UPDATED: Shringla visit: Hasina calls the shots
September 14th, 2020 at 6:00 am
Dhaka has always addressed New Delhi’s security concerns and Sheikh Hasina has opted for a balanced tie with India and China for the benefit of Bangladesh.
UPDATED: Shringla visit: Hasina calls the shots

by Nadeem Qadir in Dhaka .

A lot have been written and said about the hush-hush whirlwind trip of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and what eventually was the outcome following an unprecedented dip in bilateral ties.

The media in both the South Asian countries churned out news and opinionated pieces, with the Indian media mostly blaming its own government for the dip, while the Bangladesh ones tried to bring to light the subjects raised during the one-hour talks between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Shringla.

The hush-hush trip and the diplomatic jargons dished out to the media is apparently an attempt by both the countries to hide the embarrassment of the dip in bilateral ties of the region’s “true friends.” The dip should never have taken place.

At the very outset is important to remind the readers that Sheikh Hasina as a person who never forgets those who honestly work for her or for what she stands for — a democratic polity and the spirit of the Bangladesh war.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Similarly, she has never forgotten to acknowledge India’s help during the 1971 Bangladesh war and also never made a move that can harm her “true friend.” It is not only a relation that binds the two countries politically, but she has a very personal ones too being the family friend of the Gandhi dynasty as well as late President Pranab Mukherjee. She greatly values such bonds and has adopted a condolence motion in parliament on the death of President Mukherjee.

Thus, she and all Bangladeshis expect similar reciprocities and India may have stumbled on those in recent months that is to be blamed for the dip in bilateral ties.

If one reflects back, it was the sudden ban on onion exports from India at a time when Sheikh Hasina was present in New Delhi. Caught by the surprise decision, a straight talking and tough Bangladesh prime minister did not hide her anger.

She told a select crowd in broken Hindi that she had asked her chef in Dhaka to cook without onion. This is clearly her expression of unhappiness on the matter in a straightforward manner and using her unique art of diplomacy.

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsha Vardan Shringla

Informed sources said Shingrla, who flew in on a air force aircraft due to suspension of commercial flights after COVID-19 spread in the region, top agenda was India’s security concerns linked to Teesta river management project and coronavirus vaccine test which in Bangladesh involving China among others. Some believe “very sensitive” securities might have made the trip so important and sudden, but details are sketchy.

Despite New Delhi’s concern, Dhaka gave the go ahead for the third-phase Chinese vaccine test in Bangladesh under an agreement signed between the ICDDR,B and Sinovac Research and Development Co Ltd just days after the high profile visit. At the same time, it accepted India’s offer and the major BEXIMCO Pharmaceuticals separately inked an agreement with the Serum Institute of India which will ensure delivery of vaccines to Bangladesh on a priority basis.

Sheikh Hasina vented her “great disappointment” over increasing killings of Bangladeshis by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) which has great political implications for the premier among her electorate, the sources added.

In fact, this has been a major irritant between the two neighbours and another round of talks are set to be held shortly between the border guards of the two countries. India has to put a permanent end to these meaningless killings if it wants conquer the hearts of Bangladeshis, whose sentiments are very important for Sheikh Hasina.

Bangladesh signs deal
India Bangladesh flags

In a piece in the PRINT online portal on 26 August 2020 headlined “Why Bangladesh Reaches Out to China—New Delhi is to blame as the Dhaka-Beijing relationship deepens,” journalist Sudha Ramchandran wrote Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling “Awami League government has shown sensitivity to India’s security concerns. It has, for instance, avoided involving China in projects that would have implications for India’s security. It has also played an important role in supporting India’s counter-insurgency efforts in the Northeast by sending back to India militants taking sanctuary on its soil and shutting down insurgent training camps. It is India that has underperformed in strengthening the India-Bangladesh relationship.”

I agree with her and welcomed Foreign Secretary Shingrla’s visit to last month with rapid follow-up in a number of sectors. India has woken up to the reality that a China is penetrating Bangladesh, while its arch-rival Pakistan too has been knocking Dhaka to exploit the vacuum created due to New Delhi’s complacence.

Sheikh Hasina, who is considered to be a leader to reckon with by the international community, told Shringla that she would go forward with projects she believed her country needed most and was open to anyone who could help her make those a reality and not only China, the sources told me confidently.

Dhaka has always addressed New Delhi’s security concerns and Sheikh Hasina has opted for a balanced tie with India and China for the benefit of Bangladesh.

It was as an opposition leader she undertook her maiden visit to China where the red carpet was rolled out indicating that how farsighted she has been to go to a country which sided with Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war and recognised the country only after the assassination of her father and Bangladesh’s founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

She dumped all kinds of pressure from the United States and went ahead with the execution of Pakistani army collaborators of Bangladesh’s 1971 war, including powerful opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party.

Politicians close to her say that Sheikh Hasina is just like her father and Bangladesh’s founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and will never compromise on issues she believes she is right. It has been proven true over the years.

Bangladesh India relations
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

As a journalist, I have reported on her during elections and other issues, and found that she had the strength and courage to stand up to pressures from any quarter, local or international, since taking up the helm of Awami League after returning home from exile in India in 1981.   

Indeed there is a huge dependence on China as it has funded mega-projects as well as helped to strengthen the country’s armed forces, including the delivery of a submarine.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister told me in his first comments after Shringla’s visit that the “bonding with India is a strong and historic one, while China is our trading partner with major investments in our infrastructure …. None should compare our ties with India and that with China.”

GautomLahiri, a veteran Indian journalist, insisted that Shringla’s visit was a success as many “doubts in bilateral ties have been cleared … the two countries will jointly celebrate Bangladesh’s 50 years of independence next year.”

“The political message is that the two countries remain true and trusted friend is clear,” he added in a brief conversation with me on Whattsapp pointing to a sudden speed in activities between the two countries.

What suddenly happened for India to realise it was losing ground in Bangladesh after Nepal, while China and Pakistan making inroads?

Lahiri, who was the president of the Press Club of Delhi, admitted that among other issues, it was a piece that I wrote on “Time for Modi to Rethink Ties with Bangladesh: Analysts” which reached the top brasses of power and then followed by BhorerKagoj Editor Shaymol Dutta’s piece. (https://newsnextbd.com/?p=9311)  on 23 June 2020. Then I wrote another piece titled “Bangladesh, Pakistan Rapprochement a Far Cry, But India Needs to be Cautious” on 4 August 2020 (https://newsnextbd.com/?p=9574) .

A number of my friends in New Delhi informed me the piece was first misunderstood by their Ministry of External Affairs, but it quickly realised the message the article carried.

Lahiri added that New Delhi conveyed its “concerns on the geo-political front, but your prime minister (Sheikh Hasina) set the agenda as she thought best.”

Bangladesh has also asked China for funding nine new infrastructure projects worth 6.4 billion dollar.

Bangladesh is working closely with China on a plan to manage the Teesta basin and has sought a loan of 1 billion dollar to end problems of floods and water crisis during dry season causing desertification and rose of shoals in the river.

Sheikh Hasina, on her part waited for Indian action to end the problems for a great length of time and to be precise from 2011, when an agreement on Teesta was set to be inked West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blocked it.

Bangladeshi man shot dead in border
Barbed-wire fence on Bangladesh-India border

Indications from New Delhi appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has failed to keep his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s commitment to solve the issue made during his (Singh’s) 2011 Dhaka visit, is waiting for the fall of Mamamta Banerjee from power in the next election and then get going with the issue with Bangladesh.

But can Bangladesh wait and why should it at the expense of the life as well as environmental problems it is facing.

If my study on Sheikh Hasina over the decades is correct and already upset with India’s National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, I will conclude saying the premier will not wait as she solved the Ganges river water sharing problem between the two and finding a solution linked to the Teesta river is her major priority.

Sheikh Hasina has chalked up a massive plan worth Taka 8,000 crore to address the Teesta issue and gift the people of the region a solution or a new life during the ongoing “Mujib Barsho” marking 100 years of the country’s founder. China has shown its interest to fund.

China map

New Delhi must remember that it must address issues that generate anti-feelings among the Bangladesh people who do not want Pakistan or China or India to get an upper hand in the affairs of this small South Asian country. But, at the same time it looks up to India as a large and powerful neighbour to be respectful and quickly solve bilateral irritants.

Joyeeta Bhattachary of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think-tank close to the Indian government, recently wrote “… to benefit from the positives achieved from the visit, India should work on delivering the promises made to Bangladesh.  Fast-tracking development projects in Bangladesh will be a significant step forward. Also, India’s help in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Rakhine in Myanmar will be encouraging.”

She also mentioned about a virtual meeting between Bangladesh Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed and Shringla, although this could not be confirmed.

Another Indian journalist who regularly writes on Bangladesh, Devadop Purihit, wrote a piece in Kolkata’s Daily Telegraph on Shringla’s visit.  Based on analysis of media and government coverage, he said “the pay-off seems to be dismal …” and that “adhocracy can’t replace deft diplomacy if South Block is serious about its immediate neighbourhood.”

“New Delhi should have planned it better so that it yielded the desired outcome,” he concluded. 

Thus, New Delhi must pay heed to its own diplomatic and political pundits for a swing back to the usual strong bilateral ties based on mutual respect, specially gaining Sheikh Hasina’s trust.

I can only echo India’s seasoned journalist Suvojit Bagchi that “For India, the diplomatic battle for Bangladesh has just begun.”

I want to add that the battle, especially with a tough leader like Sheikh Hasina calling the shots with “my country, my people first policy” must be well strategized by Prime Minister Modi.

Nadeem Qadir is a senior Bangladeshi journalist and a Dag Hammarskjöld fellow,- photo by newsnextbd.com