From New Delhi, Prothom Alo correspondent Soumya Bandopadhaya quoted New Delhi sources in India’s defence ministry as saying India has proposed a USD 500 million for Bangladesh as part of its military cooperation. If an understanding is reached, then military equipment will be jointly manufactured in Bangladesh and official communication between the two armed forces will increase. Training opportunities will be stepped up. India wants a defence pact. Bangladesh objects to the term. It feels that this will give public perception that Bangladesh’s defence is becoming dependent on India. Bangladesh would rather have a ‘memorandum of understanding’.

Given the rocky road of Bangladesh-India relations over the past 45 years, it would be facile to make any future predictions. Perhaps the two countries are not psychologically prepped for open military discussions. In 1971 the aim of the Bangladesh people was independence and the aim of India was to weaken Pakistan. The two aims merged. India naturally looked forward to an end to their security concerns along its eastern border. However, Indian authorities feel the security concerns persist.

In 1966 Sheikh Mujib drew up a model of regional autonomy. He pointed to the unprotected position of East Pakistan during the 1965 India-Pakistan war and called for a separate defence structure in the east. When Bangladesh became independent, he rebuilt the armed forces in keeping with British-Pakistani times. He felt the need to have an army, though was committed to keeping politics away from military control. Many policymakers in New Delhi feel Bangladesh has no need to maintain a separate army. India can guarantee Bangladesh’s security. Such attitudes existed in the past. The Pakistan government used to think the centre of power Islamabad was a protective talisman for East Pakistan.

Bangladesh has an army, an air force and a navy. Every government takes up various plans and programmes for the development of the armed forces. Bangladesh’s military strength is more than ever before.

Bangladesh has significant military presence in the international arena too. Its peacekeepers are performing with excellence in various conflict zones around the world. Within Bangladesh itself, there are quarters that question the relevance of having such a large army. They ask questions like who are we going to fight against? What will we do with MIGs and submarines? Of course, questions can be raised on so many issues. Such as, why do we need so many ministries? Why does Dhaka University open new departments every year? Why do we need so many newspapers? Or why do we have so many TV channels and banks?

The armed forces are seen as a part of state security. I do not know of any security or defence policy in Bangladesh. But we have often seen the armed forces wielding its sceptre in politics and the administration.

Coming back to the topic of discussion, from the very outset, Bangladesh army has had bitter relations with the India army. The bone of contention at the time was the arms and ammunition left behind by the Pakistanis. The Indian troops took a lot of things back with them to India. The Bangladesh army was in its infancy and needed the arms, ammunition and equipment. Later it was decided to hand over some of the weapons. India agreed to provide assistance in reactivating the ordnance factory at Joydebpur. Bangladesh asked for training opportunity at India’s National Defence College. But the Bangladesh army was not interested in long-term military relations with India. This was clearly revealed by former Indian foreign secretary JN Dixit in his book Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations. He had been the Indian deputy high commissioner in Bangladesh in 1972-75.

Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi came to Dhaka on 17 March 1972 and on 19 March signed the 25-year Bangladesh-India treaty of friendship, cooperation and peace. Two of the clauses in this treaty speak of military cooperation. It was drawn up on the lines of the 20-year treaty between India and Soviet Union signed on 9 August 1971. In fact, some of the clauses are identical.

The treaty was criticised strongly, particularly by certain left-wing pro-Peking political parties, saying that Bangladesh had become an annexe of India. It was said that when India came to know that Sheikh Mujib was formulating an independent foreign policy, they forced this treaty on Bangladesh. According to Dixit’s book, Sheikh Mujib was eager about this treaty and there was nothing secret about it. There were many such bilateral treaties in the world. At the time, extreme anti-Indian sentiments were instigated.

Maulana Bhasani would bring out a weekly magazine called Haq Katha. It published a headline on 24 June 1972, ‘Indo-Russian conspiracy to cripple Bangladesh’s defence’. There were rumours that India has signed a secret agreement with the Mujibnagar government so Bangladesh wouldn’t be able to build up defence capabilities. This rumour was strong within Bangladesh armed forces too. A battalion commander of Comilla cantonment Lt Col Abu Taher had been the most vocal, accusing the Mujib government of neglecting the Bangladesh army. He protested against the formation of the para-military Rakkhi Bahini, created with the help of India. He even protested to the prime minister about the secret pact signed with India during the war (Lawrence Lifschultz: Bangladesh, The Unfinished Revolution)

Bangladesh imports most of its military hardware from China. Perhaps our armed forces best knows why. Maybe these are cheaper or more effective, or it is easier to get spare parts. Whether or not Bangladesh will look to other markets for arms depends on comparative advantage.

The question may arise, why do we need arms? It should also be known that when Bangladesh troops go overseas as UN peacekeepers, they have to take along arms, ammunition and equipment. The UN later pays for these. When they return home, these become the possessions of the Bangladesh army.

It’s different, of course, in the case of fighter aircraft or submarines. These are required in keeping with long-term defence policy and military strategies. I am in the dark of any such polices or strategies and it is not a topic that has been open to public discussion. Perhaps secrecy is maintained for security reasons and the sheer sensitivity of the issue. Since the country is still very poor and many schools have no roofs above the children’s heads, no benches for them to sit on and no teachers to teach them, it may be hard to justify such exorbitant expenditure on military hardware. The people have a right to know which sector will be given priority.

Under such circumstances, the prime minister is visiting India in April. Her trip has been postponed twice. The reason for which the visit was delayed, as assumed by the people, has not been resolved as yet. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has clung to her popularity and remains adamantly against the Teesta treaty. Her ‘water nationalism’ has been a boost to her, something essential in populist politics. We wait to see what our prime minister comes back with from Delhi to appease the people of our country. We too have ‘water nationalism’. Added to this is the need to clarify our position in the India-China dynamics. This is a big test before Sheikh Hasina.

Anti-Indian blood flows in the veins of a section of people in this country. They cannot tolerate India in any way. Then there are those with more than a soft corner for India. But then again, then there are innumerable people outside of these two groups, who want to be friends with India while maintaining dignity and self-respect. Surely the prime minister will not let these people down.

* Mohiuddin Ahmed is a writer and researcher and can be contacted at <>.

The article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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