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By Shilajit Kar Bhowmik
Bangladesh’s will to establish a strong rapport with Pakistan has definitely sent tremors in Delhi. India feels deserted by the country known to be one of its closest allies, for it can never forget the brutal wave of repression Pakistan unleashed on Bangladesh in 1971. The former perpetrated unspeakable atrocities on the latter since 1947. When Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan, it was exploited as a supplier of raw materials for West Pakistan and a market for its finished products. The East was scorned down by the West as a ‘feeble underling’. As the voice of the East was getting quashed with each passing day and as the masses began to feel deprived of their basic human rights, their leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman strongly felt the need for autonomy. Pakistan wished to stifle the brewing dissent which soon evolved into a crusade. And thus, on the fateful day of March 25, 1971, the people of Bangladesh aspiring for freedom from bondage were horrendously bled to death. The manner in which Pakistan chose to suppress the revolt clearly out-Heroded Herod. At that baleful moment, India stood by Bangladesh with all its might like a true friend. And now Bangladesh perceived to be our most trusted ally chooses to side with the nation which took sadistic pleasure in tormenting her people.
To be precise, on July 1, 2020 Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Dhaka, Imran Ahmad Siddiqui, had an audience with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen. The meeting may be described as a ‘courtesy call’ by the people of Bangladesh but there is more than meets the eye in that rendezvous.
Bangladesh and Pakistan have been at daggers drawn when the former decided to hang the war criminals of 1971. This move was opposed by the latter because those criminals collaborated with them. Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies in the recent past passed several resolutions decrying the trial of the top 1971 collaborators (known as Razakars in Bangladeshi parlance) of Pakistani troops in Bangladesh. The row reached a flashpoint in May 2019, when the Bangladesh High Commission in Islamabad stopped issuing visas to Pakistani nationals.
The Bangla-Pak bilateral relations deteriorated in 2016 when Bangladesh forced Pakistan to take back three of its officials, including a woman diplomat, alleging their link to Islamist militants. In 2018, Bangladesh opposed the nomination of Saqlain Syedah as the new Pakistani High Commissioner.
Interestingly, in January 2020, Bangladesh approved the nomination of Imran Ahmed Siddiqui to fill up the Pakistani High Commissioner’s post which was lying vacant for 20 months. It would be in order to note that in Dec 2019, the Indian Parliament enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. This legislation infuriated Bangladesh as it sought to grant citizenship to Hindus and other people belonging to the minority community of her country. The BJP has been consistent in referring to the people of Bangladesh as ‘termites’ and ‘illegal infiltrators’. These descriptions naturally touched a raw nerve.
According to a friend of this writer from Bangladesh, seeking anonymity, the Hindus began to assert themselves as soon as Modi grew from strength to strength. They felt that India under Modi’s leadership would rescue them in case they were persecuted. This factor became a sore point with the Muslims and they began to consider India as a threat. On the other hand, the NRC update was also seen as adding insult to injury.
Apart from this, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s failure to wring the Teesta water-sharing deal has antagonized her before her people. Her opponents have been crying foul over this issue by daubing her as a puppet of India.
The Teesta water-sharing issue needs to be elaborated in explicit terms and should leave no room for doubt. Former PM Manmohan Singh was going ahead with the deal. But at the last moment, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee acted as a supervening force. The PM deigned to placate Mamata, then a crucial ally in his government.
Obviously, the incumbent PM Modi could’ve made headway with the deal which gained prominence in every India-Bangladesh summit for the past many years. But he could not live up to those expectations. And as a matter of fact, the Indian PM can easily bypass the West Bengal M if he was serious about inking an international treaty. As per the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution water is definitely a State subject. But international treaties are the subjects of the Union. For further clarification, as per Entry 17, List II of the Seventh Schedule, water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power are State subjects. But as per Entry 14 of List I entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, conventions and agreements with foreign countries are subjects of the Union.
Adding to this, Article 253 of the Indian Constitution states, “Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this Chapter (Legislative Relations), Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body.”
Obviously, an equitable share of water with Bangladesh might detrimentally affect the districts of North Bengal. And Modi does not wish to incense the districts as he has stakes in the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly polls. By and large, these issues have strengthened the pro-Pakistani lobby in Bangladesh. Hasina would definitely like to satiate their ire for the sake of power.
Apart from Pakistan, Bangladesh is strengthening its ties with China. It would be germane to note that China recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation on Aug 31, 1975. This was days after the latter’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated on Aug 15, 1975. Thereafter, a government inimical to India was enthroned in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, a Chinese company, Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) has been awarded a contract for construction of a new terminal at Osmani International Airport in Sylhet. The airport is adjacent to the border between Bangladesh and Assam.
A prominent Bangladeshi daily commented, “Despite India’s concerns, Bangladesh has given the contract of building an airport terminal in Sylhet to a Chinese company. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das tried for four months to get an appointment with the Prime Minister but failed.”
“Bangladesh has not even sent a note of appreciation to India in response to Indian assistance for the Covid-19 pandemic,” the newspaper further commented.
These statements do make sense as the animus between India and China is snowballing.
China became the top trading partner of Bangladesh in 2015. This clearly evinced the latter’s willingness to lessen its dependence on India. In 2016, the two aforesaid countries signed 27 agreements when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh. The investments were worth around $24 billion. This was also a token of the support Dhaka received from Beijing as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Along with an earlier $13.6 billion investment in joint ventures, those agreements resulted in Chinese investment in Bangladesh totalling $38 billion. And that was the largest sum pledged to Bangladesh by no other country, except China. As Covid-19 has taken a toll over the lives of Bangladeshi civilians, China has provided the country all sorts of assistance.
In May, 2020 China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) also approved a $250 million loan to Bangladesh. The project is co-financed by Asian Development Bank intending to help the country with budget support for combating the pandemic. Apart from this, the project has the intention of mitigating the ill-effects of job losses in small and medium-sized companies of the country.
In June, 2020 Bangladesh urged China to send an expert team comprising doctors, nurses and technicians for handling the pandemic effectively and train its own health professionals. The Chinese Foreign Minister was reported to have responded positively.
By and large, Pakistan and China have become femme fatales for Bangladesh. Modi should be alive to the gathering storm. Otherwise, our adversaries shall steal the march over us and India will be facing the rough end of the stick.