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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Jun 2024  Debotri Dhar | Time to steer Delhi-Dhaka ties out of troubled waters

Debotri Dhar | Time to steer Delhi-Dhaka ties out of troubled waters

Dr Debotri Dhar is an author, educator, academic, consultant, and founder of the Hummingbird Global Leaders Forum and Hummingbird Global Writers Circle
Published : Jun 17, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jun 17, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Navigating Geopolitics: India-Bangladesh Relations and the Power of Symbolism

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina during a meeting after his swearing-in ceremony, in New Delhi, Sunday, June 9, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina during a meeting after his swearing-in ceremony, in New Delhi, Sunday, June 9, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Last month a video of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the leader of the Awami League party, went viral, in which she was seen questioning the “boycott Indian products” social media campaign that was launched by the country’s main Opposition, the BNP. In the video, the Prime Minister was scathingly reminding male members of the Opposition about their wives’ Indian saris. “Why are they not taking away their wives’ saris and setting them on fire?” she asked at a party meeting, leading to an Opposition leader’s reply that his wife had a quilt made out of hers. Analysts have pointed to how the sari has since become a political football.

India-Bangladesh bilateral ties span defence, trade and investments, water and energy, and go back a long way. The 1947 Partition of India, which led to the creation of West and East Pakistan, would soon witness allegations of cultural discrimination and human rights abuses inflicted on the Bengali population by West Pakistan. In 1970, the Bengali Awami League won a decisive majority in Pakistan’s general election. Refusing a democratic transfer of power, the Pakistan Army launched a brutal crackdown. In March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman issued a call to the Bangladeshi nationalist movement; in retaliation, the Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight, leading to the killing of an estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 Bengali civilians. The operation led to a large refugee influx into India, with the numbers swelling to 10 million. A reprehensible aspect of the war were the camps for the systematic rape and forced impregnation of Bengali women. Thousands of these “birangonas”, or warrior women, caught in the big battles between men, later gave testimony about their months-long sexualised torture, even as many were abandoned by their community.

Like the people and products of various countries, such as the “Indian sari”, nations themselves too sometimes become political footballs. This was the challenge the birth of Bangladesh faced, becoming as it had a football not so much between India and Pakistan, but between two greater powers, the United States and the People’s Republic of China. New Delhi made repeated attempts to reach out to Washington for help, especially since the refugee influx, while welcome on moral grounds, was becoming economically unsustainable for India, given the latter’s already extremely high population and density per capita. However, Washington chose to support Islamabad and to deny the Bengali genocide, terming it as an exaggeration, if not a lie. A key reason for this was that Pakistan was America’s only channel to China, as Henry Kissinger noted in his White House papers. At that time, then US President Richard Nixon and Kissinger, who would later be his secretary of state, were trying to build relations with Beijing to negate the Soviet influence by taking advantage of the Sino-Soviet conflict. The Nixon administration even sent the Seventh Fleet led by the nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to aid Pakistan against India.

Ultimately, India negotiated a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and, following a December attack by Pakistan, provided military support to the Mukti Bahini. Under the instructions of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the strategic leadership of Army Chief Gen (later Field-Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, the Indian Army helped bring about a quick victory, leading to Pakistan’s surrender on December 16, 1971.

Recently, US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti acknowledged that America’s “tilt” towards Pakistan and China in the 1970s had led to “India thinking of America as not a trustworthy partner”. Taking a principled stand, New Delhi repatriated, without retaliation, nearly one lakh Pakistani prisoners of war under the 1972 Shimla Agreement. Later described by Bangladesh’s Constitution as father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Bangabandhu”, also became a friend to India. After his assassination in 1975, his daughter has continued that friendship.

Now back in power for a third term, Sheikh Hasina alleged American interference in Bangladesh’s general election, claiming the US wants a regime change, arguably to bring in the conservative BNP. Meanwhile, many are aware that the Bangladeshi anti-India hashtags are similar to the “India Out” ones in the Maldives backed by China (no arguments here), a bulk of these hashtags originating from the social media handles of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the US and other Western nations. Given these impending geopolitical realities, outstanding bilateral issues with Dhaka need to be diplomatically addressed on a priority basis.

A critical one pertains to the Teesta water-sharing, as the agreement has been stalled since 2011. The Teesta flows out from India’s Sikkim, and through West Bengal, before entering Bangladesh. It’s the fourth largest river system shared with Bangladesh after the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. During the drafting of the 1947 Boundary Commission Report demarcating the boundary between India and then-East Pakistan, the Muslim League had asked for Darjeeling and other districts in Teesta’s catchment area, the bulk of which was given to India.

Despite subsequent efforts under the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission and the Ganga Water Treaty, and visits by successive Indian Prime Ministers, the water issues are yet to be resolved.

Beijing has proposed financing large development projects on the Teesta, which have drawn criticism from environmentalists. Some hydropower is needed in this context, so New Delhi must remain proactively engaged in Bangladesh’s sustainable development, and to find a durable water-sharing solution. Since releasing more water to Bangladesh can adversely impact irrigation in some poorer districts in West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee should be invited to the consultative process, for the Centre and the state to collaborate in the interest of the nation. The renewal of the Ganga Water Treaty should also be on the agenda.

In accordance with its “neighbourhood first” policy, New Delhi was right to invite the Bangladesh Prime Minister to the G-20 summit hosted by India last year and, more recently, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third-term swearing-in ceremony. Bangladesh will no doubt evaluate China’s debt-and-encirclement traps. Geopolitical equations do change, so India on its part must hold on strongly to this friendly nation, whose national anthem Amar Sonar Bangla was composed by none other than Bengal’s own Rabindranath Tagore, who also composed India’s national anthem. Meanwhile, I am visiting Kolkata, preparing for a lecture and enjoying wearing saris, including Benarasi and Dhakai. Footballs, even political ones, can sometimes have a mind of their own, and the timeless sari that has always beckoned with its beauty is not fading out of sight anytime soon.

 

Tags: bangladesh pm sheikh hasina, india bangladesh ties