New US via policy: India observes the situation

The US will not provide visas to those who would make the democratic process thorny, nor to their immediate families. The largest democracy in the world does not have anything to say when the primary objective of the visa policy is aimed to foster democracy in Bangladesh

US Visa Illustration

The question does not arise of a third country taking any stand regarding the exchange of messages and imposition of any bilateral decisions between two independent and sovereign countries. That would be taken as blatant interference. That is why India has kept silent over the new US visa policy for Bangladesh. Added to that, the US has announced the policy at a time when the prime minister of India has been preparing for a US visit. That is why the question of reaction will not arise now.

But India has been thinking seriously about the merits and demerits of this visa policy since neighbouring Bangladesh is its closest and most reliable friend. India has been keeping a close eye on the reactions to this decision of the US and the probable political repercussions in the friendly neighbouring country.

India’s thoughts and unease

Clarifying the objectives and goal of the new US visa policy, the US foreign secretary Anthony Blinken said they want the parliamentary election in Bangladesh to be held in a free, fair and peaceful manner. The US will not provide visas to the people, and their immediate families, who would obstruct that and undermine the democratic process. When the primary objective of the visa policy is to foster democracy in Bangladesh, then the largest democracy in the world can hardly have anything to say. There can be no objection either.

After all, whatever the US has said is for the sake of democracy and to ensure democracy for all. Nobody can say that the new policy is against any particular political party, organisation or ideology. That is why if India has anything to say, it must speak in favour of democracy. But in this situation it is not possible to speak up openly. A source from the Indian foreign ministry has said, “India has been observing everything.”

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The matter is a bit disquieting for India though. The first and prime reason of this discomfort is relations. The friendly ties between the two countries has become stronger gradually in the last 15 years because of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Inter-dependency has also grown. This has been reflected in business, commerce, communications and in other sectors. This friendly cooperation is the reason behind India’s agreeing to Bangladesh importing hydroelectricity from Nepal and also to the agreement between India and Nepal to this end during the Nepal prime minister’s visit to India. Because of these relations, India did not relinquish its friendship with Bangladesh despite the questionable parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019.

Various organisations of the US are vocal about the democracy, human rights record or press freedom. But their reaction to this is very mild because of India’s power, bilateral relations and respect. They know what they can do to Bangladesh, cannot be done to India or many other countries
Deb Mukherjee, former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh

The thorns of the new US visa policy, though, are being felt before the upcoming parliamentary election. After all, it suggests the manner in which the parliamentary elections took place in the country was not in keeping with democratic norms. The South Block is already pondering how prudent it would be to lend recognition to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Bangladesh if it is not deemed by the US to be free, fair and peaceful. A diplomatic source said, “Nothing can be said at the moment. The issue is important not only for Bangladesh, for India too. The government is aware of this.”

Government and opposition under pressure

Historically speaking, bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the US were never the best. It was never so with Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina always perceives that the US had instigation behind the killing of Bangabandhu. The US has also sheltered the killers. Similarly, Sheikh Hasina perceives that the US wants to see the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power. Sheikh Hasina herself has openly spoken about it recently. Despite this, ruling Awami League cannot directly say that the motive behind this new US visa policy is to dethrone her. After all, this new policy is not particularly against any political party, organisation, government department, institution or any individual. They only said visas would not be issued to people, and their families, who undermine fair democratic practice like elections and freedom of expression.

The result of this has been unprecedented. India has been observing the situation with great care. Both the ruling party and the opposition are busy in explaining the decision in their respective favour. According to a source of the Indian foreign ministry, “Whatever they may explain, the opposition’s demand of holding the election under caretaker government could become weaker after this announcement. The justification of boycotting elections will also become invalid. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has time and again said it is her duty to help organise a fair election. Surely she again will reiterate the pledge.” That source also said, “But yes, it is Sheikh Hasina who has to prove that the election would be credible. Mere claims will not do. It would be her responsibility to prove that the claim is uncontroversial and credible.”

An active US and several questions

Though the new US visa policy is “free from biasness to any political party and the government”, the US has in many ways proved that the country is unhappy with the administration of Sheikh Hasina. They took two decisions within a very short time in 2021. The country imposed sanctions on seven officials of “Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)”. At the same time, though they invited 110 democratic countries in the Summit for Democracy, the country did not include Bangladesh in the list. But they invited Pakistan.

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India’s former high commissioner to Bangladesh Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty directly raised this question, “Why are they are so worried about democracy in Bangladesh yet remain silent about Pakistan?” Besides raising this question, he further said, “For some reason, probably the US has been thinking that Awami League will lose if there is a free, fair and peaceful election. That is why they have been trying to use this new visa policy as a weapon. This policy has turned into a diplomatic weapon.”

Sheikh Hasina also will avoid criticism if this pressure harms the democratic practice in Bangladesh to some extent. She must bring about some changes. She has to understand tackling terrorism and making democracy and democratic institutions stronger through fair election are two different things
Sreeradha Datta, a Bangladesh expert and a professor of international affairs at Jindal Global University

Another former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh Deb Mukherjee presented the matter a bit differently. He said, “Weren’t many allegations raised about the US presidential election? Yes, they were raised. And those are yet to be resolved. Is whatever the US does always objective, unbiased and uncontroversial? Do they react the same way in all cases as they did in case of Bangladesh?”

When it comes to India. Deb Mukherjee said, “Various organisations of that country (the US) are vocal about democracy, human rights record or press freedom. But their reaction to this is very mild because of India’s power, bilateral relation and respect. They know what they can do to Bangladesh, cannot be done to India or many other countries.”

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As a close friend of Bangladesh the former diplomat thinks, “Sheikh Hasina should resolve the US’ concerns revealed in the new visa policy.”

Diplomacy, compulsion and China

A section of India’s foreign ministry believes Sheikh Hasina will surely overcome the situation on her own. A source from the ministry said, “Diplomacy does not follow the same tack always. There are ups and downs. Mutual interest gets priority.”

Former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh Veena Sikri said the same. “Both the US and Bangladesh need each other. Bangladesh knows the US is the main destination of the country’s export. Bangladesh is the third largest producer of readymade garment products. They will in no way be interested in losing the market by destroying the wonderful trade relations with the US, especially, as the country will have to face stiff competition as a middle income country from 2026.”

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She further said, “It must also be kept in mind, despite closeness with China, Bangladesh recently clarified its position on the Indo-Pacific region which is satisfactory to the US.”

Veena Sikri said, “I am sure both the countries will overcome this situation. Democratic institutions in Bangladesh are strong, their diplomatic skills are adequate. The two countries have been in discussions regularly too. None will want to take the relations down over the questions on election.”

Will the US want to take Bangladesh to a place where the influence of China grows further? India keeps a keen watch on this situation. India surely does not want the US to take any such step which will worry the South Block. Even though there is no official acknowledgement, the popular belief is, India’s foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra in his last visit to the US exchanged views on this visa policy. India has been working in its own way.

It is easy to come up with a policy but hard to implement those. Simultaneously there are questions and a curiosity to know who the US would depend on to implement the new visa policy regarding Bangladesh.

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Senior fellow and expert on Bangladesh affairs of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Smruti S Pattanaik said, “This policy would make Bangladesh cautious and alert because they surely will not want the allies of the US to adopt the same policy. That means, not only the government, this policy won’t also allow the opposition to be unbridled. What the opposition has done over the elections is also not helpful for the democracy.”

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Sreeradha Datta, a Bangladesh expert and a professor of international affairs at Jindal Global University said, “The US will continue putting this pressure on Bangladesh. Probably India also thinks so. But India wants to be sure so that China does not get more importance than necessary. China is India’s main concern in this whole affair.”

According to Sreeradha Datta, “Sheikh Hasina will also avoid criticism if this pressure harms the democratic practice in Bangladesh to any extent. She must bring about some changes. She has to understand tackling terrorism and making democracy and democratic institutions stronger through fair elections, are two different things.”

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Sreeradha Datta further said, “I do not think this policy is against the Awami League. But at the same time I think Sheikh Hasina has to decide how she would dispell criticism.”

According to Indian observers, in 2007 the United Nations warned the Bangladesh Army and reminded it about the conditions and necessary requirements regarding sending peacekeepers in the UN Peace missions. That worked that time. Since the imposition of sanctions on RAB, the allegations of “state policy” for enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killing has abated to some extent. Will the fear of not getting the US visa change the environment of Bangladesh’s elections? India is looking on with interest.

* This analysis was originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Shameem Reza