Sunday, September 28, 2014

Posted : 28 Sep, 2014 00:00:00
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Indo-Bangla relations - an analysis
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League (AL)-led government is in a spin mode with a flurry of foreign affairs initiatives. The Prime Minister took two major visits to Japan and China and then the Japanese Prime Minister came to Dhaka.

In this spin mode, the country that should have figured on top of the list for many reasons, namely India, has not been in the picture in a major way. It was India that had encouraged the AL-led government to go ahead and hold the January 05 elections without the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and 32 others of the country's 45 registered political parties that returned it to power. When 154 members of parliament (MPs) were elected without a vote and less than 10 per cent voters elected the rest, India had stood behind the AL-led government to try and give the elections legitimacy where many countries and international organisations had stated the elections were not democratic and the country would need fresh elections. Yet, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi took power in May, the two countries have exchanged visits at only the foreign ministerial level. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi has visited Bhutan and Nepal. He met the Pakistan Prime Minister and the Sri Lankan President in his inauguration ceremony that Sheikh Hasina did not attend as she was then on a visit to Japan.

Thus it was in New York on the sidelines of the 48th UN General Assembly session that Sheikh Haisna met the Indian Prime Minister Modi for the first time. To recall, Sheikh Hasina began her official foreign visits with a visit to New Delhi upon assuming power in January 2009. India had then honoured that visit by upgrading it from an official one, in supersession of protocol, to a state visit, reserved exclusively for a head of state and not a head of government. Since the BJP took office, the developments in Bangladesh-India relations, therefore, do not show the warmth that had existed in these relations under the Congress-led government in India.

Before he left for his New Delhi visit, Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali had stated in the media that he would in his discussions with Indian leaders seek assurances that Bangladesh would not be subjected to any attacks from across the border intended for a regime change. He was no doubt spinning on a newspaper report that the Indian intelligence RAW had unearthed an ISI-inspired Jamaat-led move was underway to destabilize the AL government.

The two issues on which Bangladesh should not just have demanded New Delhi for immediate action, namely the highly overdue Teesta and the LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) deals, figured passively in the Bangladesh Foreign Minister's discussions in New Delhi. He came back with Indian commitment to deliver both the deals, commitments that New Delhi has reiterated many times in the past without any forward movement. The Indians did not give him any time-frame and he did not also demand one. In fact, in both the Indian Foreign Minister's visit to Dhaka and her counterpart's visit to New Delhi, no new grounds were covered. And the million-dollar question whether New Delhi under Narendra Modi would give the AL-led government the same support as under the Congress still remains unanswered keeping not just the AL government tense but also everyone else in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the AL-led government's foreign policy initiatives since the January 05 elections undertaken primarily to remove the uncertainty arising out of the controversial January 05 elections and the departure of the Congress government in New Delhi have instead added to the uncertainty. One major initiative was Sheikh Hasina's visit to China that was very successful in the context of bilateral relations. However, it was not for strengthening bilateral relations that she undertook the visit. Its real intention was "to woo China to snub the West" that has refused to withdraw its reservation on the January 05 elections and give the AL-government legitimacy. In trying to achieve that objective, the visit has achieved results that have caused concerns in New Delhi and also in Washington and Tokyo.

The China visit has further strengthened Bangladesh's defence cooperation with Beijing. It is now in the process of acquiring two submarines from Beijing that New Delhi fear will allow China to move into the Bay of Bengal. To these, the BCIM-EC and the Sonadia deep seaport initiatives discussed during the visit would also, if realized, allow China a strong foothold in an extremely important geopolitical location too close to the fragile Indian northeast where a number of secessionist movements are still active for India's comfort. To these strategic issues, the visit would also strengthen the already strong trade relations where India, despite its strong support for Bangladesh and proximity, finds its trade figure with Bangladesh half of China's. Last year, Bangladesh-China trade was worth US$ 10 billion and Bangladesh-India half of that, both weighed heavily against Bangladesh.

To these outcomes/realities, Sheikh Hasina's pledge during that visit to be an  'active partner' in a 'China-led' century has added further to New Delhi's uneasiness. It appears that the new developments in Bangladesh-China relations would cause anxieties in New Delhi was not anticipated by the Bangladesh foreign policy managers in the flurry of foreign policy initiatives taken by them since the January 05 elections to gain legitimacy and to attack the West. Therefore, with the active support of those in Indian intelligence who had planned the Bangladesh policy under the Congress government, it is now using the story floated about Jamaat-led ISI-backed story to destabilize the AL-led government to bring New Delhi under the BJP on the same page as the Congress government on Bangladesh.

When the story to destabilize the AL-led government first hit the media, it was the US that had been named as the brain behind the plot, a story that the US Embassy in Dhaka had trashed. The story has now re-emerged where the name of the US has been replaced by ISI-Jamaat. In the rehashed story, it is now being said that Narendra Modi would bring Sheikh Hasina up to date on the plot. He would also offer Sheikh Hasina the same support as the Congress government to fight Islamic fundamentalism and save secularism.  As if Narendra Modi supporting AL-led government for sake of secularism is not incredible enough, the rehashed story is also suggesting that Narendra Modi would ask the US government to do the same when he meets President Obama in Washington.

The twisted/rehashed original conspiracy theory has too many loopholes for serious consideration. It is again bringing into play the Jamaat/Islamic fundamentalist phobia for public consumption that has outlived its usefulness and acceptability.

This new story has been developed in denial of the new realities, particularly those related to Bangladesh's overtures to China and Indian sensitivity. During the last term, when Sheikh Hasina was in Beijing and ready to sign a number of deals, her team had kept New Delhi informed on these deals so that there would not be any misapprehensions in New Delhi. Added to this, the twisted conspiracy theory involving ISI-Jamaat has also been developed in denial of Narendra Modi's need to make the US happy for his and India's interests and US-Japan interests in Bangladesh where all three -  India, the USA and Japan - are on the same page where China is the common enemy.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id is

Purchase of Chinese submarines and its implications
M. Serajul Islam
  The Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser Dr. Gauhar Rizvi said recently in a seminar that the Chinese CDA in Dhaka also attended and addressed that China and India are on the same page as far as Bangladesh is concerned. He used the developing initiative of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) to emphasize his view. The Chinese CDA expressed that his country hoped that the four countries would be able to sign a framework agreement for BCIM by the end of the year or early next year.

The seminar was organized by the Centre for East Asia Foundation, a Dhaka think tank,  that also addressed in addition to the BCIM-EC, the Maritime Silk Route. The Seminar was also attended and addressed by the Myanmar Ambassador. However, from newspaper reports, it was not clear whether the fourth country in the BCIM-EC initiative, namely India, was present in the Seminar. If India was absent in the Seminar, than the optimism of the Prime Minister’s Adviser could be misplaced. This matter notwithstanding, the Adviser’s optimism could also be misplaced for other important reasons as well.

China has suddenly found rich pastures in Bangladesh for its economic/strategic interests at a time when it is India that has invested much more time, energy and even a US 1 billion soft loan to befriend Bangladesh for furthering its own strategic and economic interests. India had been the most trusted friend of the AL government in its 2009-2013 tenure. It was primarily India’s backing that allowed the Awami League Government to hold the controversial January 5 election and return to power. Nevertheless, China that had opposed the country’s liberation war has been a substantially bigger beneficiary in trading with Bangladesh than India. Bangladesh-China trade last year was US$ 10.3 billion as against US$ 5 in Bangladesh-India bilateral trade, both heavily weighed against Bangladesh.

In this new term, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has undertaken a well-publicized visit to China after an equally well-publicized visit to Japan. In the last term, her first overseas visit was zealously guarded for India. On her trip to China in early June, she moved Bangladesh deeper into the Chinese lap by promising to buy more arms. A number of economic cooperation agreements were also signed; including one related to the major infrastructure project, the Padma Bridge. The proposal for the proposed deep seaport in Sonadia was also discussed. That proposal has already attracted significant attention in New Delhi as part of China’s desire to rope Bangladesh in an anti-India “string of pearl” plan, a pearl of deep-seaports built by China extending from Pakistan through Sri Lanka to Bangladesh. The concept has caused considerable concern in New Delhi together with Bangladesh’s over-enthusiasm to become an “active partner” in a “China led” century.

Bangladesh-China overtures have taken another new dimension from New Delhi’s perspective with the recent news that Bangladesh is going to purchase two submarines from China worth US$ 203 million dollars and the deal is awaiting clearance at the Bangladesh Finance Ministry. Reports have also stated that the Government has purchased land in the island of Kutubdia for building a submarine base. A senior Indian naval officer has stated that the decision of Bangladesh to acquire offensive naval armament together with “the on-going strife in the country is a matter of concern” for New Delhi. He also stated that “ Chinese submarines are sneaking into Indian territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal region” and that the Indian navy is not prepared for any conflict due to inadequate infrastructure.

The submarine purchase therefore does not hint that New Delhi, Beijing and Dhaka are on same page as the Prime Minister’s Adviser has stated with conviction. In fact, BCIM-EC and the proposed Sonadia seaport where China will help build and finance it if it goes ahead, have enough potential to take India away from the same page where Bangladesh and China undoubtedly are at the moment. The proposed submarine purchase is going to take India further from that page with the AL led government trying hard to “woo China to snub the West.” China is of course only too glad to be doing great business in Bangladesh where the AL led government, in its eagerness to strike the West, has wittingly or otherwise allowed China concessions that are of great strategic value to it as well as economic.

The AL Government has thus been too warm in its relations with China after the January 5 elections for New Delhi’s comfort. Therefore, if India was absent in the seminar on BCIM-EC in Dhaka, it must have been to flag that concern. In fact, ever since the BCIM-EC initiative has been discussed publicly, New Delhi has not matched the enthusiasm of Dhaka and Beijing over it. The reasons for such lack of enthusiasm are many but the most important one is that the situation in India’s northeast is still fragile. There are a number of active secessionist movements going on there where the Chinese had fiddled in the past with Bangladesh by its side. In fact, even in the latest discussions between the Bangladesh Border Guards and the Indian BSF, the Indians have expressed concern over sanctuaries of Indian secessionists in Bangladesh.

Further, If BCIM-EC corridor and the Sonadia deep seaport eventually emerge as successful endeavours, it will give China dominant presence in a strategic geopolitical location “ which overlooks the strategically important sea lanes of the Indian Ocean linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, thus playing a role in securing energy supplies for Beijing”. Therefore there is no reason to believe that India would feel comfortable with China gaining such a dominant position in the Bay of Bengal, courtesy Bangladesh. In fact, such a prospect would also sound alarm bells in Washington and Tokyo as well.

There is also the new phase of Washington-New Delhi relations that is emerging. Narendra Modi would need the United States for India’s presence in the international scene much more than the Congress led Indian government. The two countries are getting closer and Narendra Modi and Barak Obama are scheduled to meet in Washington next week. The new phase of Washington-New Delhi relations is expected to bring back the strategic partnership between the two countries that was announced in 2011 by President Obama but had subsequently gone into the cold storage as relations soured between the two countries over many issues of which Bangladesh was one. That Washington-New Delhi strategic relation had the intention to contain China in South, Southeast Asia and Pacific at the core.

To add to the above, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Dhaka early this month. It was an unusual visit because there has never been a return visit between the two countries at the level of the Prime Minister and that too so soon after Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Tokyo. Shinzo Abe came to Dhaka after Narendra Modi’s visit to Tokyo and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China. In Dhaka, Shinzo Abe’s main interest was Japan’s Bay of Bengal initiative where China is no part, an initiative that is still being developed. Japan has committed nearly US$ 6 billion in aid over the next 5 years. Shinzo Abe therefore came to Dhaka to ensure that Bangladesh to think twice over the Sonadia deep seaport project and taper its enthusiasm on the BCIM-EC as both projects would give China, its arch rival, a strong foothold in a key strategic area and accept its Bay of Bengal initiative as the better alternative.

Therefore, there is little reason for India to be on the same page with China on Bangladesh where China is currently ruling the roost with India watching apprehensively. In fact, there are many reasons to the contrary. It appears that Bangladesh has entered into a foreign affairs quagmire from where it would require diplomatic skills of the rare kind to get China and India interested in the same book, let alone the same page on Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id


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Saturday, 27 September 2014
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
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Imran H Sarkar can very well be the hero in Robert Browning’s immortal poem, “ The Patriot”. Little more than a year ago, he was the hero who had held even the president, the prime minister, the ministers and the rest of Bangladesh in awe, all waiting to hear what he had to say and all eager to oblige his wishes and desires. He had the power to mesmerize the parliament to adopt new laws when the old ones were unable to hang the one he and his followers wanted to go to the gallows.

 He was allowed to hold traffic from moving through one of Dhaka’s major intersection where two major hospitals are located so that he and his comrades could hold their public meetings. Incredible as it may now seem, he was the government and the elected one was just too anxious and pleased to play second fiddle to what he and his comrades desired. The country’s intellectuals, identifying themselves as the secular forces, announced to the nation that Sarkar and his comrades were the mythical phoenix that had risen from the ashes to lead Bangladesh to a new level where the spirit of 1971 in its pristine glory would prevail. 

That was a lofty goal but these intellectuals were not daunted and on the nation’s behalf, placed upon his and his comrades the task of rebuilding a new Bangladesh.
The media was aggressive in support of the Gonojagoron Mancha (GM). A few private TV channels laid camp at Shahabag and covered live the rise of the phoenix. They spread the news that it was a nation’s duty to pay homage to the heroes of Shahabag and declared that those who did not do the pilgrimage were the anti liberation forces! It was arithmetic pure and simple and for days, a dazed nation watched the rise of phoenix, many convinced that a second liberation had started in Bangladesh. The frenzy was unbelievable. No one questioned or was allowed to question about the identities of the youth and their objectives.

No one questioned or was allowed to question why the GM who were angered by a decision of the ICT that allowed a war criminal to escape the gallows were not expressing their anger at the ICT that failed them and the AL led government that built up hopes through its ministers and political leaders that the alleged war criminals would be hanged. 

The media went into denial over the presence of well-known AL cultural activists round the clock in the Mancha who were old enough to be fathers and grand fathers of the Shahabag activists. That media’s state of denial allowed these pro AL cultural activists to turn a potentially anti-government movement into pro-government and anti BNP/Jamat one. The media was in denial even when the link between the AL led government and the GM was palpably evident. 

The media, instead of exposing this palpable link, kept on harping that the GM would rise as the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes and dared the doubters to the contrary as anti-liberation forces. When Islam entered into the equation, the outpouring of support for the GM fell substantially. The government, aware that the GM was of immense value to its politics to contain the BNP/Jamat demand for elections under the caretaker government, however did not allow the GM to fall apart. 

It came behind the GM’s demand to hang Qader Mollah directly, giving Imran H Sarkar and his comrades VVIP hospitality to keep the GM alive. The GM with the media in tandem created the hype in which the government hanged Qader Mollah. The hype was surreal but it helped create the necessary political conditions the government needed in its strategy to hold the January 5 elections the way it did and returned to power. The GM’s role in the AL’s return has been a major one by any estimation.

The GM nevertheless had touched a large number of the people where it mattered most, their pride in the war of liberation and the need to punish those who collaborated with the Pakistani army in its genocide. Thus, they were sad and disappointed to see that the ruling party losing its interest in the trials of the war criminals with the conviction it had before the elections. It was even worse for them to see the government distancing itself from the GM. In fact, when the Mancha expressed its disappointment with the snail’s pace in the trials, it received stern warnings from the government.  

In frustration, Imran H Sarkar and his associates blamed the ruling party of a deal with Jamat. In turn, the ruling blamed Imran H Sarkar and his associates of accepting money from Jamat and misappropriating huge sums from funds raised by the GM. The ruling party used its power to split the GM into 3 factions pushing Imran H Sarkar faction to oppose it. Thus when the Supreme Court commuted Jamat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee’s death sentence into life imprisonment without parole; only the Imran H Sarker faction opposed the verdict. The GM that had brought hundreds of thousands of people to the Mancha over the ICT’s failure to hang Qader Mollah succeeded in bringing only a few hundred to Shahabag to protest the reprieve given to Delwar Hossain Sayedee. 

The pro-government faction also descended on Shahabag with fewer supporters with even a smaller third faction whose intentions were not clear also descending upon Shahabag. The police that had assisted the Mancha before the January 5 elections in every conceivable way like the Mancha employed them beat and chased the Imran H Sarkar faction from rallying at Shahabag. 

The turnabout in the fate of the mainstream GM led by Imran H Sarkar has literally been a 180 turn about. What made the turnabout ironic is the fact that the ruling party and the self-acclaimed pro-liberation and secular forces that had backed the GM absolutely to pressure and force the government/parliament to change the laws to hang Qader Mollah did nothing when the mainstream GM led by Imran H Sarker went to Shahabag to protest the reprieve given to Delwar Hossain Sayedee. 

Compared to Qader Mollah, Delwar Sayedee is a more serious alleged war criminal but the Supreme Court turned aside the ICT verdict to hang him.
Therefore, the forces that supported the protest in the QM case, in particular the self-acclaimed secular/pro-liberation war forces, should have come more strongly behind the protest of Imran H Sarkar led GM against Sayedee’s reprieve. They did not and watched silently as the police beat and attempted to force it out of Shahabag.

Rashed Khan Menon hit bull’s eye in exposing the reason behind this irony. He said that the GM has outlived its usefulness and hence there was no reason for it to continue. In retrospect, politics has in fact been the main reason for the emergence of GM and its popularity. It served the ruling party’s objective to deal with the BNP/Jamat’s movement for elections under the caretaker government. The people were taken for a ride with emotional issues such as pro-liberation and spirit of 1971 issues. And now, a widely held public perception is that the ruling party is negotiating with Jamat to bring it out of its alliance with BNP, weaken the latter and perhaps go for a mid term elections and overcome its legitimacy issue that has been dogging it since the January 5 elections.

Imran H Sarker’s days and those of his comrades as heroes are certainly over like that of Robert Browning’s patriot. No one is seriously blaming the ruling party for its treatment of the erstwhile heroes because no one expected politics to be anything but the pursuit of gaining and retaining political power by any means. 
The GM is no longer of any value to the ruling party in the power game. 

Nevertheless, the nation expected the secular and pro-liberation forces to stand by these patriots that has not been the case that has exposed something sinister; that they too have been in league with the ruling party in using, rather misusing, the Projonmo. The mythical Phoenix has thus been defeated by politics and with it, also the nation’s dream that the Projonmo would take Bangladesh to new

The writer is a retired career diplomat. His email id is :

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