View From Dhaka: Is India Losing a ‘Trusted’ Friend?

India has been losing her neighbors to China, one by one. Bangladesh has remained untouched. Under no circumstances should India let China take political control of Bangladesh.

Posted on 04/17/18
By Masuda Bhatti | Via Dhaka Tribune
File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart in New York in 2015. (Photo via video stream)

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2014 told us that 70% of Bangladeshis saw India in a positive light, and at the same time, 50% of Bangladeshis saw Pakistan in a similar light. 


Why am I bringing up this issue after four years? I believe these survey results need proper dissection in the context of the present India-Bangladesh relationship. We should keep in mind that 2014 and 2018 are not the same, as 2014 was the year when Bangladesh tried the war criminals who had committed crimes against humanity in 1971 while the country was fighting a war for independence. 


India was a friend at that time in all respects. At the same time, we should not forget that a large number of people were against the trial in 2014. We can say that these 50% who were positive about Pakistan in the survey were those who were against the trial of the war criminals. 


Today, their stance is the same, I suppose, or they have become more hostile after the execution of some prominent war criminals. But we can ask questions about those 70%: Are the numbers still the same? Or have they decreased? I firmly believe that the love of those 50% of Bangladeshis for Pakistan is unconditional, but the positivity towards India is very much conditional. These conditions are different, not simple at all and often change with the times. 


While we discuss India-Bangladesh relations, we need to keep some matters in mind. For example, matters like “give and take,” “politics,” “religion” are as important as China’s policy towards its neighbors, China is India’s principal competitor. 


Bangladesh is a development-hungry nation, and she will accept the opportunity and extended help from anyone. The people of Bangladesh and the government are both aware of this. But in the context of the relationship with India, for me and many like me, “friendship” is more important than other things. 


Often you cannot explain friendship by economics, politics, or religion. But with the maturing of friendship, there are things which come into consideration along with just friendship. I am sure India has friendships with many other countries, but with Bangladesh, this could be a bit different. How India deals with its other neighbors is also important in any discussion of its relationship with Bangladesh. 


The present government of India, headed by Narendra Modi, emphasizes a “neighborhood first” policy. 


He visited all of the neighboring countries within the first two years of his premiership. He gave assurances that there would be a better future relationship and extended economic support in almost every case. For Bangladesh, this help was highly beneficial and had never been seen in the past. 


India herself is a developing country making rapid economic progress. Keeping his own country thirsty for development, Modi will not find it easy to fulfill the promises made to his neighbors. Despite his efforts, we have already seen this on many occasions. 

In the case of Bangladesh, the promised Teesta river deal has still not been signed, and there is no indication that this will happen soon. In competition with Modi’s neighborhood-first policy, China came up with a bag full of dollars (billions!) for those countries which were common neighbors. 


In countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, and Myanmar, China has started investing in such a way that for the next couple of decades, these investments will continue to pour in. Even if someone wants to jeopardize this investment, there will definitely be a problem. 


The situation in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal clearly proves the idea that if you make trouble with China, China will change the government by force, if need be. Many think that in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was thrown out by the military under Chinese influence, as Nawaz Sharif was known to be pro-Indian. 


In the case of Nepal, China has successfully brought out the country from under Indian influence by establishing a communist government there. We will discuss Myanmar a little later. 


So China has established its strong footprint everywhere surrounding India. Is Bangladesh also a part of this Chinese influence? It is better not to compare the economic involvement of India and China in Bangladesh, as the gulf is wide. 


One can argue that China promises but never delivers, and neither does India. Let’s concentrate, rather, on what we can see without an economic filter. In that sense, in Bangladesh, Chinese investment is already huge, and it is growing every day. 


As I said earlier, Bangladesh is an investment-hungry country, and it will not concern itself with whether the investment is coming from China or India or any other country. As long as the investment is coming, the country will be happy to use it for her people.


To return to the case of Myanmar, it is a rogue state run by the generals with promises of democracy. Those generals promised democracy to the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and now the carrot of democracy is still hanging in front of her, but she has already lost everything she achieved through her struggle for it over the years. 


The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by its army and the silence of the Nobel laureate has become the biggest joke in the name of democracy in our time. Aung San Suu Kyi’s role has been severely criticized throughout the world; some of them have withdrawn awards which she was given earlier for her role as a warrior for democracy in Myanmar. 


Since the start of the persecution of the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi has turned out to be the biggest loser. Over a million Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh is acting as humanely as possible, the responsibility for these displaced Rohingya lies with the world as a whole. 


However, Bangladesh is still working alone in this field. Everybody has shown their deep sympathy for the parlous state Bangladesh is in, but there has still been no significant help for the Rohingya from the rest of the world.


Cue China and India

Bangladesh is seeking help from India and China to mediate with Myanmar for taking back the Rohingya from its soil, but both countries seem to be playing a game here. 


For China and India, many political and economic calculations are related to the questions of the Rohingya and Myanmar. But, as her best ally since the country’s birth, Bangladesh expected a firm stance from India in this regard. 


So far, we know that China has played a role. Myanmar has at least signed a repatriation deal with Bangladesh, and India has assisted Bangladesh to help the Rohingya in humanitarian terms. India herself is far from providing a long-term solution to this crisis, although she could if she really wished. This is what Bangladeshis believe.


We are at a crossroads of multi-faceted reality. The toughest one is that this is an election year. Earlier experience says that one of the important election issues for Bangladeshi voters remains as what India has given to Bangladesh and what Bangladesh has given to India. 


Especially while the Awami League is in power, that question has become vital. 


In the case of elections and voters, China has never been a factor and this is true this year, too, as the relationship with China is purely economic. But with India, it is multi-dimensional: Political, social, and cultural. The economy plays a role, of course, but it is not that significant. However, it is growing stronger day by day. 


Four years ago, 70% of people were positive about India; this year, they will re-think their position, based on the give-and-take calculation. 


Even without conducting any formal survey, one can say with some certainty that the percentage has decreased. 


The decreasing positivity towards India means increasing positivity towards Pakistan. So in the coming election, Bangladesh will have to deal with the increasing positivity towards Pakistan. 


For India, who is a friend and a foe in Bangladesh, has become settled over the years. In Bangla, we say: “Don’t let your friend be eaten by a tiger.” 


There is another story of a man called Haradhan, who had 10 sons, and a crocodile starts eating them one by one. Each time Haradhan counts, there is one fewer than before. 


Like Haradhan, India has been losing her neighbors to China, one by one. Bangladesh has remained untouched. 


China has had its economic victory over India but the politics remain an unknown territory for China. Under no circumstances should India let China take political control of Bangladesh. We do not know a country without neighbors, but a collection of hostile neighbors could cause a great deal of harm for a rapidly growing economy like India. 


We have many examples of this. India cannot grow while keeping a trusted political, cultural, and social friend in the hands of her enemy.


Masuda Bhatti is a Bangladeshi-born UK based independent political analyst, currently working as an executive editor for a Bangladeshi daily, publishing from Dhaka. 

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune. Click here to go to the original.

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