During a recent conversation with Maroof Raza on his talk show Latitude which discussed India-Bhutan ties in the backdrop of China’s shadow, I lamented that India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy needs serious reworking. Raza responded by saying something rather interesting which drove home the point about the ineptitude of India’s foreign office. He said, “India has a diplomatic corps which is smaller even than that of Singapore but we are trying to punch in the heavyweight category of world’s geopolitics.” He, of course, stated it in the context of the need for India to engage more seriously with our neighbourhood lest India alienates even Bhutan, the only true friend and ally that India has in South Asia.
But even as the dialogue was, primarily, about the manner in which China was making robust inroads into the Himalayan kingdom and my analysis that a “generational shift” in Bhutan may be becoming more open to Chinese socio-economic overtures, the fact that Raza sought to sagely comment on India’s inability to maintain a ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy in correct stead was well-timed. Indeed, in recent years there has been considerable talk that India was alienating its neighbours and that the much tom-tommed ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has been an abysmal failure.
Bangladesh’s relationship with India has waxed and waned like irregular lunar cycles. Therefore, even as the honeymoon period that characterised the relationship between India and Bangladesh after the eastern wing of Pakistan was liberated with active Indian help ended with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibir Rahman on 15 August 1975, the return to power of the Bangabandhu’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina after several years of “Islam backed Barrack Politics” witnessed the return to a pro-India era.
History that was sought to be erased about Indian support to the War of Liberation was corrected and Hasina decreed that India’s role was indelibly etched in the pages of the historic deliverance. Hasina also ascertained that Indian insurgent leaders who were billeting in Bangladesh were apprehended and handed over to India, determining thereby that at least a modicum of peace returned to the restive North East. After all, the erstwhile East Pakistan had become a virtual safe haven and transit point to places such as Karachi and Batrasi in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir for groups such as ULFA and the Assamese Muslim fundamentalist organisations. India and Bangladesh had entered a period of harmony.
But the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh is a country that has innards of its own. Therefore, notwithstanding the close relationship which it has with India, there are various factors that have led to its evolution as an independent state. Indeed, it was important for Bangladesh immediately after its formation to steel itself as a nation that is not dependent on India. Writing about this aspect, former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser, JN Dixit has analysed Sheikh Mujib by stating that “(Mujib) was also conscious that if Bangladesh earned sufficient recognition from important countries and developed the minimum required levels of bilateral political, economic and technological relations, he would not need India’s substantive support and assistance. In keeping with this approach, he was clear in his mind that he did not wish to be over-dependent on India. He also (quite logically) did not wish Bangladesh to be dubbed a client state of India.” (JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, Konark, 1999).
The seeds of non-dependence on India, therefore, were sown by Bangladesh’s founding father almost immediately after its independence. If the manifestations of the growing distancing from India were felt in the early 1970s with Mujib “purging” pro-Indian statesmen like Tajuddin Ahmad, then one can visualise a similar need of not being wanting to be seen to be too close to India by engendering “balancing acts” such as growing proximity with China. But by trying to keep India at arm’s length, Bangladesh has willy-nilly — and perhaps irreversibly — brought Beijing into its private chambers.
The sidelines of the “NADI” (Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence) conclave in Guwahati which concluded on 29 May 2022 proffered an opportunity for a rather gripping interface with delegates from India’s near-abroad. Indeed, sidelines have always been absorbing affairs — they offer intimate interludes of the sort that is shorn of the ceremonial and the shielded. Cups of coffee shared together away from the gaze of the multitude conveys far more than the pre-scripted and the mundane. It was, therefore, with great keenness that aspects that would have otherwise been confined to the “inner space” of the privileged were consumed along with the caffeinated brew of eagerness.
One of the aspects that were corroborated was the manner in which China — and as a corollary Pakistan — has entered Bangladesh’s polity. While there was always a gnawing apprehension that Bangladesh was being wooed by China in myriad ways — including providing it with military hardware (never mind if it meant only outdated Ming class diesel submarines!) — the fact that a “Sino-Pak” clique was in place in the inner echelons of the ruling elite was established.
Although the manner in which the anti-India subterfuges are taking place may at this point in time be restricted to “court intrigues” and “commercial benefits”, the danger to India’s national security lies in the fact that there was clear pronouncement of the fact that more than half of Bangladesh’s population was becoming anti-India. This should not, however, come as a revelation to observers of the India-Bangladesh relationship, especially as there have been enough instances in recent history which would testify to the fact that there are good reasons for the erstwhile East Pakistan to have made such a choice.
But it would be incorrect to state that all is lost in Bangladesh. Indeed, there is a constituency that is unwavering to the cause of Bengali linguistic and socio-culture identity. The population who espouses such strong sentiments are the ready and capable foil to the advances of anti-India forces. It does not require flamboyant imagination to comprehend that if properly cultivated and empowered such an expanse — however small — would rally behind India and its flagging standards in a country that is being overtaken by sinister designs. After all the group which is steadfast to Bengali nationalism was also among the one that responded with immense courage during the last Poila Boisakh (Bengali New Year) when Islamists threatened them from performing traditional Bengali Hindu practices such as sporting “teep” (bindi or a small coloured mark that is worn between a lady’s eyebrows). Sadhana Ahmed, a celebrated playwright, warned the threatening radicals by proclaiming in her Facebook: Beshi Hoichoi Korbi Toh Surjo Take Teep Banay Porbo (Don’t shout too much; Otherwise I will wear the sun itself as a Teep)!
The author is a well-known conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.