India-Bangladesh’s relations, weighing the odds

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Prothom Alo illustrationIndian high commissioner Riva Ganguly has been quite frank in her assessment of how much India is benefitting from its ties with Bangladesh. Speaking recently at the Dhaka Global Dialogue, she said that relations between India and Bangladesh has taken a new turn. This connectivity with Bangladesh has led to the present vitality that has sprouted up in India’s northeastern states.

Ganguly referred to the recent agreements signed between the two countries as game-changers. These included Bangladesh allowing India the use of its Chittagong and Mongla ports as well as road and railway connections. She said that Bangladesh equally benefitted from these deals. However, not all may agree with this last part of her speech.

Discussing the topic ‘Connecting the Indo-Pacific: Infrastructure and Influence’, high commissioner Riva Ganguly said that 80 per cent of the 8 billion dollar loan provided to Bangladesh by India were for the connectivity projects. Many say that Bangladesh’s relations with its closest neighbour are now at an all time high. But there is no discussions on question of the fairness in these good relations.

It has been eight years since the governments of the two countries drew up a draft agreement on sharing the waters of the river Teesta, but on the excuse of objections from a certain Indian state, the deal remains unsigned. Then the matter of Maldives being given priority over Bangladesh for the export of onions bears significant political connotations. Maldives has importance due to geographical location, connected to the so-called free and open Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, India, Japan and Australia.
The relations that have grown between India and the US over the last few years also have significance. China’s growing global presence poses as a headache for both India and the US. On 19 January last year, former US defence secretary James Mattis quite openly said that his country’s main focus now was not on terrorism, but on the contest between the big powers. And so now India is the US’ close ally in the Asia Pacific region. This is mentioned in the US state department’s latest publication too.

In its publication ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing and Shared Vision’, the US views India as a strategic partner, saying they will face the regional and global development challenges together. The publication also details how cooperation between the two countries has stepped up in the fields of trade, defence, security, energy, cyber technology and other sectors. The bottom line is that US-India relations are of particular importance due to the US Indo-Pacific vision.

This question was also raised at the Dhaka dialogue by a professor of international relations from Fudan University in China, Lin Minwang. He asked why China and Russia were not invited to the Indo-Pacific security dialogue which was held among US, India, Japan and Australia.

Last year the US changed the name of its military’s Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command. Financial Times analyst Gideon Rachman has said that it was apparent that the objective of taking India on board was to balance China’s power in the regional map. His concern, however, was different and significant.

Gideon Rachman wrote that that the world’s democracies were desperate to keep trust in India. From Washington to Tokyo, Canberra to London, India was being viewed and indispensible for the sake of balancing China’s presence. In India, minority rights and democratic norms, that is liberalism, was steadily on the wane. He said this was strengthening the global authoritarian trend.

In the case of relations with Bangladesh, its political support for authoritarian propensities clearly reflects Gideon’s contentions. The US and western democratic countries have lost that active concern about the disintegration of democracy or human rights. This spells bad news for those who uphold democracy.

The criticism by the US and the western powers against China’s authoritarian governance is becoming meaningless because of their India-oriented stance and their overlooking the issues of democracy and human rights in the region. It is obvious that it will not bode well for us to take any sides in this fight for regional dominance and ambitious global competition. It is even dangerous to allow any perception to emerge that Bangladesh has opted for a certain side. Sensitive issues such as international diplomacy and defence cooperation are of particular importance. That is why setting up coastal radars and procuring military equipment will naturally drew attention.

Two days after the Indian high commissioner had mentioned that 80 per cent of India’s 8 billion dollar loans to Bangladesh was being used for connectivity, Prothom Alo reported that though India has signed deals amounting to 7.86 billion dollars, over the past 9 years it had paid only 590 million, that is around 7.5 per cent of the total. That means India is enjoying 80per cent of the results of its connectivity projects with a 7 per cent funding. This certainly is a rare instance of balanced connectivity or equal relations.

It is the strong and general perception that we are victim of injustice in India-Bangladesh relations when it comes to a fair sharing of river waters. India is the sole beneficiary. These perceptions about the relations between the two countries are furthered by the continued killing of Bangladeshi civilians on the India border, India’s siding with Myanmar on the Rohingya issue and the expulsion of so-called Bangladeshis.

During his recent visit to Bangladesh, Congress leader and former Indian minister Shashi Tahroor told Prothom Alo that India should give more to its neighbours that it takes. Unfortunately they did not practice this when they were in power. As for the present BJP government, domestic politics is more important than relations with the neighbours. Establishing Hindu nationalism is more important to them than regional instability. The question is, how long can such imbalanced relations last?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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