• Monday, Nov 29, 2021
  • Last Update : 01:49 am

OP-ED: Dhaka is a difficult customer for Delhi

  • Published at 12:55 am October 23rd, 2021
File Photo: Indian PM Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh's counterpart Sheikh Hasina before their meeting in Dhaka on March 27, 2021 AFP

Bangladesh can specify its rules of engagement with India, while keeping onside with China

In a fascinating interview with the Dhaka Tribune, the suave Indian ambassador enthusiastically called for greater, even direct, links between Bangladesh and its immediate neighbouring states. Dealt a difficult hand, Delhi diplomats in Dhaka no longer find this place a shoo-in, courtesy of Amit Shah and his Hindutva Taliban, on top of the permanent issues bedevilling relations.

Shoot on sight

How many people died on the Berlin Wall killing fields? One hundred and forty five in the years between 1961 to 1989, when the Wall was torn down by ordinary Germans. From 2012 to 2016 alone, almost exactly the same number of Bangladeshi citizens died at the fence. The previous decade, 2001 to 2010, around a thousand citizens of Bangladesh were gunned down by the Indian Border Security Force. In 2018, eleven died. In 2019, forty one and last year that climbed to 51.

The Wall was immoral and an affront to freedom of movement, respect for human rights, liberty and humanity. Why should the Bengali delta merit any less than Europe?

What Indian diplomats and politicians do not question is why there is a fearsome fence in the first place. International bankers can paint a picture of rising prosperity as trucks and containers roll over barbed wire borders but it is a blinkered view .

One must applaud the diplomat's call for young Bangladeshis to interact (even visit) India’s youth, though was it for urban professionals or the rural youth in search of a livelihood on a char? For lasting and deep relationships to flourish the border cannot treat ordinary people like cattle to be penned in. Dhaka would love to live in a neighbourhood where there are no fences, where the rivers flow unimpeded and people of all religions are treated with respect and enjoy personal security .

The reality is that subcontinental sectarianism and orchestrated violence, abused by opportunistic politicians, block grand economic designs. Add the Indian national security anti-insurgent overlay and the plans remain on paper.

Water Wars

Decades of water diverted upstream, depriving poor farmers downstream, are records of ecological crimes. From the 1970s the River Linking Mega Project has been seriously considered to divert the waters of Assam’s Brahmaputra (and Ganges) to the centre and south of the subcontinent . The Teesta from Sikkim remains a thorn, for which the Chinese offered a one billion dollar project to help mitigate.

For longer than the life of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Delhi has pressed its foot on the water 'pipelines' in one way or another. This is seared into the consciousness of Bangladeshis of all classes and not easy to gloss over.

India is running out of friends

Leaving Kabul with its tail between its legs, Delhi is losing influence all over the lands of the Raj, from Afghanistan to Myanmar. This week there was a bombshell in Bhutan. That tiny kingdom has just signed a MOU with China over delineation of its borders. The unilateral move by Thimpu effectively cutting out Delhi is another sign that India's neighbours are pursuing more nuanced and independent policies.

This comes on the heels of Dhaka’s recent quiet approach to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Delhi petulantly pulled out of RCEP at the last minute, as part of its ultra pro-US orientation in the Hindutva era. Bangladesh is saying that it does not intend to synchronise its movements with India. As a Less Developed Country in 2026 it must belong to Asia's main economic arena to protect its industrial supply chains, upgrade technology and standards (and try to catch up with Vietnam ).

In other words, Dhaka must get closer to Beijing for its own economic uplift . A Delhi-led free trade area would naturally add considerable benefits for Dhaka (if properly and fairly implemented, soon, and on the ground) but is nowhere near sufficient for a state with ambitious goals for growth and technology.

And then there is this: No one in Bangladesh is going to forget how Modi reneged on the vaccine deal, paid for in advance. A comprehensive vaccine offer by China’s pharmaceutical firms was declined last winter on the basis of Indian promises (or pressure). Dhaka had to go back to Beijing six months later and China is now providing the bulk of the jabs.

Indian soft power, its reputation, its trustworthiness, is possibly at an all time low.

Are we approaching an inflexion point where no administration in Dhaka can remain in situ if it were to ditch China for India? That would stand upon its head the permanent reality that has defined everything from 1972 onwards. Ironic given this is the 50th anniversary.

The mobile-phone owning public (almost everyone) would not stand for it. They know just who is building the bridges and doing so at high speed . They are aware there is no source of Capital, in the tonnage required, other than from China.

Finally (and positively), take the diplomat's pitch to its logical conclusion and one can deduce that without Bangladesh there is also no khela (game) in the eastern half of the subcontinent. The 95 million Bengalis to the west may not appreciate this today but they will tomorrow, if they want to reindustrialize. Para-diplomacy your excellency? Totally agree, but be careful what you wish for.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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