Op-Ed

A complicated friendship
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed
30 Oct,2018

Can’t Bangladesh expect more from its influential neighbour?

Bangladesh and India enjoy a relationship unlike any other -- complicated in many ways, but wholeheartedly integral to the national stories of both countries. It is a testament to history, that under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, India played a pivotal, if not essential, role in the formation of independent Bangladesh -- and for that, our neighbours will always have our deep respect and admiration. 

Yet, as we have seen in the last four decades, the relationship between India and Bangladesh is often defined along partisan political lines -- whilst politicians do not openly ascribe to this notion. India tends to put its weight behind the Awami League, whereas the very formation of the BNP was based on a philosophy of, amongst other issues, anti-Indian sentiments. 

This pro-Indian versus anti-Indian line has harmed the relationship between both countries -- and has often transitioned our conversations away from policies.

Our constitutional foreign policy of friendship towards all, and enmity towards none, is one which encompasses a philosophy for political stake-holders to abide by -- yet our foreign ministry has had to adjust their diplomatic engagements based on who controls the executive branch of the government. 

When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian PM Narendra Modi suggest that “they want to work together to better the lives of the people of the two countries” and “support each other for mutual benefits,” at the BIMSTEC Summit in August 2018, we remain sceptical as to whether such is simply a diplomatic commitment, or whether such a statement carries tangible weight.

The Indo-Bangla relationship has been anything but mutually beneficial -- it is impossible to repay India for its support during 1971, however, when it comes to protecting, promoting, and preserving the integrity of the relationship between the two countries, one questions whether asking for a net beneficial affiliation on Bangladesh’s end is too big of an ask. 

Granted, India is the regional powerhouse in terms of its economy, military, and demography -- and to an extent, India is expected to dictate terms when it comes to international relations in the region. For this very reason, one expects India to step up, and to manage regional problems of widespread proportions. 

Therefore, when Modi expresses his intention to support each other for mutual benefits -- we expect the Indian PM to play a stronger role in ensuring the safety and security of our region. The Rohingya crisis is one such issue, where the role of India has been disappointing, to say the least. 

The Modi government has adopted what can be termed a strategic policy of doing nothing -- mind you, doing nothing, in this case, does not translate to literal idleness on India’s part. For their credit, the Indian government has pledged $25 million for a five-year developmental assistance support to the Rakhine province -- whilst maintaining and encouraging what it views as constructive engagement between Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

As the seeds of the current influx of refugees to Bangladesh were being sowed back in 2012, the Indian government took a seemingly disappointing role of supporting the then Myanmar government, owing to their business interests in energy, connectivity, and military armaments. 

Over the past six years, as India has increasingly adopted a more diplomatic line of simultaneously considering this the internal matter of two sovereign states, it has also refrained from pushing a Myanmar government accused of committing ethnic cleansing, from taking responsibility for a purely man-made crisis. 

Therefore, doing nothing often means not doing enough. India launched its Operation Insaniyat in September 2017, as a means to provide humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh -- yet the country has the capacity to do more, not just to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship with Bangladesh, but as a regional power, is expected to lead from the front, and not sidestep into diplomatic safety. 

Therein remains the problem. Intertwined with the inaction of the Indian government is a philosophy of deep-seated division within Indian society -- as the incumbent BJP posits a supposed anti-Muslim line in its government policies. The northeast state of Assam is expected to deport a whopping four million people, who leaders in the right-wing ruling party term as “illegal Bangladeshi migrants.” 

Some suggest the move as a means to establish BJP dominance in the region, but that showcases a defiance of Indian authorities towards a neighbouring country, which has, in the recent past, been anything but cordial and supportive. 

The Rohingya crisis, or the deportation of people who have lived in India for decades -- these policies, or more specifically, these philosophies, are denting the values based on which India and Bangladesh have moved forward in the last four decades. It is so distant from the Nehruvian secularism based upon which India was formed, that India itself seems confused, and for that, the BJP must take a lion’s share of the blame. 

It is implausible for Bangladesh to sustain the influx of Rohingya refugees in the long-run, whilst simultaneously dealing with the arrival of migrants from the northeastern states of India. The questions about regional security will arise in the future if these situations are not managed better by regional stakeholders. Therefore, it is time that India redefines what is pragmatic and works with the Bangladesh government to ensure a people-to-people relationship between our two countries. 

Let us be frank, India and Bangladesh remain interdependent on one another for various reasons. The eras of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, Ershad, Khaleda Zia, and Sheikh Hasina -- all these times have seen some form of emphasis towards Bangladesh’s relationship with India. 

But in contemporary times, ensuring a sustainable relationship with our neighbour is a necessity, and one which cannot be guided by ideology but rather, by mutually beneficial policies. 

Anti-Indian sentiments or anti-Bangladeshi sentiments cannot be used as a medium to conduct diplomacy between both countries -- thereby, in order to work together to better the lives of their citizens, the ball remains in the court of leaders from both countries. 

But given India’s position on the global stage, is it truly impractical for Bangladesh to expect its neighbour to do more when it has the capacity to do so? Surely not. 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a recent graduate in Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.