15.10.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Visit to India

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The 4-day visit to India, which took place at the beginning of October of this year, by Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and the negotiations with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, became noteworthy events in South Asia. The situation in the region, which even earlier had been prone to volatility, became increasingly more unstable after the Kashmir issue was revived. At present, this dangerous dispute has far-reaching consequences for the entire world.

The reason for the sudden rise in tensions (according to, we reiterate, the author’s point of view) was the de facto abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which accorded Special Status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, on 5 August of this year. Almost immediately afterwards, the relationship between the key parties to the Kashmir conflict (i.e. India and Pakistan) reached new lows and yet another military confrontation, perhaps this time around involving nuclear weapons, became a distinct possibility.

And although there have been no further consequences so far, other than threatening rhetoric directed by both nations at each other, all of India’s and Pakistan’s nearest neighbors and leading world powers were forced to directly or indirectly take a stance on the current situation.

As for the key parties to the conflict, they have toned down the belligerent rhetoric towards one another, and began competing for approval on the international arena. It is important to note that, at present, Islamabad has absolutely no chance of mustering such support from its neighbor with similar religious views, i.e. People’s Republic of Bangladesh, which up until 1971 had been a part of Pakistan.

It was the year when this new country (with the aforementioned name) appeared on the political map of the world. And this did not happen as a result of an agreement in good faith with Islamabad, on the contrary, there was a bloody battle between local troops (supported by India) and the Pakistani Army. The number of casualties (primarily among the civilian population) and refugees is still unknown to this day, but according to various estimates, it ranges from hundreds of thousands to several million people.

At present, there are approximately 170 million people (primarily Muslims of Bengali descent) living in the country. A significant part of it is located in the region of the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated and poorest nations in the world with an annual GDP per capita of approximately $1,800. The country’s fragile economy prevents it from responding effectively to various natural disasters (for instance, cyclones), which often have catastrophic consequences.

Still, almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees found some form of shelter in this nation after they had fled Myanmar in autumn 2016.

Since 1971, the relationship between
Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) and New Delhi has changed over time, and, at present, the Bangladeshi government, headed by Sheikh Hasina, is on India’s side (as stated earlier). The fact that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh mentioned the “threat of terrorism” during her visit to India can be interpreted as an indirect show of support of New Delhi in its current confrontation with Islamabad.

For now, diplomatic ties between Dhaka and Islamabad have been suspended after several Pakistani citizens, who had played an active role in the events of 1971, were executed in Bangladesh.

In this climate, an attempt by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, to somewhat ease the current tensions with Bangladesh are certainly noteworthy. And commentators view Imran Khan’s inquiry about his Bangladeshi counterpart’s health (ahead of her visit to New Delhi), after she has undergone a surgery on her eyes in London in the summer of this year, during their telephone conversation as just such an attempt.

The key topic of negotiations and of documents subsequently signed by Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi was the need for bilateral economic cooperation. And even if the primary “contributor” to such a collaboration is India (for obvious reasons), it is still worth noting that India’s experts rated the economic development strategy opted for by the Bangladeshi leadership positively.

There is a focus on infrastructure projects and the manufacturing sector in the country. And, according to the experts, this has ensured Bangladesh’s high GDP growth rates in recent years, which could exceed 8% this year. On the other hand, the growth of India’s service sector (a major contributor to its economy) continued to decline, according to the most recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) data.

Another important topic of the bilateral negotiations was the end to negative consequences of the migration of millions of people from Bangladesh to India over many years and the normalization of their status in India. We are referring here to the so-called National Register of Citizens in the state of Assam (which borders Bangladesh). Local authorities have been opposed to the registration of most of these migrants for quite some time.

Foreign policy problems associated with the migration include increased “risk of terrorism” and the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. We would like to note that, so far, little progress has been made to resolve the latter issue, although earlier there were attempts to do so. For example, at the end of 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh approached China’s leadership for help with its resolution. As a result, the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi, proposed a three-phase plan as a solution. But according to the most recent reports, the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has only worsened.

When analyzing developments in recent months in South Asia, it is no less (or perhaps even more) crucial to focus not only on what was discussed during the meeting between the leaders of Bangladesh and India, but also on what was not mentioned (but relevant to both countries) in their official speeches.

Two such topics are connected with the abbreviations BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanma) and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). The first refers to the industrial and infrastructure project, i.e. the multi-modal corridor that is supposed to link the metropolis of Kunming (in Yunnan province in southwest China) with one of the largest cities in India, Kolkata (located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal). The second initiative is connected with China’s key political and economic strategy to match its role as the new world power.

Sheikh Hasina has clearly expressed Bangladesh’s interest in being a part of BCIM as well as BRI during her meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping, held in Beijing at the beginning of July. However, India is quite lukewarm about both projects for a number of reasons, discussed in the New Eastern Outlook on more than one occasion, with the first and foremost being the Kashmir conflict.

In the “force field” created by the two world powers, India’s foreign policy ship is sailing into the wind. A fairly noticeable change in its course (towards the United States) occurred during the recent trip by India’s Prime Minister to the USA.

It is highly likely that this shift will be (in large part) corrected during Chinese leader’s visit to India, which is scheduled for the beginning of mid-October. Preparations for the second informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, which is to take place 20 kilometers from Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, “are on the upswing.”

We would like to remind our readers that the first meeting of this nature was held in China’s city of Wuhan at the end of April of last year. At the time, both sides described it in glowing colors. However, this did not stop India from shifting its course in the “sea of global issues.”

It is highly unlikely that the issue of abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution and the Kashmir conflict will be broached directly during the upcoming negotiations. We would like to remind our readers that India views this problem purely as an internal matter and is trying to prevent it from becoming an international one. However, in fact, this is exactly what is happening as a result of the most recent decisions made by India’s leadership.

Nonetheless, China’s leader will most probably attempt to lower the dangerous tensions between India and Pakistan. Still, a dim ray of hope did appear in their relationship recently.

We are referring to the acceptance of an invitation to attend an upcoming celebration to mark the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) on 11 November in the Pakistani town of Kartarpur (located 7 kilometers from the border with India) by Manmohan Singh (the Prime Minister of India before Narendra Modi came to power).

We would like to remind our readers that the completion of the construction of the so-called Kartarpur Corridor (meant to enable Sikhs from India to freely visit their sacred site) was part of Imran Khan’s policy (once he had become Prime Minister) aimed at reducing existing tensions with India.

Finally, it is worth mentioning another development connected with the internal political situation in India that occurred during Sheikh Hasina’s visit, discussed in this article. The leader of Bangladesh invited leading politicians of India’s oldest party, i.e. the Indian National Congress, (in all likelihood from the so-called Gandhi clan) to visit her nation. The party is currently in a state of confusion and vacillation after its devastating defeat in India’s most recent general election.

After all, for a country with Bangladesh’s status on the global stage, it is especially interesting to learn what is happening inside the neighboring nation that is transforming into one of the leading world powers.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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