How India can use Sheikh Hasina visit to reset rocky relationship with Bangladesh

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Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is coming to India with excessive baggage.

Islamists have carried out waves of attacks on Bangladesh’s Hindus during the last Durga Puja and this Janmasthami and many more in between. Mobs incensed by well-planted communal rumours threw stones, damaged temples, burnt houses and killed Hindus.

Her economy is making headlines for the wrong reasons. Bangladesh has approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a phased $4.5 billion loan, raising fears of a Sri Lanka-like meltdown. The IMF, however, has said that the crisis does not seem as acute. But a 50 per cent increase in fuel prices meant that matters have reached a point where drastic measures have become necessary.

Corruption has been endemic, making it easy for predatory powers like China to make inroads into its politics and economy and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Bangladesh ranked 147 out of 180 nations in the 2021 Corruption Perception Index.

These are uncomfortable truths. But it is also true that Sheikh Hasina remains India’s best bet in Bangladesh. Also, she continues to see value in the alliance despite India’s growing unpopularity in Bangladesh.

Her Awami League enjoys complete political dominance after sweeping the last general elections, which rivals BNP claim were rigged with the help of R&AW. But despite BNP’s leadership vacuum — with a very ill Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman living in exile in London — a BNP-Jamaat-ISI campaign has successfully drummed up the perception of India as the bullying neighbour with ruthless economic ambitions and a rising Hindutva that endangers Islam.

For Sheikh Hasina, India is that influential friend whom most people back home hate. Let us accept it: it is not easy to be domestically in her shoes right now.

Ahead of her three-day visit, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami have hit the streets. Already, two people have been reportedly killed, one when the police opened fire to control the mobs. BNP supporters clashed with the police and AL activists in Bhola, Narayanganj, Manikganj, Natore, Netrakona, Sirajganj and Rangpur. More than 100 people have been injured in these clashes.

Bangladesh intel fears that the Opposition is planning organised street violence before the Parliament elections next year, and may boycott the polls like in 2014. Jamaat’s social media cell Basher Kella (Bamboo Fort), which mainly operates from London, has become quite active with anti-Hindu, anti-India and anti-Hasina posts for the last year or so.

Lately, Jamaat’s posts and protests seem to have the Taliban’s signature. Placards were flashed in rallies urging women to not wear short clothes. It prompted education minister Dipu Moni to say, “Let’s talk about robotics and artificial intelligence, not the length of women’s clothes.”

At such a time, it is important for India to stand firmly by Hasina. It must not exert blunt force. However, India must exercise its strength with nimble hands to make sure its interests are not derailed.

There are two main things India must ensure during the Hasina visit:

One, press her to stop Islamist violence against Hindus and other minorities. Since the second coming of Taliban to power in Afghanistan, these forces have got roused. Al Qaeda and its mentee Ansarulla Bangla Team, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, and other such terror groups have regrouped both in Bangladesh and also across the border in states like Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, and Bihar. Deportation of illegal immigrants and sealing boundaries should be top of the list. Given our past, we need a friendly relationship but unfriendly borders.

Hasina herself has politically flirted with the extremist Hefazat-e-Islam which runs a massive crop of Qaumi madrassas, a network of radicalisation as influential as the Jamaat. But she is capable of exemplary will and ruthlessness when she gets down to action against jihadis.

A lot more problematic for her would be the radical elements within her party, especially the students’ wing Chhatra League, whose members have often been at the forefront of violence against Hindus. In the 2021 communal attacks against Hindus and Buddhists, Awami League and Chhatra League leaders either led the mobs or were complicit in Chandpur, Chattogram, Bandarban, Rangpur and other places. India needs her to weed these elements out.

Also, Hasina may visit the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. Given the role that its clergy played in instigating mobs against Nupur Sharma, abusing Hindu gods, and links to the beheading of Kanhaiya Lal, she should be discouraged from visiting the shrine.

Second, help her with the economy. Create a truly revitalising financial package. Open new routes of trade in which Bangladesh sees gain too. India needs to keep in mind that the Bangladesh Opposition has also whipped up negativity against prominent Indian business houses That could be dispelled by opening up doors for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs.

India has to ensure that at no point should Bangladesh turn to China for loans, the rabbit-hole that Sri Lanka and Pakistan had marched into. A vulnerable Bangladesh is ripe for Chinese manipulation, although finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal has publicly warned his nation against Chinese lending, citing Sri Lanka’s example.

India could use this crisis to guide Bangladesh on strong economic reforms, anti-corruption policy and mechanisms for greater digital payments, for instance.

By giving Hasina highly visible and meaningful takeaways at this hour, India will help not just her, but also its image which is under brutal attack in Bangladesh.

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How India can use Sheikh Hasina visit to reset rocky relationship with Bangladesh
How India can use Sheikh Hasina visit to reset rocky relationship with Bangladesh
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