Onion Diplomacy and Regional Politics
September 18th, 2020 at 11:45 pm
Onion Diplomacy and Regional Politics

by Omer Selim Sher in Ottawa,

Through ‘onion’ diplomacy, India has proved that their words and minds are not the same. India does not hesitate to go to the extreme of narrowness for its own sake. Therefore, ‘onion’ is not the only “weapon” of India to put pressure on Bangladesh. India has many more weapons to pressure Bangladesh. Diplomatic analysts believe that if onions do not work, they will not hesitate to use the other “weapons.”

For the past few months, there were rumours and talks in the diplomatic arena about India-Bangladesh tensions. In particular, the growing trade relations between China and Bangladesh, has worried India. There are similar rumours in the diplomatic arena that India is not “satisfied” with the Bangladesh foreign minister and an adviser to the prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

In the midst of all these rumours, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla paid a sudden visit to Dhaka. Although, it was described by both Dhaka and Delhi as a routine visit, but one does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that Shringler’s landing in Dhaka was not a routine one amid the pandemic. It was understood on September 14 that the visit was not of much use and did not ultimately satisfy India. Soon after, India abruptly imposed a ban on onion exports to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh India oil pipeline
Bangladesh India cross flags

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked her Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi that there could be a crisis in onion market and he should to take initiatives to import onions from now on. As per the directions of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Commerce headed by Munshi decided to import onions from other different countries.

The process of importing onions from different countries has already started. This is the proof of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political foresight. She knew that India could ban onion imports to Bangladesh in September this year as it did in September last year. And for this reason, she had instructed the Commerce Minister to start the process of importing onions in advance. She sent the foreign minister to Turkey to deepen relations with Turkey. Based on this relationship, onions can be brought from Turkey at a fast pace.

She also sent consignments of hilsa to India even after banning onion exports to Bangladesh without resorting to retaliatory diplomacy. In other words, she generously protested against the narrow diplomacy, the behavior of the narrow-minded neighboring state. This is a new grammar of diplomacy coined by Sheikh Hasina. She defeated India diplomatically by setting a new precedent of diplomatic etiquette and liberal diplomacy.

Here are two aspects of Sheikh Hasina’s wisdom and political acumen foresight – one is that she already knew that there is going to be onion diplomacy. That is why she contacted all the countries that export onions.

She also forged a new relationship by sending the foreign minister to Turkey. Second, she responded to India’s narrow onion policy with hilsa generosity. As a result, India once again lost diplomatically to Sheikh Hasina. She also showed in onion diplomacy, one cannot win by narrow-mindedness, one has to win by generosity.

Analysts say this is the first manifestation of a two-state tension after many years. The Indian media and the BJP-controlled think tank predicts more bad news awaits Bangladesh.  Some of them could be:

The Modi government has amended the citizenship law since coming to power for the second term. Has started a new citizen register. Millions of people in Assam have already lost their citizenship due to this civil registration process. After that, the BJP leaders said that the civil registry law will be enacted in West Bengal and in turn in the whole country. Many BJP leaders have threatened them to push back in Bangladesh by force.

However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said at least twice that Bangladesh has nothing to worry about. Bangladesh government and the prime minister Sheikh Hasina  has also said that this is an internal matter of India. But the citizenship debate, which has stalled due to the Corona crisis, is about to resume, according to Indian media reports. As a result, a large number of Indians will lose their citizenship. Even if they try to ‘push in’ in Bangladesh, it will come as no surprise.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – PID photo

Dams built in Indian part, Farakka and Teesta create water crisis in Bangladesh during the dry season. According to the Ganges water agreement, Bangladesh does not get a fair share for a long time. The Teesta water agreement has been pending for 8 years. This time in the dry season, India also will create pressure with water. Such fears are now being raised loudly in the diplomatic arena.

Bangladesh is now running many projects with Indian funding and cooperation. As a strategy to pressurize Bangladesh, India can slow down these projects.

Although, India has publicly condemned the displacement of Rohingya, India has maintained deep ties with Myanmar. Now India can increase its alliance with Myanmar to put pressure on Bangladesh.

All this is a matter of apprehension. Diplomats also think that putting pressure on these issues can temporarily embarrass Bangladesh, but in the long run, these could be a boomerang for India.

Omer Sher is a retired Professor of Economics at Algonquin College, Ottawa, Canada and a researcher on politics in South Asia.