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.
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.