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Dhaka Tribune

Controversial US visa policy for Bangladesh catches flak from India

  • India says the visa policy is ‘counterproductive’
  • Voices concern over uneven treatment of Pakistan and Bangladesh
Update : 20 Aug 2023, 11:07 AM

India has made it clear to the United States (US) in clear terms that it does not support the controversial visa policy for Bangladeshi citizens.

India believes that such a "restrictive measure" will not help in holding free and fair elections in Bangladesh, rather it would backfire -- which is never desirable for regional stability and security.

On May 24 this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US would deny visas to those who obstruct the process of holding free and fair elections in Bangladesh. 

However, later, it was made clear that the policy would apply to politicians of the ruling or opposition parties in Bangladesh. Since the announcement, it has stirred intense debate in Bangladesh.

India, an important neighbour of Bangladesh, has not officially commented on the visa policy. However, the Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Arindam Bagchi made one thing clear time and again -- that New Delhi expects Bangladesh’s national polls would be held on time, respecting its constitution. 

But the realization that the US visa policy is not at all in line with India's expectations has become increasingly entrenched in Delhi's South Block houses. 

In the last three-four weeks, Delhi has given a strong argument to various levels of the US administration that India believes its visa policy for Bangladesh will be “counterproductive”.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is likely to hold a separate meeting with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa next week. 

Fifteen days later, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be in New Delhi as a special invitee to the G20 Summit, where she will share the stage with other world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Modi. 

There are also talks that Modi and Hasina will hold another private meeting in Delhi.

The Narendra Modi government wants to make its position on the US visa policy clear to the Bangladesh government in these important meetings.

There are also indications that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be briefed on how New Delhi is “negotiating” with Washington in a cautious and diplomatic manner on the issue.

Experts’ opinions

Within days of the announcement of the US visa policy, two experts from both sides of the world wrote two articles on various aspects of the issue.

One was from Ali Riaz, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center and a distinguished professor at Illinois State University, and the other by Brahma Chellaney, professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India's National Security Council. 

Dr Ali Riaz, an academic of Bangladeshi origin, wrote in a section of his article “What the new US visa policy for Bangladesh means” that previously, visa restrictions were imposed on individuals from Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Nicaragua, and Belarus for undermining democracy and electoral processes under different laws. 

In most instances, these measures were adopted after the elections. However, to date, successes have been limited which raises questions as to whether it will have a different impact on Bangladesh. 

He also pointed out that adopting such a measure at least seven months ahead of the election in Bangladesh is a positive sign because Washington can take proactive actions to prevent rather than ex post facto measure. 

“Despite these challenges, the announcement is having an impact on those connected to the government who either aspire to visit the United States in the future or already have immediate family members residing there. 

This pressure will no doubt be felt among Bangladesh's political and economic elites,” he wrote in his article published in the Atlantic Council blog. 

Meanwhile, Brahma Chellaney argued that the United States' uneven treatment towards the two South Asian countries -- Bangladesh and Pakistan -- is nothing but hypocrisy.

On the one hand, the US is threatening to reject visas in the interest of democracy in Bangladesh, and on the other hand, it is silent on the “...undeclared martial law situation in Pakistan.”

He also reminded that US sanctions in Myanmar, Iran, Belarus, or Cuba have failed to bring any political change.

After reviewing the visa policy slowly and in-depth, India has accepted the views of Brahma Chellaney.

A detailed exploration of the matter by Brahma Chellaney is presented in an opinion article in Nikkei Asia.

Delhi's message to Washington

The question remains - what exactly are India’s arguments against this controversial visa policy imposed by the US?

In the last month, the Indian government has sent a series of diplomatic notes or messages to the Biden administration.

Apart from that, the issue has been raised repeatedly from the Indian side in the talks between the top officials of the two countries. All this happened after Prime Minister Modi's much-talked-about visit to the US in the third week of June, as Delhi did not want Bangladesh’s issue to cast a shadow on that visit.

Some of its arguments are: 

1. Like the United States, India also wants a free and fair election in Bangladesh. But the warning of visa rejection cannot help achieve that goal.

Rather, the announcement of the visa policy and its timing suggests that this move may unnecessarily disturb the ruling Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh, which has been leading a secular and stable regime in the country for 15 years and has taken the country forward on the path of economic prosperity.

2. In Myanmar, the US sanctions did not help, rather it has further endangered democracy in the country. 

There is also a perception that the US sanctions against Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing and three other senior military commanders triggered the military coup in the country. 

India also believes that the sanctions have pushed Myanmar more and more toward China, a hostile country of the United States. 

3. India has also voiced concerns about the US’ mindset toward Pakistan, citing valid reasons to suspect a dual application of democratic standards towards Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

While Pakistan employs tactics such as disappearances, torture, and mass arrests for political purposes, the US has remained conspicuously silent. However, when it comes to Bangladesh, the US displays a proactive stance. 

4. India also reminded the US that democracy cannot be promoted in any country by intimidation or coercion. 

Imposing a visa ban in Bangladesh could do the opposite and would do nothing but harm. 

However, once the US visa policy is announced, it will not be possible to withdraw it before the elections, and India also knows that. 

It is New Delhi's hope for now that Washington will be flexible in implementing the policy once it knows India's perspective toward it.

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