A section of the Bangladesh ‘anxiety lobby’ is worried about Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, fearing she will sign a treaty which will go against the country’s best interests. When a treaty is about to be signed such anxieties are common. But does India need a treat to gobble up Bangladesh given its size, power and proximity? However, India has not been a fair partner on many matters and water sharing is one big example. But it is possible that Bangladesh is at its strongest to negotiate as it goes to India, courtesy of Chinese billions and the potential of a strong Chinese presence in Dhaka.

Who needs a defence treaty?

There are many who are suspicious of India. The BNP, the anti-Rampal group, the religious lobby, etc, are not happy about Indo-Bangla proximity. Of course Teesta stands like a pillar in the way of better relations between the two countries and no one seems to know how to convince Mamata Banerjee to soften down. But the lack of professional skills of the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry by stonewalling the media on the trip has also not served anyone. By holding back information, suspicions have increased. Bangladeshi analyst Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury says, “It’s better that Bangladesh’s defence remains independent of India. Rather, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on friendly coexistence and cooperation in countering terrorism and extremism would be a fair shot for both the countries.”  Given that, more openness would have served Hasina better.

But while Bangladesh’s anxiety is understandable, India could possibly be the more anxious player of the two as it is unsure how strong its clout is in Bangladesh after the landing of the Chinese billions.

What began as a purchase of two slightly inefficient subs from China by Bangladesh has morphed into a lot more in the Indian anxiety lobby. India is worried that China is beginning with a finger that may end up with a foot in Bangladesh where India alone once stood.  Nobody thinks Indo-Bangla ties have any mutual threat factor, but China is another matter. India can’t match Chinese billions so it feels a bit uncertain how much it will have to worry in future.

And of course, the fear is that Chinese military experts will snoop on India from Dhaka. Bangladesh has become  an entity of considerable interest to India because of  20 billion + Chinese investment and 2 subs worth 230 million.

What may the treaty look like?

The BNP aside,there may be other people for the AL government to consider on such a treaty. The Indian journalist Sanjay Kapoor, who visited Dhaka recently, says in his piece in the Indian Tribune, “ A section within the Bangladesh army, it is learnt, feels that it would lose out on all the gains that would accrue by playing India against China. India is worried, not just by contrived ambivalence, but also by the strategic independence that Bangladesh is trying to exercise by responding warmly to Chinese overtures. To allay the fears of Bangladesh military leadership, the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in the first visit abroad after his appointment, flew into Dhaka to engage with his counterpart and others in the defence establishment. Indian officials involved in these consultations are keeping their fingers crossed about the passage of the defence agreement.”

Bangladesh’s position was spelt out by HT Imam, Principal Adviser to the PM, to the visiting Indian media team. He said that the “that the agreement would be more in the nature of a cooperation, but would differ from what India signed with the erstwhile Soviet Union. Cooperation would mean, naturally, against external aggression, and within the country, if there are threats to the security of India or Bangladesh, naturally we will cooperate with each other.” Imam went on to explain that a serious terror attack could be one such situation. He held Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) responsible for many of the problems his country faced. He stressed that Sheikh Hasina’s government had fulfilled most of its commitments to India.

So a treaty is one which will be broadly along anti-terror lines but also include mutual support. But is there such a threat? Hasina has effectively diminished Indian North East insurgency by refusing sanctuary to the NE rebels that has helped India enormously. It has been the best deal India could get and it happened without any treaty. So why now?

Delhi based Indo-Bangla observers have been upfront about the sudden emergence of events in Dhaka  that require buying hardware that can only used against India. Two ex-envoys of India to Bangladesh, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty and Veena Sikri have expressed such feelings openly. But obviously it is China that is causing all the drama. India’s relations with China have dipped a lot recently and even the Dalai Lama’s visit has led to a heated exchange of words. Sino-Bangla intimacy is therefore not going to go down well in Delhi.

So finally…

India plans to announce a $5 billion new credit line in an attempt to compete with China, but everyone agrees that’s a tough call. China’s coffers are full and it wants to offload more billions if Bangladesh can absorb it. “It could cross 40 billion annually”, a very senior source said and talks are apparently on with China on more.

But Teesta is not happening immediately. Apparently, Mamata Banerjee has deals to settle with Modi and may only then agree to water sharing. But it’s not a Dhaka-Delhi issue but a Kolkata –Delhi matter. It will arrive, albeit slowly, and Dhaka is relaxed about it.

So what is the final assessment? Shocking as it may seem, the Bangladesh leader visits India at its strongest. It holds some strong cards because of what it has done — North East— but mostly because of what China has done by investing. Bangladesh is feeling easy because India will have to negotiate and Bangladesh may have more space to do so than before. But whether its bureaucracy and diplomats have the skills to get the best out of the situation remains to be seen.

Afsan Chowdhuryis a bdnews24.com columnist.

7 Responses to “Indo-Bangla treaty: Who needs it more than Bangladesh?”

  1. Sumit Mazumdar

    The Chinese are currently trying to browbeat Vietnam, the Phillipines and the Japanese into agreeing that all of the South China Sea belongs to the Chinese. They have disrupted Vietnamese search for petroleum in its waters. They are building artificial islands in the South China Sea, which will be military bases; this is against international law. Several African nations with whom China has economic treaties are unhappy with what they are getting.
    Contrast this against India’s readily agreeing with the international court’s decision about the sea water boundary between Bangladesh and India.
    In 1971, China and Pakistan had a friendship treaty that made the Pakistanis believe that China would attack India in the north if India started a full-scale war with Pakistan. This did not happen.
    The Chinese communist party is not into helping other countries out of altruism. Let us hope that the India-phobia that captures the minds of a significant fraction of Bangladesh dies off slowly.
    That is not to say that Indian politicians like Mamata Banerjee cannot be wiser and look beyond just what gets votes.

  2. Dr A Rahman

    It is a matter of extreme satisfaction to observe from abroad that Bangladesh and India are behaving as good and cordial friends, notwithstanding the disparity in size and global significance of these two countries. Bangladesh is culturally and linguistically far more attached to India than any other country in the world.
    When I hear a Bengali song from West Bengal, when I see Satyajit Roy’s movie sitting in England, I do not consider it foreign; it is mine, it talks about our lives in Bangladesh, our hopes and aspirations in a way that resonates with our lives. The same cannot be said of even Britain (let alone Pakistan), although I am living here for more than 45 years!

  3. Akhteruzzaman

    More friendship with China is economically beneficial. More friendship with India will only give emotional benefit. Tista water may be replaced by a barrage on the Jamuna. Fund for this barrage may be attracted from China. China is also quite friendly with the present govt.

  4. Dr. Sarkar

    The analysis is incorrect in some areas, I think. First of all, India is not at all worried about improved relation between Bangladesh and China. The truth of Chinese investment in Pakistan (CPEC) is before us that has started a free fall because of mistrust and benefits designed for only China.
    Relation between India and Bangladesh are natural as our culture is same. Both the countries admire Rabindranath, Nazrul, Lalan, Jibanananda, Shamsur Rahman and many more great Bengalees. Yes, there are few issues that need to be resolved but every Indian considers Bangladesh as a good friend or even more. The present Bangladesh government have taken excellent initiatives for economic growth which will take Bangladesh to a new level with in few years. People to people contacts have played big role maintaining relation between two countries.

  5. Anwar A. Khan

    Treaty also provides for international cooperation on law enforcement, such as in relation to drug trafficking; establish resource management regimes to encourage sustainable development, and enhance global and regional security, all of which benefit both the countries on equalize berth.

    Globalisation has changed the way all levels of Government interact with the international system. The states and territories are increasingly aware of the benefit of having a global voice, and playing a greater role in the world’s deliberations on international rule making.

  6. golam arshad

    My dear Afsan: The Will of The People of Bangladesh, to be the cardinal factor here. BNP or Awami Angle will not be enough, to make or break any Treaty. Indian worry is not the Two Major Parties, there concern is how the people of Bangladesh reacts! How to make up people first the sole beneficiary, a gravitated concern for both the major parties. The growing population in Bangladesh, will make India worry, people need space for sustaining their habitat… will India ready to grant space to live… in two decades, as the people clock in counting is in full swing!! I wonder! Hope we survive together in give and take. So far the tip of gratis and favor tilts on India, but it will tilt to our favor soon. God Bless India and Bangladesh!

  7. Khan

    Why the friendship is being measured in dollars? India has 95% common culture and geographic similarities. They can rely for defence on India and do not need any hostile and aggressive military hardware. Bangladesh is almost completely surrounded by India, so any problem, if any, will be from Indian side so it is a wise idea to keep good relations with India and accept only economical and public sector helpful dollars from China. Otherwise, it will be considered as hostile to India policy, I think.

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