Envoy change signals tough road ahead for India-Bangladesh ties

Hasina's government has also been very distressed with provisions in the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, which singles out Bangladesh, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as nations which persecute their minorities, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor 

Nilova Roy Chaudhury Jul 30, 2020

Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to boost his flagging Neighbourhood First policy by reviving the largely defunct SAARC forum to foster a common South Asian response to the Covid-19 pandemic, even setting up a fund and discussing best practices with the neighbours, the policy appears to be unravelling at a pace New Delhi had hitherto not expected or imagined. Other than the Maldives, India’s other neighbours from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seem largely unimpressed by New Delhi’s efforts not only to contain the pandemic, but also to sustain regional ties, and are increasingly looking to Beijing for their developmental needs.

This is particularly apparent in the way the "sonar adhyay", or "golden chapter", of India-Bangladesh relations, which blossomed over the past five years under Modi’s watch, especially after the resolution of the thorny maritime and land boundary issues, has lost some of its lustre.

A measure of New Delhi’s concern on this front is apparent from its decision to send a new envoy to Dhaka and recall incumbent envoy Riva Ganguly Das, barely 16 months after she went there. Ostensibly, Das is coming back on promotion to secretary rank, but it is a fact that the clout of the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh is not constrained by diplomatic protocol. It is a political posting, although mostly manned by senior career diplomats. Since India assisted in the creation of Bangladesh, the Indian envoy is a very important person in Dhaka, with enviable reach. Indian High Commissioners to Bangladesh, especially during the tenure of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have always had very close access to the top echelons of power in Dhaka. Similarly, Bangladeshi envoys, most recently the late Syed Muazzem Ali, enjoyed excellent access to the Modi government in New Delhi and earlier ones.

Unhappiness at Indian political rhetoric 

But the question of excellent access stems from the closeness between the political leadership in the two national capitals. And that has distinctly soured over the past year in Dhaka. Not just at the government level, but the common man in Bangladesh has been deeply offended at the ruling Indian BJP leaders’ rhetoric, implicitly calling Bangladeshis in India "termites" and other derogatory references in the context of illegal migration, making it very difficult for Sheikh Hasina to keep up the warmth of the ties. 

Hasina's government has also been very distressed with provisions in the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, which singles out Bangladesh, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as nations which persecute their minorities. Infusing a communal flavour into a highly emotional and cultural relationship has not gone down well with Bangladesh. That an economic relationship of over US$10 billion per annum, the largest within SAARC, could not curb Indian majoritarian tendencies has swung the focus away from India.

These distressed ties which, observers affirmed, had nothing to do with the issue of the Teesta river waters agreement not being finalised, were reflected in Das not getting an audience with the Bangladesh prime minister for over four months, an unheard of snub. Das, who served earlier as cultural counsellor in Dhaka, went there in March 2019 soon after Sheikh Hasina’s landslide electoral victory, with expectations of taking the bilateral relationship to new highs. She assumed charge as envoy in Bangladesh succeeding Harsh Vardhan Shringla, now India’s foreign secretary. 

But those expectations were belied and Das is being replaced in Dhaka by Vikram Doraiswami, also a career diplomat who has earlier handled that region and is very highly regarded by External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in the hope that ties can regain their emotional warmth and their multi-faceted vitality.   

The China factor 

Barely a week after a significant milestone in bilateral maritime relations, with the first shipment of container cargo from Kolkata reaching Agartala via Chattogram (Chittagong) port, evoked no major popular enthusiasm, Indian efforts, like handing over 10 broad-gauge locomotives to Bangladesh, to revitalise economic and trade ties, have not really changed popular perceptions. In fact, these Indian connectivity projects pale in comparison with the aggressive development assistance China has recently provided to Bangladesh and are not enough to undo the political damage which has forced Dhaka to look away from Delhi toward Beijing to fulfil many vital requirements.

These include development of a modern submarine base at Pekua in Cox’s Bazar to patrol the Bay of Bengal, delivery of two submarines and two frigates to the Bangladesh Navy and, very significantly for India, especially its Northeast, the contract to build a new terminal at Sylhet’s international airport to the Beijing Urban Construction Group Ltd. Sylhet district borders Assam and Meghalaya.

Bangladeshi assistance over the past decade, since Sheikh Hasina returned to office in 2009, has been largely instrumental in curbing insurgencies in several Northeastern states. With the bilateral relationship under strain, to the extent that Sheikh Hasina recently conferred with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, even discussing the issue of Kashmir, India is likely to face an increasingly difficult security scenario, which will hinder its economic revival efforts.

The disconnect is even appearing through official statements, as Bangladesh Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, talking of multidimensional bilateral cooperation, harked back to the creation of Bangladesh. “India has continued to contribute to the economic development of Bangladesh,” and “needs to be thanked for its historic role in the great War of Independence,” while the Indian MEA spokesperson, responding to the Pakistani and Bangladeshi premiers talking on Kashmir, described relations with Bangladesh as “time-tested and historic.”

The mention of Kashmir in Pakistan-Bangladesh bilateral talks does not bode well for India as China continues to subtly orchestrate the shifting balances. Can invoking a “glorious past” be enough to foster the bilateral India-Bangladesh relationship, that is so crucial for India in challenging times? It may require more than just a new envoy to restore ties to the "sonar adhyay" level. 

(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal)