Bangladesh-India relations: Role model versus ground reality

Touhid Hossain

A kind of stability has been established on Bangladesh-India relations over the last 15 years. Awami League as a political party had a good understanding with India since the time of the Independence War. The top leadership of Awami League had always been personally close to the senior leadership of Congress. The good relations between Bangabandhu and Indira Gandhi, as well as Pranab Mukherjee and Sheikh Hasina, are well known.

When Awami League came to power in 2009, Congress was in office in India. Manmohan Singh was prime minister and Pranab Mukherjee was foreign minister. Congress lost the power after they conceded defeat to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 election, and Narendra Modi became prime minister. At that time, many people in Bangladesh thought the special relations of Awami League with the Indian government would end now on the perspective of long lasting friendship of Awami League with Congress. Such perception was mainly derived from ignorance. Awami League is a known party in India, and it is an advantage for any government of India that Awami League stays in power in Bangladesh.

There has been a significant progress on multi-dimensional relationship between Bangladesh led by Awami League, and India, first led by Congress and then BJP, over the past 15 years. Leaders of both sides have often said bilateral relations saw a golden time, reached its peak and so forth, and added to this is the role model of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations.

The daily Bhorer Kagoj organised the Zahur Hossain Chowdhury Memorial Lecture-2023 at a Dhaka hotel on 18 December. The event title was ‘Bangladesh-India is a role model of neighbouring country’. Moderated by Bhorer Kagoj editor Shyamal Dutta, there were two speakers at the event. One is former Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Pankaj Saran (later deputy national security advisor of India) and another is former Bangladesh High Commissioner in India Tareq A Karim.

Pankaj Saran said in the speech that people of Bangladesh and the democratic institutions here would decide how the election will be held in the country. None have been given the rights to assess how elections will take place in Bangladesh or anywhere else. He emphasized maintaining stability.

It is obvious external interference on internal issues of any country is not respectful, but the reality is when the powerful gets a chance they interfere on the issues of the weak, what the US or Europe as well as India and China do. India, China and Russia are vocal against the so-called interference of the Americans on the 7 January election. India itself interfered in the 2014 election. These interferencs are not done in light of policy,but for the sake of interest. Besides, the US wants free, fair and participatory election, which is the demand of general people of Bangladesh. On the other hand, the interference of Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was for a staged election in 2014. Anyone can learn more on this reading the twelfth chapter of ‘Nikhoj Ganatantra’ by Ali Riaz published from Prothoma Prokashan.

Let’s back to the role model issue. What is the real meaning of this term? It apparently seems what happens in bilateral relations between two countries, what will be considered as the standard for both countries, and those countries will work to establish such a relationship. Has Bangladesh-India relationship set such example in reality?

Form the outlook of India, an ideal environment certainly exists in bilateral relations. What India wanted, Bangladesh has fulfilled almost in full, with little return. Leaders of separatist groups in India’s north-eastern states were expelled from Bangladesh and some of the leaders were even handed over to India. India was offered transit facilities connecting north-eastern states through Bangladesh. Indian products have gained increasing access to Bangladesh markets. A large number of Indians have entered the Bangladesh job market and they remitted over USD 5 billion annually. Indian companies earned huge foreign currency from Bangladeshis visiting the country on tourism and medical purposes. Bangladesh permitted India to set up Indian surveillance radar on its coast and Bangladesh army also purchased arms from India. Little achievements remain uncounted.

On the other hand, the list of achievements by Bangladesh is hard to see. India took 40 years to ratify the Indira-Mujib treaty on land boundary. Yet, it was changed slightly in India’s favour. A short transit facility connecting Bangladesh with Nepal and Bhutan through India has not been offered yet. India gave USD 7 billion under the line of credit in 3-4 phases, but tough conditions resulted in less disbursement of money. The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was signed in 1996. The Teesta Water Sharing Treaty was about to happen, finally it went to cold storage and Bangladesh does not receive adequate water during dry season. No talks happen over the rest of the 54 transboundary rivers.

The National Register of Citizens for Assam (NRC) amid at driving out ‘foreigners’ from Indian state of Assam and The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) hang on Bangladesh like the sword of Damocles, and added to this are the nonstop derogatory remarks of BJP senior leaders to Bangladesh.

What exceeds everything and creates fierce anger among people of Bangladesh is the continued killings of Bangladeshi citizens by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Despite a golden chapter in bilateral relationship, 67 Bangladeshi citizens were killed at the hands of BSF in 2009, 60 in 2010, 39 in 2011, 34 in 2012, 28 in 2013, 40 in 2014, 45 in 2015, 21 in 2016, 25 in 2017, 11 in 2018, 41 in 2019, 51 in 2020, 17 in 2021 and 18 Bangladeshi citizens were killed in 2022. Indian leaders repeatedly promised to bring this casualty to zero, but this never happened in reality. Rather, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar categorically said such killings will continue because killings will not stop unless crimes in border come to an end. Cattle smugglers are mainly victims of border killings. We never heard of people smuggling phensedyl from India to Bangladesh become victim of killing.

So, what would happen to role model then? Role model means something that is to follow or can be followed. Recently, I crossed border of several countries during my visit to Balkan region of Europe. I went to Romania from Bulgaria, Serbia from Romania, Bosnia from Serbia then Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. The horror of Balkan war is still awake among their people. Smuggling happens there, but there is no attempt to stop it by killing people. Yet, these countries do not call their relationship as a role model. What does the ground reality say about Bangladesh-India relations?

*Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary.