The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, will visit India from April 7 to 10. There is something terribly amiss in India-Bangladesh relations, although Hasina -- who is in power since 2009 and faces crucial elections next year -- has fully backed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s moves to isolate Pakistan in South Asia.
She has flushed out anti-India elements from her land, pro-actively partnered counter-terrorism operations and even extended transit facilities to New Delhi’s great relief.
Yet her state visit had to be deferred twice in three months without any valid explanation, revealing that all’s not well between strategic allies.
Bangladesh may be in India’s backyard but it can turn it into a minefield in no time.
As India waits for Hasina, let’s not forget the darkest chapters in India’s bilateral ties like the killing of 16 BSF soldiers in 2001 or the expulsion of RAW’s BB Nandy from Dhaka. And in 2005, India’s deputy high commissioner Sarvajit Chakravarti’s wife was manhandled in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi tycoon Shah Alam pulled Rupa Chakravarti out of a Mercedes with diplomatic number plate assigned to India and humiliated her in broad daylight; she was so traumatised that she needed psychiatric treatment.
While India kept demanding Alam’s arrest, he got away scot-free because he enjoyed the backing of then PM Begum Khaleda Zia and Pakistan.
Nobody can rule out the possibility of India’s prestige being punctured again, if India fails to stand by her real friends like Hasina who has often put India’s interests ahead of Bangladesh’s out of sheer gratitude for New Delhi’s role in liberating Bangladesh and the love and affection she received from leaders like Indira Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee during her long asylum before her triumphant return to Bangladesh.
In today’s scenario, the diplomatic and the security establishments of India and Bangladesh -- headed by veterans like S Jaishankar, Ajit Doval, Shahidul Haque, and Tarique Ahmed -- can iron out most sticking points like the pending Teesta River water-sharing treaty or Bangladesh’s growing ties with China which makes India uncomfortable.
But these professionals are hamstrung by the ruling BJP’s ideological contempt for India’s Muslim neighbour.
Unless India shows respect towards Bangladesh as a strategic ally, relations between them will never achieve their full potential
Hindutva policies and pronouncements are alienating Bangladesh, driving a wedge between the two countries and hurting India’s national interest.
While PM Hasina’s Awami League government bends over backwards to please India, the BJP paints Bangladeshis as illegal immigrants, criminals, and beef-eaters who torment Hindus in their country.
Extreme anti-Bangladesh views seep out from the BJP’s 2014 general elections manifesto as well as manifestos for the 2015 Assam and West Bengal assembly polls. Narendra Modi, who will host Hasina in April, resorted to no-holds-barred, communally charged Bangladesh-bashing while campaigning.
Discriminating between Muslim and Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants, Modi declared that those who worship goddess Durga are welcome but those who don’t must keep their “bags packed” for deportation if he captured power. He and other BJP campaigners repeatedly accused Bangladeshi Muslims of “destroying” India, virtually painting Bangladesh as an enemy nation.
On the grounds of religion, the BJP categorises Muslim immigrants as “infiltrators” and Hindus as “refugees” or “Mother India’s children” deserving asylum.
After capturing power, one of the first tasks the Modi government assigned itself was to starve Bangladesh of beef by stopping India’s surplus, non-milk producing cattle from going to Bangladesh.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who ordered the BSF to halt an informal trade determined by supply and demand that had been going on for decades, publicly boasted that the embargo had made beef so expensive in the Muslim country that its consumption had plummeted. Singh missed no opportunity to pat himself on the back for taking the BJP’s cow protection-cum-beef banning campaign to Bangladesh.
Attempts by the BJP government to rewrite citizenship laws to confer Indian nationality on Hindu Bangladeshis is another step which, besides being unconstitutional, indirectly accuses the Bangladesh government of being so sectarian that its Hindu population is fleeing to India. On the one hand, New Delhi claims that its biggest foreign policy goal is to ensure that the Awami League is voted back to power in the forthcoming elections.
But on the other, it is offering asylum and citizenship to Hindus who have a history of casting their vote in favour of the Awami League in countless constituencies, including Hasina’s Gopalganj seat where there are as many temples as mosques.
Such Hindutva-driven objectives like stopping cattle trade and making India a homeland for Hindus may serve the BJP’s narrow electoral interest, but they are certainly not in the national interest as far as India-Bangladesh relations are concerned.
Unless India shows respect towards Bangladesh as a strategic ally instead of belittling and demonising it as a nation of Muslims, relations between India and Bangladesh will never achieve their full potential or become an example of good neighbourliness.
Instead of vilifying Bangladesh, India can learn how to implement sabka saath, sabka vikas from Hasina’s Awami League government. In 2011, it repealed the Enemy Property Act to return properties seized from the Hindu minority under the 1965 law implemented by the East Pakistan administration.
The BJP captured power in Assam shouting itself hoarse about “demographic invasion” whereas Bangladesh’s Human Development Index is much better than Assam’s.
Nothing exposes BJP’s lies more than Bangladesh’s per capita income which is 70% more than Assam’s.
And roughly half a million Indians live and work in Bangladesh, making them -- according to the World Bank -- the fifth biggest remitter of foreign exchange to India after the diaspora in United Arab Emirates, the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UK.
Presumably taking their cue from the BJP, some members of the delegation accompanying then Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar to Dhaka last November spoke insultingly to their Bangladeshi counterparts, which according to Anand Bazar Patrika newspaper, compelled Hasina to postpone her December 18-20 India visit.
I think India should have atoned for those insensitive remarks by inviting Hasina to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade on January 26, 2017. But India plumped for the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is not even a head of state, instead of a strategic ally like Hasina.
There is something very reassuring and maternal about Sushma Swaraj. Fortunately, she is back in the hot seat. Another key player is Ram Madhav, the BJP foreign cell’s point man, who seems to have developed a keen interest in the neighbourhood. They must work in tandem ahead of Hasina’s long-overdue visit to take India-Bangladesh ties to a new level.
S.N.M. Abdi is a senior, Kolkata-based journalist. This article previously appeared in The Tribune, Chandigarh.