Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to India has created a slew of debates and discussions in the leading news media in both Bangladesh and India. It is not surprising given the level and intensity of Bangladesh-India relationship, Bangladesh’s rise as an emerging economic tiger, Sheikh Hasina’s international stature as a leader and the geopolitics of the region. However, all of our attention has drifted away from other important issues through speculative reports on a defence pact between Bangladesh and India. Although there is yet to be any official confirmation from either side on this, news media broke stories, quoting unidentified sources. Is it a ploy on the part of a certain quarter to keep Bangladeshis busy talking about this without paying attention to other issues, such as the sharing of the waters of common rivers? Or is it a reality?
Given India’s current defence policy, it will not be unusual for India to propose a defence pact. India has been the number one importer of arms in the world, with imports from the US, Russia, France, Israel and the UK. India’s desire to become a superpower requires that it become self-reliant in the defence manufacturing sector. The Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Committee on defence in 1995 recommended that India should manufacture 70 percent of its defence hardware locally by 2005 if it wanted to go toe to toe with China. But India is far behind in achieving this target. Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, in an interview with India Today in early March, said India intends to have 60 per cent of defence equipment made in India by the end of the current tenure of the Modi government. For this, Indian public and private sector companies need to develop the capability of manufacturing sophisticated defence equipment. Indian private sector giants like Tata, Ashok Leyland, and Reliance have concluded deals with many global defence equipment suppliers to jointly manufacture defence equipment such as self-propelled guns, fighter jets, submarines, tactical communication systems, and combat vehicles. The survival as well as profitability of these defence manufacturers depends on a big and regular supply of contracts. The countries in the South Asian region could be potential markets for Indian arms.
But India is worried about China’s growing influence in its neighbourhood. China remains proactive in its attempts to incorporate South Asian countries, including India, into its one belt, one road initiative. It is also a key supplier of defence equipment to South Asian countries. The March 6 issue of India Today reported that India tried to stall a purchase of 24 China-Pakistan made JF-17 Thunder Jets by Sri Lanka last year and offered its own Tejas Light Combat Aircraft as an alternative.
A Bangladesh-India defence pact may be a boon for India. But Bangladesh is hardly ready for a treaty which will limit Bangladesh’s choice and sacrifice Bangladesh’s interest for several reasons. First, Bangladesh under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina has ensured sizeable investments for modernizing its armed forces on a regular basis. So, before going for any defence pact, Sheikh Hasina will certainly look to the national interest. Second, the Bangladesh government has pursued an excellent diplomacy of maintaining good relations with all the countries which have influence in South Asia, including Russia and China. Sheikh Hasina will not take the risk of engaging in a special defence arrangement with any country, antagonizing any other influential countries. Finally, Sheikh Hasina cannot afford to have any pact with India that can be used against her party, at a time when the country is preparing for the next general election.
Any unfavourable treaty with India may affect the Awami League’s electability in the next election. The AL had to shoulder charges of being subservient to India for a long time owing to the signing of the 25-year friendship treaty with between Dhaka and Delhi immediately after the liberation war. Foreign policy realists would say this treaty might have been unavoidable and to some extent necessary because Bangladesh emerged as an independent country with the help of India. But there is hardly any justification for a defence pact when the countries are having an excellent relationship.
The Indian side has to realize that pushing for any such pact will antagonize the people of Bangladesh, thereby affecting Bangladesh-India relations. Bangladesh-India relations have been the warmest and most productive in recent years. Unlike Sri Lanka, Nepal, or Bhutan, Bangladesh has been a real ally to India. Sheikh Hasina’s government has given two invaluable gifts to India. First, it eliminated India’s security threats from the north-east by not allowing any space to Indian insurgents. Indian security forces could divert their resources to other fronts without any hesitation. Second, Bangladesh stands by India at every regional and international forum against India’s arch rival Pakistan. However, Bangladesh is yet to receive its due share of the waters of common rivers. Entanglement between the Indian union government and the government of West Bengal is said to be an insurmountable barrier to a deal on a sharing of the waters of the river Teesta.
In recent days, a large section of the Bangladeshi population has tended to feel that India does not reciprocate Bangladesh’s gestures. India should not further fuel this sentiment. The Bangladesh-India relationship has to grow from strength to strength, for the mutual benefit of the two countries.